Opinion | Birthrates Are Plummeting Worldwide. Why?

ezra klein

From New York Times Opinion, this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”

So, for a long time, the population concern we’ve been used to hearing is that we are racing towards too many people too quickly. This was a Malthusian fear in the 18th century that more people would mean more starvation. This was and is the fear of many environmentalists today, that more people means more weight on the planet’s resources, more environmental damage.

But now there’s this other concern that has come to join it, that we are racing towards de-population — too few people too quickly. As countries get richer the world over, fertility rates plummet, plummet quickly. In countries like America, we’re now below replacement rate, the rate at which a population holds steady. You see that in China. You see that in India. In some countries like Japan and South Korea, they’re so far below replacement rate that their population is going to rapidly shrink generation by generation.

If you spend much time on today’s right or among the Silicon Valley VC class, you find the set of fears has become, for them, almost what the climate crisis is for the left. You hear about it constantly. For many, it feels apocalyptic. It is the overarching context in which everything else is playing out.

But even if you don’t quite know how to feel about it, and I don’t always know how to feel about it, it’s also just kind of strange. You wouldn’t necessarily think that societies would have so many fewer children as they become richer. Money makes life easier. Lower child mortality makes the heart rending grief of losing a child less likely. Being better able to provide for your children would maybe make it easier to have more of them. Many people believe a boisterous family is part of the vision of a full life.

But fertility rates, they keep falling and falling. And even in the places where that fall has turned into freefall, where the very fabric of the society is now in question, policy to turn it around is proving completely ineffectual. So, why? We’re going to do two episodes on this, but the first is going to be about the global big picture.

Jennifer Sciubba is a political scientist, a demographer, and the author of the book, “8 Billion and Counting.” I asked her on the show to guide me through what these population numbers actually tell us, what they say in different regions of the world, how they might play out, and what they reveal about what happens to societies as they get richer. As always, my email, ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com.

Jennifer Sciubba, welcome to the show.

jennifer sciubba

Thank you so much.

ezra klein

So, tell me what the total fertility rate is.

jennifer sciubba

So, the total fertility rate is — let’s just say it’s the average number of children born per woman in her lifetime. It’s a great measure because in one number, you can kind of get a snapshot to compare across time and across places.

ezra klein

So, when I listen to the conversation about total fertility rates, there are sort of two conversations right now happening at the same time. One conversation that I sometimes hear on my left — I get a lot of it in my email inbox for this show — is that it’s way too high. There are too many people. There are going to be even more people.

Through that conversation — I hear it more on my right — it’s all over opinion sections now — is that it’s way too low. We’re facing a demographic bust. We’re going to see population collapse. We are a planet growing old, certainly a bunch of countries growing old. How would you describe the shape of the total fertility rate and how it differs in different places right now?

jennifer sciubba

Well, you nailed it. That’s exactly what the conversation looks like. It’s like Goldilocks is in the room here with us, right? It’s either too high or it’s too low, and it’s never just right. So while we are perceiving this on the left and right in the world today, I will say that it’s, as a student of population history, it’s kind of been like that for a long time, this perception about global fertility.

So, if we look at global population last century, we saw exponential growth, from 1.6 billion at the start of that century to 6.1 billion by the end. Women have, on average, worldwide, about 2.2 children these days. Basically, that is replacement level because that point number, the 0.2 in this case, accounts for children who might not make it to reproductive age. So it’s, in very crude terms, a margin of error. So we’re basically globally at this number.

But in this century so far, we are in a global demographic divide. This is a century about differential growth at this moment. So, we have very low fertility rates in some places, while it’s still high in others. For example, the area in the world where it really is the highest is in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, a handful of countries where it’s still pretty high, over five children per woman on average.

So, there’s a divide, but we’re all moving kind of in the same direction. So when we think about going forward into the second part of the century, that’s really where we’re all going to start converging down at those lower levels. But I could tell you that, and a listener will have a reaction in one direction or the other. I talked to a lot of folks from an environmental standpoint, and they say, thank goodness. Let’s push it lower.

And then, of course, we know those factions in the U.S. — Elon Musk, for example, sees the number and says, that is too low. It needs to be higher. So, it’s a great caveat for us to set out at the beginning that we might be talking about all kinds of numbers and places, but perception and feelings about those numbers, they go hand in hand with this.

ezra klein

How true is this statement? As countries get richer and more educated, their fertility rate drops.

jennifer sciubba

If we’re trying to make it a causal statement, it is somewhat true and only partially, because we have some really interesting, huge examples where that has not been the case. And let’s take India, for example. So a lot of people do not realize that India is already really below replacement level for the whole country.

And what’s so amazing about that is, a lot of people may remember Paul Ehrlich opened his 1968 book, “Population Bomb,” by talking about a trip he made to India. And there were people everywhere, people on the streets, people eating, people drinking, people sleeping, people, people, people. And now, those people have a total fertility rate below replacement level. And India is not a wealthy country. So, it’s not the case that economic growth preceded declines in fertility rates because state policy can serve that interventionist role.

ezra klein

So, but I want to pick this apart because I hear you saying two things here. One is that you have countries that have not traveled all that rapidly up the education, income scale, though India has traveled somewhat up the education, income scale. I mean, there’s been a lot of development there.

jennifer sciubba

Oh, yeah.

ezra klein

But you have countries where you’ve seen a sharp fall in the fertility rate without a very sharp rise, let’s call it in median incomes. But I’m also asking a question slightly to the side of it. If a country has gotten richer, if I just tell you country A and do not name country A has gotten significantly richer, that country A is now highly educated, highly literate, it is wealthy, does that allow you to predict with a high level of certainty that country A is probably going to be low fertility rate, probably below replacement level?

jennifer sciubba

It sure does. Yes.

ezra klein

Let me ask you why. Because this, to me, is the slightly mysterious thing at the heart of this conversation and my interest in it, which is I know it is a demographic fact that when you look around the world, rich countries, more educated countries have fewer children. It does not seem obvious to me that’s the way it would have worked out, right?

You have a world in which your kids are more likely to survive. You have more money. You can get more help. Your life is better. You can give them a better life. You can take them to Chuck E. Cheese, perhaps, as I’m doing later with my kid, who just turned five. Lots of things have gotten easier for you. And that might mean, oh, you can actually have more children, or certainly, a lot of children, right? But in fact, it goes the opposite way. So, why is that? Why does wealth lead to fewer children?

jennifer sciubba

It sure does, and you are right that this is, in some ways, counterintuitive. Well, sure, we’ve got those rising income, rising education. We’ve also got shifting values and norms. And listen, I’m a political scientist. I’m a trained political scientist. We absolutely talk about values and norms. We also know that it’s really hard to measure some of these and it’s really hard to put them in a causal chain.

So, when I’m thinking about reflecting back on these big changes and looking at the literatures and looking at all the causality, that’s the one that I think has us where we are today. There’s been a tremendous shift in values and norms. And so, I think about my own life. So I have two children. And I have values beyond just wanting those children. Sorry to them if they listen to this. Thank goodness, they probably won’t, till they’re older. I do value my free time. I do value a nice meal at a restaurant. I value time with friends, time with my spouse, et cetera, et cetera. I value my career. And I value time with them the most. But you know what? It does compete for time.

And I think it’s that value shift, is that as we are more educated, as we have more income earning opportunities outside the home, as our standards of living rise, the number of children that we want shifts because it competes with other things that we want. I don’t know if you find that to be the case for you and your peer group as well. But that’s the case in my peer group, certainly.

ezra klein

I do find it to be the case. Is a different way of saying this that as countries become richer and more educated, they become more individualistic. And when you’re more individualistic, and people are making decisions more about their life, their self-expression, their set of choices, do I want to travel, do I want to become a PhD in political science, that, then, children are one choice competing among many?

jennifer sciubba

I think that is part of it. And I think it’s just even more complicated than that. And I come back all the time to reflecting on the term “family planning” because family planning, in the greatest sense of it, is, you plan and decide when you get to have children. And when you can make that choice, it becomes really difficult to decide, is now the right time? Is now the right time? Will I be in a better position to do this in five years?

So, I think yes to the individualism, but I also think the literal logistics of it, deciding when to do something, it’s another kind of pressure that pushes downward. You kind of keep putting that off. As we know, as parents, there’s actually never an ideal time to do this. There’s always some reason not to. But I think it is that ultimate planning. We can’t leave that part out.

ezra klein

That’s an important corrective, I think, to something buried in my individualism hypothesis, which is that, as you were saying earlier, there’s a culture here. If I had told my parents — I met my partner when we were 24.

And if we had gotten pregnant at 24, that would have been, in the scope of human history, maybe even a bit on the late side. In the global picture, totally normal. And in the picture for college-educated, career-ambitious Americans, pretty unusual. And if we’d said we’re having kids at 24, a lot of people are like, you are? Did the birth control fail?

jennifer sciubba

Exactly. Uh-oh. What’d you do wrong?

ezra klein

Right? That there is a culture around you of, when do things look normal? And also, we’d have been the only ones in our friend group with kids at that point. And so, there is this way in which, yes, there’s a lot of individualism, but the individualism also has very potent cultural grooves, right? You’re supposed to go and get education, and then more education and then more education, and then establish yourself in your career and be financially in a good spot, and of course, be married.

And by the time you’ve done all that, you might be 30. You might be 32. You might be 36. And even if you wanted to have three or four kids at that point, you do end up running, particularly for women, into a biological clock problem.

jennifer sciubba

Yeah. So, for the total fertility rate for the U.S., writ large, is about 1.6 to 1.7 children per woman. So, it’s decently below replacement level there. For the more education you get, typically, the lower it is. It’s this success sequence that we talk about. OK, you’re going to raise your kids to say you’re going to get lots of education. Then you’re going to get a great job. You’re going to buy a home. You’re going to start a retirement account and get some savings and then have children. So, any little blip along that would then push that off more and more.

Something you mentioned that I think is very important is this idea that maybe within this larger individualistic culture and within this larger idea of a success sequence, there are pockets. So, last time I went on a first date, I was 19 years old. That’s because I met my husband then. I was engaged. I thought about this the other day. This sounds crazy, but at 21, on Valentine’s Day, I was 21 years old, and I was engaged. I’ve now been married over 20 years.

ezra klein


jennifer sciubba

Yeah, thanks, right? That probably sounds absolutely nuts to a lot of your listeners. But you know what? I was the last one of my friends to get married. We were college-educated women. Getting married early looked very normal in my group. In other parts of the country — I mean, I’m from the South, I’m sure you can hear — it is pretty normal to get married. And then you think about my neighborhood — got lots of folks with more than two children. So, what you’re surrounded by and how you kind of measure normal behavior, acceptable behavior, those cultural values and norms, they affect your decisions around dating, marriage, and having children.

ezra klein

I see this in my own world. And I am part of different communities. I’ve lived in, over the past 10 years, three different cities. My communities are typically pretty highly educated. But that has been different in different groups, too.

And it’s got me thinking about this question, which, what does it mean that the more sort of choice people are exercising, the more they’re putting into their careers, oftentimes, the fewer children they’re having, often to their sadness, right? I know a lot of people who wanted to have children. It’s not worked out for them. They want to have more children than they’ve actually been able to have. And there are, obviously, values in this whole conversation.

And I will say for myself which values I feel like I should even hold are unsettled. I think there is something more important about having children than simple choice. I think there is something about the continuation of the human species. I think there’s something about the connection to things and histories and generational chains beyond you. And also, I think it’s fine for people not to have children.

But in some ways, what worries me a little bit is, if you want to, quote unquote, “succeed in America,” you end up with fewer children on average. And if you imagine an America where everybody tracks the fertility rate of the highly successful, you’re looking at America with, as I understand it, a fertility rate that begins to look more like what you’re seeing in Japan, more like things people understand as rapid demographic decline.

There’s something here. I don’t know if we always describe it as values. It might just be what the success sequence muscles out. But I think, in some ways, it’s important to ask if that is leading to the right set of values, and for people, the right set of life outcomes.

jennifer sciubba

Maybe, but I actually think there’s a little bit more to it because the gap with highly educated and less highly educated is not that big anymore. However, it is true that the longer you stay in education, the more you kind of truncate the years in which you might have children, so you might not have that second or that third child.

And I’m a little unsettled about how to talk about this publicly because you can tell someone what seems like a fact — hey, educated women in the U.S. might be having fewer children. What they do with that information is not up to you. So to the degree that we have perfect information, as a woman with a PhD, to understand that if I’m planning to finish my degree before I have children, then I will need to do so in this certain amount of time in order to make sure I’m still within that window of being able to conceive. That is one thing.

To try to limit someone’s rights in terms of education or change their pathway because you care about changing their total fertility rate is different. And actually, both of those conversations are happening right now among the elite in the U.S.

ezra klein

Is this really something that amenable to policy change, though? One of the things that is most striking to me about the data here — and here, I’m zooming back out to the international context — is that across many different kinds of societies, including some that have seen this as a crisis for their country for some time — I think here of Japan, I think here of South Korea — the ability to shift this through policy — and people have tried a lot of different things and a lot of different kinds of messaging and tax incentives and this and that — it doesn’t really seem like anything has worked.

This seems like something beyond what, at least, policy at the imaginable margins of things you could pass — you know, get a tax payment for having a kid, you get your income taxes knocked off, you get universal pre-K and child care and health care and the Scandinavian Social Security net, et cetera — it doesn’t really seem to do much. I mean, almost all these countries are converging downwards.

And in the most extreme cases — again, I think here of South Korea, which I believe is now below total fertility rate of one, so I mean, you’re entering geometric decline — they’ve not been able to turn that around. So, why doesn’t policy have more effect here? And what do you learn from some of the extreme cases, like some of these East Asian countries where this has been seen as a genuine threat?

jennifer sciubba

You are absolutely right, yes. State policy is pretty effective at being able to take a high fertility society to a lower fertility one. It is generally pretty ineffective at a sustained rate. That’s why I say, this is a permanent shift for us. And so, as a researcher, we want to isolate a variable the same way that a policymaker does. If you can nail it down to the top one or two reasons why a fertility rate is low, then you could presumably put a policy in place to change that.

So let’s say, for example, we know, through research, that a lot of folks say that high child care cost is a factor in their decision-making around having children. So, a policymaker takes that information and says, all right, let’s work on subsidizing those centers, or I live in a school district that didn’t offer pre-K — that made a big difference for me financially. It would have been nice if they had offered pre-K.

But the state policy will fix that, and then people say, yeah, but also, the housing prices are really high. OK, let’s come in. Let’s talk about adjusting some mortgage rates or maybe give you some subsidies for that. Yes, but also — and it just kind of goes down the list. So, it is really hard to isolate a singular variable so that you can have a state policy. And that’s where we come back to, how do you isolate general values and general cultures?

Now, the extremes can tell us a little bit here. Throughout East Asia, which has a region with the lowest total fertility rate in the world, there is something in common. And I first learned of it when I was still an undergraduate, I think. And I actually think this is probably part of what set me into wanting to study this for the rest of my life. I studied Japan, and I remember trying to write this paper — this sounds so funny now. I think it was called like “Sex in Japan” was like my senior thesis.

And I remember learning about Japanese young women were basically being — they were being vilified, really, in the media for living this very individualistic life, rather than getting married to a man, settling down and having children. And I think now that I’ve matured in my scholarship and studied more about this, that was symbolic of an opting out.

And we see this opting out kind of running throughout East Asia. South Korea has something called the four no’s — no dating, no sex with men, no marriage, no childbirth. And so we see them have the lowest fertility rate in the world. It’s this idea that marriage is no longer required to have a good life. You can have a job. You can make money on your own. And in fact, it is not only no longer required, it might actually stifle your life because of gender relations within the household.

South Korea has paternity leave. So, there you go — state policy, right? Oh, you say there’s no maternity and paternity leave. Let’s give you that policy. But men do not take the paternity leave. And that’s the values and cultural norms there. So, those are very important in being this counter or a limit on state policies’ ability to affect change. So, there may be ways — this may be where research needs to go. How do you change culture if you want to through state policy?

ezra klein

Tell me about a couple of the examples here in some depth. So, there is the, I think to many people, to me, horrifying example of Romania. That sits out there. You write about it in your book. Then there’s also — I mean, as you know, Japan has done things. South Korea has done quite a bit.

Hungary recently has been trying to increase its birth rate. You’ve seen things in Scandinavian countries, as they build out a more gender equitable form of parenting. So, tell me about what examples stand out to you. And then were any of them effective in the long-term?

jennifer sciubba

So, a lot of people who are aiming to raise fertility rates are trying to raise them to replacement level. And the reason they’re trying to do that is because it just gives you this nice stovepiped age structure where you got a steady number of people being born, aging into the workforce and aging out, without any strains on needing to scramble to build kindergartens or scramble to pay for Social Security.

But we really don’t have societies that hang out there at replacement level. Once they tend to fall below it, they tend to stay there. And if they are trying to get back to this elusive replacement level, we just don’t see that. And so a couple of things to talk about with this.

One is, how do you get a population, if you’re a state, to have fertility rates that go back up above replacement level? Well, you can strip away individual rights. I am not advocating for this. But we have an example of that. Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, he said, I want more Romanian babies specifically. And fertility rates were already low there.

So, what did he do? He kind of did the inverse of what China did during some of its population policies, like the one child policy, taking away contraception and making sure women couldn’t get access to legal abortion. And you did see births increase there. You also saw maternal mortality increase. You saw a lot of societal issues there.

And it was only up as long as his thumb was pressing on it. And as soon as he’s gone, it goes back down. So, no, we do not really have examples where a society goes way below and then comes back up to above replacement level and hangs out there, and everyone is happy.

A little side note here that I think is interesting — and this is really important for us to talk about. It used to be, like when I started my career, that we would talk about low fertility societies, we were talking about democracies, for the most part. Now, a quarter of our aged countries are non-democracies. So, I actually think it’s really important for us to integrate that into the conversation because it is easier to restrict rights in a non-democracy. So it is something I worry about a lot.

ezra klein

Well, we have a current example of this. Russia’s fertility rate is not particularly high. And one of the things Putin said often, before invading Ukraine, was that Ukraine was full of what he considered to be Russian babies, Russian people. People are, to him, power. People are understood, in many countries, to be power.

And Ukraine, as Putin understood it, was taken from Russia, taken from greater Russia. And he was going to get it back and get back all these people and get back all these children and get back all these babies. This was an articulated rationale. And it’s hard to parse exactly what led to Putin invading, but this seems to be one thing in the mix of his considerations.

jennifer sciubba

I think so, too. And I think at the end of the day, why this matters is that people look at shrinking populations, of which there are already over 30 countries that are shrinking, and low fertility as an existential issue. And so, when you elevate it to an existential issue, the question becomes, what are you willing to do to change it?

ezra klein

Let me put aside the language of existential because I think people’s minds shut down when you begin to get into whether something is an existential threat, but is low fertility a threat? I mean, I look at South Korea, I look at Japan — I think of that certainly as a significant problem for those societies. I mean, within 50 or 60 years, their population level will convulse downwards.

Whether a fertility rate of 1.8, 1.6 is a threat, I don’t exactly know what to think about it. But there’s certainly an intuition that you would be a stronger country if you were a 2.2 or 2.4 or 2.5 than if you were at 1.4 or 1.2. How do you think about this?

I mean, you told me today. You’re giving talks there on national security. You’re giving talks on demography and finance. Presumably, those are people worried about chaos emerging from this and either thinking about how to defend against it or profit from it. So, what are you telling them?

jennifer sciubba

If we zoom out on the whole and we look at how globally fertility rates have fallen from way high, six, seven children per woman, down to now two, this is a positive story. It’s something that we worked for, for decades.

How wonderful now that we can have fewer children and feel confident that those that we have will make it to reproductive age, because that’s really what happens, right? That that’s how societies do this demographic transition from high to low fertility. So, we should celebrate, generally speaking, getting to replacement, or I think even just a little bit below replacement level. I don’t raise an alarm about that. I do, however, feel alarmed when it is super low. And here’s why.

If you just told me about a hypothetical country — you said country X — their total fertility rate is seven children per woman, and that’s the only thing you told me, I could paint a picture of that country for you. And I could tell you a lot of things about that country that were probably not great. I would say, probably women and girls are not being educated. Probably, there’s not great health care. Probably, there are no jobs. And probably, it has poor governance.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you told me that a country had a fertility rate hovering around one child per woman, to some degree, I think that also reflects that there are some things in that society that are broken, that people, women particularly, although I always do hate to put it on the shoulders of women, but in those low fertility societies, it seems to be the case that women are not willing to reproduce the current social structures. They are not working for them to a huge degree, to the point that they are willing to opt out of this idea of marriage and having children, and seek a different path for themselves.

So, while low fertility, generally speaking, I think is a positive example, super low fertility is something we need to understand much more to say, does it reflect that people are not optimistic about the future? I mean, having kids is the ultimate faith that the future will be good. And we saw it go low around this time the Soviet Union collapses in Eastern Europe. People feel dismal about the future, and they don’t want to have children.

Or can people just not afford to buy a home at younger ages? Do they feel like they are isolated and insecure themselves? And if that’s the case, then those are things in society that we would want to fix, no matter what. And perhaps, the side effect, the positive externality for this will be that fertility will go up. But just trying to change that number doesn’t actually change why that number might be incredibly low in the first place.

ezra klein

I struggle a little bit with this question of pessimism and fertility. And so I’d like to open it up a little bit. I hear a lot from people who say they don’t want to have children because of climate change or because the world is chaos, and it’s been terrible here, and how can you bring a child into this?

And I always think when I hear that, that while there’s truth to the many, many, many, many, many problems that we face, which is primarily what this show ends up being about week after week, the people having this conversation are, to a first approximation, the best-off people in the entirety of human existence. And what it was like to be in this world in 1940, in 1810, in 1700 and 1500 and going all the way back where you have child mortality at levels that we can’t even conceive of now.

Going back to this idea that bringing children in is an act of optimism, the people having more children right now, they’re in Afghanistan, they’re in Nigeria, they’re in sub-Saharan Africa, as you mentioned. These countries are doing differently than each other. I’d much prefer to be in Nigeria than Afghanistan, but they’re not as rich as post-grad degree Americans.

And so, there’s something here that I find odd, kind of that makes you wonder, sometimes, if it’s not backwards justification, right? People for whom their children and them would have much more comfortable lives come to see it as so uncomfortable, so impossible, so riven by inequality, that they can’t imagine making that choice, and people for whom their lives are much more that way — they do live in societies with much more pressing levels of poverty, of war, et cetera — don’t see it that way. So, how do you think about that?

jennifer sciubba

Well, a little caveat to that — a lot of these places that are war torn, they don’t have contraceptives, and they are not able to actually make those choices. They don’t have full choice about their reproduction. I think it does come back to this idea about choice. And I will also say that, I mean, I’m in the same bubble you’re in. I spent 15 years in academia, for example. It’s a certain set of people who just might justify their choices based on that.

If we pull out of that group a little bit, you don’t hear people talk as much about, I’m not having a child for the sake of the environment, et cetera. So I do think that is not really indicative of the U.S. as a whole. Part of the reason the U.S. total fertility rate is low is that teen birth rate is down. So, isn’t that something we worked for, for a long time? So there’s a little bit of complexity here as well between, at what point are you asking somebody how many children they want, at what point in their own lives are they, and how much can you really trust that?

So right now, I basically would not be able to have kids anymore. But if you asked me how many would you have liked to have had, I might say three. Part of why I say three is because my first two were awesome. They’re healthy, and they are also nine and 11 years old, which my friend says is the sweet spot between diapers and drugs. So they’re highly pleasant children right now.

I think to myself, I could have had a third. I would have totally nailed that. But if you had asked me that when I had 202, then I would have given you a very different answer. So, some of this is also a measurement issue for us. So we don’t know somebody in their 30s — they’re not done yet. We can’t actually find out about them. We’re learning about completed cohort fertility for people born in the 1970s right now. So, we’re always a little bit behind in our knowledge.

ezra klein

One other question that tracks this wealth issue is that a lot of people who are doing very well by global standards, maybe not the richest one percent of Americans or anything, but one thing you’ll hear is that it’s extraordinarily expensive to have children. And I have two children, and I’m here to confirm that it is extraordinarily expensive to have children. But of course, the people having more children are poorer.

And this seems to, though, be validated in the data that as you get wealthier, the expectations on how much you will spend on your children change, what it means for your children to keep up culturally, educationally, economically. That’s not just true for money — it’s true for time. The amount of time that more educated parents spend with their kids is really high. And it’s both beautiful.

I mean, I really treasure a lot of the time I spend with my children. And it is difficult. I don’t think people parented this intensively when they had five or six or seven kids. How do you think about that, that question, the way parenting has become both capital and time intensive, as people get more capital and time to invest in it?

jennifer sciubba

I think that is a huge factor in why people have fewer children in the U.S. It obviously isn’t just money because we all have more money now than we did. We’re doing better. And so, you can’t just nail it down to say it’s expensive. It really is about this intensity. And some of that intensity is money. I’ve got friends with kids on travel baseball teams — oh, my goodness — a lot of money and a lot of time.

ezra klein

I just pray my kids don’t play club sports. Like, that’s the only thing I truly want as a parent, for them to not be very good at sports.

jennifer sciubba

Yes, mine inherited my lack of ability, so I am winning. Yes, they’re like, can we go to the library? I’m like, you bet, sweetpea. Let’s go. Because, yes, it is just that. And one of my friends, the same one, she’s a stay-at-home mom, and she says, how do people do it if they both work? And the answer is, of course, you either have some prescriptions for some anxiety medication thtat you both pop in the morning, you try to get some help, but it’s hard to get help. People don’t live near parents who can help them, et cetera. It is just such tremendously intensive parenting. And that is the culture now.

We also see that in East Asia, by the way. So a lot of this, you do see globally. South Korea, politicians have talked about trying to change some of the requirements on entrance exams to pull away some of that pressure that each child must just be raised so intensively and perfectly in the hopes that that would then change the culture around the number of children that you have. So, yes, I think it makes a huge difference. There are only a certain number of hours in the day.

But I also think that there is a lot of negativity about parenting that’s shared in social media. Most of the stories shared about parenting online are, oh, my gosh, my toddler got into my makeup today. And I have to record a podcast with Ezra Klein. And what am I supposed to do? And I hear it a lot among 20 somethings and 30 somethings that you sure don’t make it look like it’s a lot of fun.

And during the pandemic, when all of us were on these video calls and our kids were screaming and streaming in, in the background, it didn’t make it look like it was going to be a very enjoyable enterprise because you don’t see a lot of the beautiful moments. So I think that’s in there, too. That’s in that mix.

ezra klein

I think a lot about this particular question because I’m so caught on it. Because on the one hand, I get the all joy, no fun theory here. And I don’t find it to be true exactly. I find there to be a lot of fun in it, but I’m also somebody with a pretty flexible job. I work a lot, but I have a fair amount of control over those hours. And I’m somebody with enough money to fill in some of the gaps that we need to fill in. So, we can go out occasionally, that kind of thing.

And the thing that keeps coming to mind for me is like this collision between two ideas. One is that maybe the way we’re doing it, it’s not that much fun. Maybe the amount of pressure we’re putting on ourselves — is my kid reading early enough, are we spending enough time together, are the weekends enriching enough — my whole weekend is planned around what might be good for my kids. It’s like playground, library, go and get a bagel, right? It’s just, it’s all kids all the time. It’s not my sense that that’s how it’s always been.

And then on the other hand, it’s not also my sense that it was always fun, that maybe it just wasn’t part of the choice structure the way we thought about our lives that everything was about how much fun it would be, how individually enriching it would be. So there is this kind of interesting question of, one, have we made it less fun than it should be? Have we made —

In a way, are we too pro-natal for society in a way that has made us low-fertility societies? Because now what it means to be pro-child is to treat your children so well you can’t imagine having more than two or three of them. And on the other side, that this question of making everything a choice about is it going to be fun for me, I mean, when you look back in human history, that’s always how we thought about things.

jennifer sciubba

Yes, and we have some data on this. The one that always strikes me is that a working mother today spends more time with her child than a stay-at-home mom would have a few decades ago. We’re spending more time with our kids on average. So I absolutely think that’s the case. And I do think it matters.

This very indulgent sense that everything should maximize your pleasure, why? Why is that the case? And so, every moment as a parent is not the best in the world, but overall, I don’t know. I’ve not seen a study, like, are you sad you had your kids? I mean, probably somebody has done that. Do you wish you hadn’t had them? It’s very few people.

ezra klein

Something that has come up a few times here is simply that women work now. And nobody wants to go back on that, or at least, I don’t want to go back on that. But how much is that just an explanatory factor, that this idea that you’re going to have high fertility in societies where you have dual income, full-time working parents, but also there’s nobody else to take care of the kids, that that just doesn’t fit. I mean, you can say whatever you want. You can do whatever you want. You can have your tax incentives, whatever. But if you’ve got two parents working, it’s just pretty tough, particularly if they’re not making millions of dollars at their jobs.

jennifer sciubba

And it’s extra tough when you don’t have a community that supports you. And I think that may be one of the biggest differences now, is that if I think about — I work a highly flexible job. My husband works a less flexible job. So we have a two-income family. But anything I need for support, I’m basically hiring out. I mean, there’s spreadsheets for if I have a work trip. OK, this one’s coming on this day. This one can’t drive. So this one has to do this, that, and the other.

We don’t have community support. That is different than saying, do you have a daycare that opens at 7:00 a.m. or 6:00 a.m. for you to drop off, and how late is pickup? The idea that you are living in a community with neighbors who almost have this communal sense of parenting is probably way too much of a phrase there, but just this supportive structure around you that’s outside of policy.

ezra klein

And I wonder, too, not just about the parents, but the other kids. I mean, I didn’t grow up in the long, long days ago. It still feels fairly recent to me. But I did grow up at a time — I grew up in suburban California. There are kids in almost every house on our block, and they all played outside. And they all just kind of ran around as a pack. And there were younger ones and older ones and everybody played kickball on the garages.

And it wasn’t that it was idyllic or not idyllic. And for all I know, I’m remembering this wrong. But also, whenever I just read older accounts of families, it’s like the kids are just running around. And there are other kids, and the kids take care of the kids. And in big families, the older kids take care of the younger kids.

And so, there’s this one issue of how supportive the community is and this other issue of whether or not there is this almost independent kid society, because if there is an independent kid society and the only way to create kid society is that you’re on your phone G-caling a play date with this other family from school, and no, we’re not free on Sunday, but what about three Sundays from now, then the parents are involved in every part of that, whereas it seemed my experience and from other things I can tell, that there was a little bit more of just an autonomous thing happening for kids at another point.

jennifer sciubba

Yes, and I do think that makes a difference. I really do. My husband grew up in upstate New York, and he talks all the time about how he and his friends, guys in the neighborhood who were his same age in school and some a little bit older, would get on their bikes, they’d go into the woods, they’d be gone all day long, and nobody thought anything about it. And if one of our sons wants to go over to his friend’s house and he wants to ride his bike, we’re terrified to let him.

Now, part of this is where I live. Statistically, maybe you should be a little bit terrified to let him go, but probably don’t need to be quite as terrified as I am now. But there’s a sense that what if something happened? I would never forgive myself. What will other parents think if I just let my child go out because — and cross a major road. It really is a different intensity to parenting. I did not grow up in a neighborhood. I grew up in the countryside, and I grew up as an only child. But I was completely independent, and my mom wasn’t saying, OK, you have now played with that litter of puppies for too long. Perhaps you should come inside and eat a snack, or just really micromanaging my life there. And I totally am doing this to my kids. I try not to. I get that I shouldn’t.

But I think to myself, hm, have they done that activity too long? Perhaps, I should do this. And yes, you would like to go to a friend’s house? Let me text them for you because I’ve heard it’s bad for you to have phones. So, that means that I’m the person in charge of scheduling all of this for you because I’m scared for you to walk out of the house and be on your own.

So, yes, it is just a super intense parenting without this community and this autonomy. And that definitely can play a role in maybe you don’t go from one to two kids or from two to three kids. Because that’s another part of this. I think sometimes when we talk about low fertility, we think about having kids or not having kids. But there’s also the, do you have one, two, three, et cetera, and how that changes over time as well.

ezra klein

Yeah, to add numbers to that, I think the United States, you mentioned earlier, the fertility rate is about 1.6 — any of these surveys showing that Americans would like to have, on average, 2.7 kids. So, there’s this question of people who don’t want to have kids that gets a lot of attention, but there’s also this question of people who would like to have more children than they do.

And for one reason or another, it doesn’t work out for them, or it’s not possible for them. And that feels like a place worth putting a lot of attention into because I think everybody’s most comfortable and correctly so with having a choice and rights-based approach here. And if people could have closer to the number of kids they wanted, that’s making everybody better off, in a way.

jennifer sciubba

Yes, and there’s all kinds of little things about this. And we did have two. And we talked about if you had a third, where does the car seat go? We would have to get different cars to be able to fit a third car seat because our kids were close together. I have an 11-year-old son who is not a small guy. He’s a tall guy, 90th percentile. He’s still sitting in the back seat. He’s not supposed to sit in the front seat yet of the car. And that means that only one of you can have a friend come play today if we’re going to drive you anywhere.

So, there’s just these little logistics. That difference in going from two to three is big. I have a friend who has a blended family that ends up with three kids. When they’re all together, she’s like, we have to have a different table at the restaurant. We have to have two hotel rooms. Those kinds of things, I think, do shape people’s decision-making around going from two to three kids. And then, of course, add the cost in there.

Depending on how old your kids are, how close together they are in ages, you could be paying for daycare/pre-K for three at once or college for two or three at once. It’s something that can really make a difference for how many you decide to have.

ezra klein

Is that a way that low fertility rates end up feeding on themselves? I lived in San Francisco, which is notoriously a quite low fertility rate major American city. And you could just feel it. You could just feel that there was not infrastructure, really, for kids. I mean, there were some playgrounds, but nothing opened early. But kids get up early. And it’s all these little things that just make it a little bit harder.

And it’s not that people are being jerks about it. It’s just that infrastructure, commerce, culture adapt to what is around it. And the more what is around it is families with very few kids or no kids, the more it tunes itself for them. I mean, this is very broadly observed, but there’s been like a big trend against restaurants really having that many reservations. And if you don’t have reservations, you’re not going there with kids because the kids are not going to sit around outside waiting for a table.

And there’s just a lot of little things like that that I feel like whenever I travel to societies with high birth rates, you really notice that they feel different. The whole thing just looks different in more ways than I can catalog, but in ways that, then, when I come back, you’re really like, oh, I live in a low birth rate society. Like, that becomes a clear thing to you.

jennifer sciubba

And I think what’s remarkable about this is that there’s such a divide between rhetoric and action on this. So, in the U.S., the conversation is starting to trend toward, OK, we are a low fertility society. Uh-oh, how do we change that? That’s the rhetoric, but the question we need to ask about the action, then, is, are we really a society that values children and families? And I think in a lot of cases, the answer really is no.

I mean, I remember reading an article maybe a year or two ago about a town in Japan. It was a small town, but they were having a baby boom, so to speak. And of course, this is in a setting where fertility rates have been low for decades and one of the oldest countries on the planet. And they started trying to talk to this mayor about what are you doing differently, and the answer really was, we value and integrate children and families into everything here.

It’s not a policy, so to speak, like the kind that you might think about for policies to raise fertility. It’s a feeling, and it’s action around that. I think that’s part of why we see who’s having babies even within low fertility societies, it’s religious communities and emphasis on community.

So, within a church group, for example, if you go to a Wednesday night service at maybe a Protestant church, there is something for the kids. Someone is taking care of them. You don’t have to worry about it. You can go to your adult formation class, speak with other parents, and you’re not worried about where are the kids.

They probably have dinner there for you so you don’t have to plan that, cook that, clean that up. Kids can run around, scream, and it’s OK. And so, we do tend to see higher fertility rates among societies that are highly religious. And I think that community part plays a big role in that.

ezra klein

I was going to ask you about religion as an independent variable here. How much is religion a force that is capable of changing fertility rates? And on the flip side of that, how much is secularization a driver of pushing them down? Are there, in fact, any secular societies or large secular groups that have high fertility rates?

jennifer sciubba

Well, I think generally speaking, religiosity matters. It’s about how religious are you, which we think about, how often do you go to services or pray, et cetera. For example, Mormons in the United States have a higher total fertility rate than those who are not religious at all, have low degrees of religiosity. And we tend to see that around the world. Secularism? Yeah, we do see lower rates there. And since we know that religiosity itself is declining, we would expect that to be a pressure towards lower.

But I think context does matter. One of the puzzles that we talk about in demography a lot is looking at Israel. And I think there’s a lot there in terms of exceptions, but a lot of folks know — and I write about this in the book — that the ultra-orthodox community in Israel has high fertility rates. But the secular Jewish community has higher than you would expect, given peers. And so, they kind of hover around replacement level.

And so, they are within this context of higher fertility rates. They’re within communities where there would be more children. And maybe, maybe that’s pressuring them higher. It gets hard for me with religion when I try to parse out these different things because there’s a lot going on with, how do you think about the future, or how do you think about the afterlife? How do you think about the purpose of why we’re here on Earth? And religious teachings do come into play there.

So, when we kind of contrast that with a lot of folks I talk to in the environmental movement, they say, we shouldn’t have humans at all because it’s bad for the planet. I mean, these are extremists, but they’re in my email inbox. And so, that’s two really different worldviews about the value of children, the value of people, the purpose of it all.

ezra klein

Behind both of those worldviews is not just values, although values are probably there, but also an instrumental sense of what will happen in different scenarios. So the overpopulation folks, they’re worried about the human load on the planet. More humans is, to a first approximation, more carbon dioxide, more material usage, more humans taking up habitat, eating livestock, or raised on arable land, et cetera, et cetera. Then, there’s the other side, right, the people on the right. And there are people who just believe children are an intrinsic good, that either it is a religious duty or just a beautiful thing, right? More souls in the world, more human beings who can have important, meaningful human experiences. But there’s also a view that sharp demographic decline is a catastrophe from a power and social stability perspective.

So Brink Lindsey from the Niskanen Institute writes about low fertility societies. Quote, “Whole societies will soon start to melt away. As with our personal ties to each other, our ties to the social order are weakening as well. Trust in virtually all social institutions is in relentless decline.” What he’s seeing is a world that is going to fall into a kind of chaos because relatively close to replacement rates, societies are stable, and those booming up maybe are not, but also those plummeting down are definitely not. So, how do you think about the instrumental dimension here?

jennifer sciubba

I think that arguments like that suffer from a significant failure of imagination because what they’re basically saying is that you either grow infinitely, or you collapse. And there is nothing in between. And I think there’s a lot in between. We just love to be alarmist about population. We’re alarmist about it being too high in the ‘60s. We’re alarmist about it being too low today.

And so, I don’t like those arguments that say, well, if we don’t have children, societies will completely fall apart. No. They will change, but they change all the time. Sometimes they change for the better, sometimes they change for the worse. If I lived in a retirement community in Florida, I wouldn’t say, how awful are all these people and myself. What a shame that we’re all happily down here with the sunshine. Isn’t life terrible? It just looks different.

Let’s be clear here — why does low fertility matter? We’ve talked a lot about kids. But at the end of the day, it’s because it eventually leads a population to age more older versus younger people. And then — thanks, math — it will shrink. So people equate that with individual aging. And we have a terrible, pessimistic, fearful view of individual aging. And because we kind of overlay that onto population aging, how could it possibly be a nice world?

ezra klein

One of the other — I don’t know whether to call this a concern or prediction — maybe both — is that you’re just going to see a huge shift in world power as population rates change. So, places with more population are, over time, going to become more powerful. Places with less are going to become less powerful. I think certainly at extreme levels, that is true, right? South Korea is falling by half generation after generation, or more than half. I do think it is going to see its power and sway reduced, and I think it is going to be in more danger from neighbors.

And then even within societies, right, there’s this question of who is gaining power in it. So I mean, it’s a common concern, or at least, observation in Israeli politics, the very high birth rates of the Orthodox have made the Orthodox faction in Israeli politics much more powerful, which has swung Israeli politics to the right. So, how do you think about that way in which, over time, this leads to who has numbers, and thus sway, in society?

jennifer sciubba

I think it’s a very different answer depending on if we’re at the global level or a subnational level. So, if we’re at the global level, does population equal power? Nah. You know why? Because the rules of the game are already written. So, I tend to be an institutionalist in political science terms, meaning I think a lot about the power of the structures, the power of the rules of the game.

And guess what? Those are so set in stone right now that to think about India challenging those rules, challenging that order, it’s not going to happen in the next couple of decades, even though they’re now the most populous country on the planet. But I think there’s more to it at the subnational level there. But again, I’m an institutionalist.

So what are the rules of the game? If you have rules of the game that allow small interest to take political power, say, for example, the type of parliamentary system where you could get 20 percent, 30 percent of the vote and come to rule in the country, then population sizes will matter in one way. They can potentially take over that governance there.

I think in the U.S., it’s more complicated because we’re still on these two parties, and we’re not getting out of these two parties anytime necessarily soon. So it is harder for a particular niche, even though they may be growing in population, to take over the whole political governing landscape.

ezra klein

You said at the beginning here, look, there are all these facts, and then there’s what you do with the facts. What do you do with them? We’ve talked a bit about the sort of overpopulation take. We’ve talked a bit about the decline of state. What is your orientation? When you look at societies at 1.5, 1.6 — they seemed to be dropping a little bit lower over time — how do you think about it, and how do you think about where they should be thinking about going from here?

jennifer sciubba

I’m trying to strike a balance between showing how important it is to always view demographics, but not so important that you’re willing to take away people’s rights or focus solely on that number, those population numbers, to the extent that you forget to deal with the people who are there.

So, I would think, for example, if we know climate change is happening, it would be a mistake to focus only on stopping or reversing climate change. While the waters are rising and coming above your front porch, you should also probably put your house up on some stilts. We need to think, instead, about how to have resilient societies that adapt to what is there.

And knowing that I’ve already said we should pay attention to super, super low fertility rates, if we’re just hanging out at this below replacement level, but steadily, this 1.5 to 1.9 area, this is not doom and gloom. It’s only doom and gloom if you are not willing to change anything else about it.

Do you have a pay as you go entitlement system, where you need a constant influx of workers to financially support those who are exiting the workforce? Well, then, yeah, you’re right. Probably is going to be doom and gloom. So, we have to have that adaptation now. We have to have that resilience. And we are wasting time and resources in not doing that, and instead, trying to put the genie back in the bottle.

But at the same time, I do think it’s important for us to support families and children for the purpose of supporting families and children because, otherwise, what is the point of it? What is the point? I think society is made up of us as people.

And a lot of times, with these aggregate numbers we talk about, we forget that they are just an aggregate of a bunch of individual decisions. And I want to live in a society that is optimistic about the future, where there are children and older people and people of working ages. And to me, that’s really the point of it all, is to see us as humans, as valuable.

ezra klein

I think that is a good place to end. And always our final question, what are three books you’d recommend to the audience?

jennifer sciubba

So I have three books that I love for different reasons. So I love “Extra Life” by Steven Johnson. It’s zooming out to say, isn’t it remarkable that we have basically added an extra life because of how much we have improved health and life expectancy?

I also love this book by Paul Sabin that I used to teach out of. And it is called “The Bet, Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth’s Future.” And what I like about it is, there was not always the case that there was this huge divide between the left and the right over environmental ideas in the US. There was a time when we were kind of united on that. And it just kind of traces that history of how we came to be divided on this issue of overpopulation that I think is a really important thing to chronicle, and it’s a really interesting book.

And then the third one, it’s more of an academic book, but if you want a history of some of the most interesting, demographic engineering that we’ve seen in the world, it’s a book called reproductive states. And it’s edited by Rickie Solinger and Mie Nakachi. And it’s “Global Perspectives on the Invention and Implementation of Population Policy.”

And I think it’s fascinating to look at how individual countries will have this very anti-natalist policy for decades, and then fertility will go low. And they’ll freak out, and then they will put into place pro-natalist policies, just like a flipping a switch, you know? But you can really see these interventions over time in different countries. And it’s a really fascinating view into countries like China, India, et cetera.

ezra klein

Jennifer Sciubba, thank you very much.

jennifer sciubba

Thank you so much.

ezra klein

This episode of “The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Rollin Hu. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris with Kate Sinclair and Mary Marge Locker. Mixing by Isaac Jones and Efim Shapiro. Our senior editor is Claire Gordon. The show’s production team also includes Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld and Kristin Lin. We have original music by Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Kristina Samulewski and Shannon Busta. The executive producer of New York Times Opinion Audio is Annie-Rose Strasser. And special thanks to Sonia Herrero.