Friday, April 2, 2010

Book Review: The Empty Cradle

The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity And What To Do About It by Phillip Longman

This book was not quite what I expected as it focused entirely on economics. He first spends a few chapters presenting evidence that the fertility rates really are declining, not just in Europe and America, but around the world. (This book is a few years old; I think the fears of "overpopulation" are fading, though I know there are some who still believe them.) Then he launches into chapters of statistics showing how decreasing population is a bad thing for any country's economy and why nothing except an increase in fertility can really solve the problem. (Other options, for example, would be working to an older age, increases in productivity, innovations, etc.) There were lots of interesting statistics, many of which supported other things Kansas Dad and I have read about the medical system, for example. (See this review.)

According to Mr. Longman, the main reason people are not having more children is economic - they don't feel like they can afford to give children everything they are supposed to have, including a college education. (They also wait longer, building up their financial status, and then encounter fertility problems, a corollary of the main reason.) So in the final few chapters, he presents some ideas for encouraging an increase in the numbers of children parents have, all economic.

I don't necessarily disagree with all of his ideas for promoting families and family life, but I think taking a purely economic view is wrong. Some people have fewer children than they desire because they are worried about being able to feed them or house them. Many more people are having fewer children because they are worried about being able to pay for their college education or give them cars when they turn 16 or pay for childcare and private preschools. Giving more money to the family will not address those fears.

Instead, our culture needs to change our view of what's necessary for a happy, healthy childhood and start in life. Of course, a change in culture is exactly what Mr. Longman wants to avoid. Though he doesn't address any chapters to the dangers of those who are having more children, he mentions a few times the "fundamentalists" (which he defines in the Preface as "all who rely on literal belief in ancient myth and legend, whether religious or not, to oppose modern libreral and commercial values") who continue to have more children than everyone else. (I therefore began the book a little trepidatious of what I would encounter, as I am most certainly one of the "Catholic fundamentalists" he mentions.)

If no alternative solution can be found, our future will belong to those who reject markets, reject learning, reject modernity, and reject freedom. This will be the fundamentalist moment.

So his whole goal is to provide financial incentives to people who would otherwise not have children so our culture does not eventually grow and change as a greater percentage of the population comes from large families, those that may (just for example) view the arrival of a new child as a blessing from God to be cherished and loved, even if we cannot afford his or her college education.

In the end, I'm not sure financial incentives would work at a national level. I have reservations about incentives in general and financial ones in particular. I guess I'm hoping for a cultural change.


  1. How could you possibly have a significant change in the birthrate without a similarly significant change in the culture (at least in the US)? Our culture is telling us that children are a liability, that they are expensive, and that in order for them to be happy, there are many expensive things you will "need" to buy them. People are not going to be motivated to have more kids for the collective economic good if they perceive that their personal economic status will be threatened.

  2. I remember reading a news article one time. It said that Russia had called a holiday in order to encourage...reproduction...and they were also going to pay families who produced a child. I don't remember how much, and I was unfamiliar with Russia enough that I didn't know if the money would make a significant impact on the family's finances anyhow. The interesting thing was that I later read a follow-up article that said that the project was pretty much a failure (i.e., no noticeable change in birthrate). Interesting, no?

    I completely agree with you that taking a purely economic view is wrong. Not only that, but it is not enough to give birth--one must become a mother, a father. One must raise the child. One who is motivated only by finances will be a poor parent, indeed.

    The world does not have children because the world is lacking in love. When I think about why I had as many children I was able, the reason was love, more than anything else. I believed the Bible in that I believed (and still believe) that children are a blessing from the Lord, yes. But, at the end of the day, I loved my children and was excited to have more because I knew I would love those future children, too. Those who think about children in terms of finances seem to me to be unable to understand what it really means to have the heart of a mother or the heart of a father.

    Creating a new life is an act of love and sacrifice.

  3. Hilary, I thought it was a little funny, actually, how the whole point of the book was to encourage people to have kids so the people who are having kids now won't take over.

    Brandy, yes! I comment all the time to Kansas Dad how anyone can look at a sitting baby or a crawling baby or a toddler and not want more and more of them! They are so adorable, charming and engaging! (I know, they can also be incredibly frustrating; really I do know. I still can't resist them.) I also just love to see my children playing and working together, teaching and guiding each other, supporting each other.


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