Sunday, October 09, 2011


National Geographic's September issue has an article on the fertility rate dropping precipitously in Brazil.  While the increase in income leading to fewer children per woman is noted, they spend a long time talking about the powerful women on steamy Brazilian soap operas and how few children they have as a major cultural influence on the fertility rate dropping below 2.1-2.3 replacement.

Okay.  And all those other countries without steamy soap operas who show a similar decline...?  Because...?

I thought it was half a joke, or a journalistic hook as an illustration of the larger cultural trend.  Nope.  The woman writing the article clearly thinks it's the soap operas that are a big factor in creating the change. I have learned from missionaries to Brazil that the soap operas are ubiquitous and a big cultural focus, so I can see how someone visiting could get that initial impression that they are driving, rather than reflecting culture.  But when you are writing for a reportedly scientific magazine, aren't you supposed to check other countries in similar situations and just sort of, y'know, look them over for what is happening?

The question whether it is fewer children driving prosperity or prosperity driving fewer children is an interesting place to start.  One quickly learns, if you follow world demographic trends anywhere, that the two feed off each other somewhat and the question is too simple.  Limiting children occurs on the basis of people's estimate of how many children they can bring to a certain level of prosperity. If you know that nothing you do is going to make any difference in how wealthy your children will be, why not have a bunch?  They're fun to have around, if you aren't going to invest time in their future anyway, and they might provide some material benefit to you in your old age, if you have one.

But if there is a chance at the brass ring, why not focus your energy?  You can't be a tiger mother, or even a typical-upwardly-mobile-suburban-mother with lots of children so easily.

That's what the phenomenon used to be called, and it is in turn, a derivative of the mothers from some ethnic groups, especially Jews.  Jonathan and Ben were never Tigermommed, but they were full in the older version: Montessori, private school, music lessons, hours of read-aloud, etc. 

Cultural optimism tends to influence how many children one has as well.  Long ago I offered a theory on the countries that were victors, perpetrators, and victims during WWII, and their subsequent fertility rates. That was five years ago, and I still haven't seen anyone else speculate on that. 

1 comment:

karrde said...

I think birth rates have a lot to do with whether the parents are expecting to depend on their children once the parents are unable to work any more...

If that isn't the whole explanation, it is a big part of the explanation.