Friday, July 13, 2018


There are a dozen explanations out there why the American birthrate is below replacement, and why middle-class and above white females in particular are having fewer children, and many seem quite plausible. There does seem to be a worldwide trend that as countries become more prosperous, and couples believe their children might have access to higher status, they limit the number of children they have. Secondly, optimism about the future seems to be a driver of having more children.

I wonder if there is a fairly simple but overlooked factor, the inertia of one cultural idea. From the age of about fourteen on, girls are not only told "Don't get pregnant," but "Smart girls don't get pregnant," which carries a double meaning of smart=birth control/less impulsive and smart=intelligent/ career-driven. It becomes something of a default position, and may embed quite strongly.  Though the original intention of "smart girls don't get caught" is not the same kind of smart, it does tie in with the idea "Upwardly mobile women have fewer children," or "this is not a good time in your career/education to have children," as above. They then have all the decision-making influences of opt-in versus opt-out. A default position of opt-in results in more people being on lists as organ donors, for example. In previous generations one did not have to opt-in to having children.  That was the default. (Exceptions abound, but I think we recognise this general cultural difference between yesterday and today.) Today's default among white middle class women is that one has to specifically opt-in to this childbearing idea.

"Smart girls" is just a song playing quietly in the background, a gravitational force that is more of the explanation than we credit.

I have written the above as if the males have nothing to do with these child-having decisions, which is not true. Men may even be equal drivers in decisions to have no children at all. But I think women have enormously more say in how many children a couple has. The Right Number is achieved and she vetoes any suggestion of more.


james said...

This site has some interesting graphs

One quote might be of interest:

The authors focus on the 8pm telenovelas of Globo – Brazil’s largest network – which are watched by the “vast majority of the Brazilian population” according to the authors. They analyzed 115 novelas aired by Globo between 1965 and 1999 and found that 72% of the main female characters (age 50 and lower) had no children at all, 21% had only one child, so that only 7% had more than one child. These are much fewer children than the average in Brazil over the same time: The fertility rate in 1965 was 5.7 children per woman and fell to 2.4 in 1999.

The researchers were able to identify the effect of the telenovelas as the TV network was only gradually expanded through the country. The entry in each new area allowed the researchers to study the impact of television again and again.

After controlling for socio-economic variables the authors find that the exposure to coverage by Globo is associated with a decrease in the probability of giving birth of 0.5 percentage points, which is 5 percent of the mean. To put this in perspective the authors explain that this size of the effect corresponds to that of an increase of women’s education by 1.6 years.

This effect was strongest for the poorer, less educated women for which the difference to the lifestyles shown on TV is largest.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That is first class fascinating

Texan99 said...

Seriously, do very many people want to read or watch a drama about a mother with a lot of children? We can say she's doing valuable work, but we don't act like it. It used to be that women had a lot of kids because it was nearly impossible to avoid, so no one had to put much effort into making it a desirable way of life. Then we made it optional. What did we expect to happen?

I know that lots of women with a house full of kids will say it's the best thing ever, and I believe them--but on the whole people don't seem to agree, or at least not from the perspective of women who don't yet have a house full of kids. Maybe it's something that's hard to believe until you try it, which is a problem if we think not enough women are trying it. There are a few more men than there used to be staying home with kids, but not many of them seem enthusiastic about the role, either. What are we doing wrong, to make that role so thoroughly undesirable?