Whitney Pipkin, marriage, family, children, fertility, future

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The Future Is Low Fertility

For a complex of reasons, as secularism rises in the West, birth rates plummet. How can we flourish in this new world?

I’m not sure how to answer the question, “Did you always want to have three kids?” It’s the sort of birthday-party small talk that catches me off guard as my mind wanders somewhere between what’s for dinner and what’s due this week at work. 

he number of kids we have? That’s an amalgamation of choices that felt both eternally significant and flippant at the same time. There were the off-hand comments — “How about one more?” — followed by gut-wrenching miscarriages that cemented the desire for our second and then our third child.  

In the end, our decisions to welcome one child and then two more were a lot more emotional and a little less logical. And I imagine it’s that way for a lot of people. The decision of whether and when to have a child is often deeply personal, after all, driven by beliefs about identity, the economy and, yes, religion. 

Yet, when we aggregate the millions of conception choices made by and for millions of people, we see how such personal preferences swell into societal shifts — with implications that are far more than merely personal.

From the dawn of demography, headlines have told us dramatic birth rate-based stories. During the post-World War II Baby-Boom years, the news warned that earth’s limited resources would not be able to sustain seemingly unrestrained population growth. Now, experts foretell, fertility rates are in such steep decline that there will not be enough younger people to care for the elderly. 

But perhaps these pendulum swings from one doomsday scenario to the next miss the bottom line of the steady drip of change already well underway. In the United States, as in a growing number of countries across the world, fewer of the millions alive today are choosing to have as many children as previous generations did. And some of those that would like to simply cannot. 

Though it’s difficult to see from the vantage point of a still-packed neighborhood playground, the data, scholars say, is clear: We are in the midst of a transformation from a high-fertility society centered on the family unit to a low-fertility society centered largely on the individual. Perhaps you’ve noticed it. If you shop the grocery store aisles with children in tow, you might feel, more and more, like you’re one of the few. The territory we’re entering is not just different. It’s unprecedented: By 2030, demographers predict that the number of people aged 65 and older in the United States will for the first time eclipse the number of children. 

The implications for government leaders looking to resource an aging population may be obvious. But what, if anything, should these changes mean for Christians? Is there a particularly Christian way of thinking about birth rates or about personal childbearing decisions? And how can the church be better equipped to reach people in a culture that is changing in real time in such measurable yet subtle ways?

In his 2020 book, Fertility and Faith: The Demographic Revolution and the Transformation of World Religions, Baylor University history professor Philip Jenkins argues that the drop in fertility is something every Christian, and certainly every religious institution, should heed as “one of the most significant and newsworthy developments in modern American religion.” That’s because, he writes, there is a direct correlation between fertility and religiosity. 

When fertility declines, the data indicates, so does participation in organized religion. And the inverse is also true. These trends have already played out across low-fertility and now post-Christian swaths of Europe as well as high-fertility, highly religious corners of sub-Saharan Africa and South America. 

Rapid changes in fertility rates in a society, Jenkins argues in his book, “should serve as an alarm bell” to a culture that rapid secularization is also underway. One doesn’t necessarily cause the other, but many of the same factors — longer life expectancies and more job opportunities for women, for example — influence both.

But in that warning, there is also opportunity. 

Many of the demographers predict a near future no longer defined by such sharp increases and steep decreases in fertility, but one of leveling out, of settling into what will be for many cultures a messy middle. This means more will be managing the sometimes-beautiful, and sometimes-not mashup of nurturing children alongside satisfying work. And still others who long to have children, for a variety of reasons, won’t have them, or won’t be able to afford having them. As new normals develop in a low-fertility world, how should people of faith respond?

As academic Jennifer Sciubba put it, “One of the best places to have (this conversation) is in the faith community.” A Wilson Center Fellow on leave from the Department of International Studies at Rhodes College and a mother of two, Sciubba even suggested some starter questions: “What is the good life? Is it owning all the good stuff? If it’s not the prosperity gospel, then what replaces that?” 

Since her book, 8 Billion and Counting: How Sex, Death, and Migration Shape Our World, came out earlier this year, Sciubba has been thinking a lot about the relationship between population moderation and environmental impact. While young people often cite concern for the environment as a reason not to have children, Sciubba says that turns out to be the wrong approach. 

“We should stop talking about overpopulation and the environment, because it does more harm than good,” she says. While pockets of the world near urban centers may be overpopulated, underpopulation is becoming an equally daunting problem, often in rural areas. Not having children in response to these global ebbs and flows, “does not solve the issue on the planet.” 

The U.S. makes up less than five percent of the world’s population. Yet, by some estimates, Americans consume as much as 20 percent of the world’s resources. 

“The only thing that solves” this complex issue, Sciubba says, “is to go against our self-interest and take greater responsibility for our consumption.” (The Christian might call that practicing temperance.) “This,” she says to Christians, “is where you get to be a leader on all of this.”

Sign of the times 

American women are far from the only ones having fewer children. The general fertility rate — the annual number of births per 1,000 women of reproductive age — has been in steady decline across the globe since the mid-1960s, when the average number of children in a family was five. In 2020, the average number of children in a family worldwide was half of that.

Europe has for years led the way in declining value of both marriage and fertility — and declining religiosity, at least among native Europeans, Jenkins points out. Immigration of populations from higher-fertility, Islamic countries into France, England, and Germany helps keep the European populations stable while infusing a greater mix of beliefs into the milieu. 

Similar trends are now taking hold in the United States as well and — even with infusions of immigrants from higher-fertility countries, such as Mexico — contributing to slower overall population growth. U.S. Census statistics from the spring of 2020 showed the population growing at its slowest pace since the 1930s.

Every year since 1971, the number of births in the U.S. have fallen below the “replacement rate” — the level at which a given generation can exactly replace itself — of 2,100 births per 1,000 women. This number is based on the statistic demographers most prefer when measuring a culture’s fertility and its societal implications: the “total fertility rate.” The World Bank defines this as the number of children that would be born to a woman if she were to live to the end of her childbearing years, based on age-specific fertility rates in a given year. 

Without the influence of immigration, a country needs an overall total fertility rate of 2.1 (or 2,100 births per 1,000 women) to keep a stable population. In the U.S., this rate fell to its lowest point of 1.6 (1,641 per 1,000 women) during the pandemic in 2020. In 2021, it rose just one percent to 1,663.5 per 1,000 women, according to provisional data from the National Center for Health Statistics. The 2021 number represented the first increase in the rate since 2014, likely capturing some planned births postponed during the early months of the pandemic as parents waited for (and then gave up on) the end of a worldwide pandemic.

To help these statistics make sense, picture a group of 10 women you know between the ages of 15 and 44. Now add up the number of children they have. Divide it by 10. Is it close to that 2.1 replacement rate?

Granted, we don’t know how many children some of those women will have. “Like many social statistics,” Jenkins writes in Fertility and Faith, the total fertility rate “involves a measure of extrapolation and projection, and there will be errors, particularly if a large cohort of women suddenly changes its behavior — for instance, to having children significantly earlier or later in life. This can produce misleading impressions of a baby boom, or bust.” 

Demographers expect fertility rates to drop following periods of economic decline. The big dips over the last century came after the Great Depression, World Wars I and II, and the Great Recession. These declines have typically been temporary. 

“But, more recently, we’ve had a fairly sustained decline in fertility rates,” said Mark Mather, associate vice president of U.S. Programs for the Population Reference Bureau, during a 2021 discussion of the impact of COVID-19 on already declining fertility rates. “And the pandemic seems to really have exacerbated this trend.” 

Influencers

Countless factors influence the choice to have a child (or to give birth to a child following an unplanned pregnancy). But chief among them is whether an individual desires to have children (and how many). 

It can be hard to pinpoint the source for such a desire, but surely a couple’s cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds play significant roles. Did they grow up in a big or small family? Do they remember it fondly or wish to chart a different course?  

But one particularly troubling trend is the growing gap between the number of children women say they want to have and the number they end up being able to have during their years of fertility. A 2018 poll conducted by Gallup, the most recent of its kind, found American women say they want an average of 2.7 children but end up having the equivalent of 1.8. The gap between those two numbers was the highest it’s been in the 40 years since Gallup began the poll. 

Why aren’t those desires being realized? A primary factor is that women are waiting longer to get married and to begin having children. A New York Times report indicates that total fertility rates, controlling for marital status, had not changed much in the 15 years leading up to 2018. But the share of women who are married during their peak childbearing ages had steadily fallen.

Also, the article stated plainly, “Americans are improving their ability to avoid unwanted pregnancies far faster than they are improving the ability to achieve desired pregnancy.”

Even with the help of costly technologies such as in vitro fertilization, many run out of time to reach the number of children they consider ideal. The pandemic also pressed pause on in-person aspects of many dating relationships as well as wedding and fertility plans.

Christian contexts that inherently hold high views of marriage and family should carefully weigh the evidence that not everyone who is single, childless or parenting fewer children is doing so by choice. If fewer women in the world — and, therefore, in churches — fit a certain married-with-children mold, some programs may need to be reimagined to meet a more diverse set of discipleship needs.

“We have to be very careful that we don’t imply that there’s a hierarchy of goodness in the Christian life and that marriage and family are the ultimate goal,” said Joanna Meyer, director of public engagement at the Denver Institute for Faith & Work and also a single Christian woman. “Because, biblically, they’re not.” 

Meyer aims through her work to resource Christians with “a robust vision for vocation for either men or women that acknowledges we are first and foremost called to Christ.”

Ambitions AND opportunities 

One of the factors that influences when and if to have children is whether a person has personal, academic, or professional ambitions they view as conflicting with childrearing. Or, as Natascha Braumann, corporate affairs director and global fertility franchise business partner at Merck Group, puts it, “What does a person want to do before they have children?”

Both secular and church culture narratives have ways of telling women, in particular, that childrearing and fulfilling work are mutually exclusive pursuits, that they are difficult — if not impossible — to do at the same time. A great many fertility and career decisions are made at this nexus, and many of them under a suite of assumptions that may not be helpful or entirely true.

Sciubba, herself a secular academic, shared a quote she heard on a podcast about why Japan has such ultra-low fertility rates that’s stuck with her: “Maybe what we’re seeing is that women are feeling empowered to live the lives they always wanted to live. And that could mean having a fulfilling work life over a life where they stayed home raising children.” 

Certainly, increased educational and economic opportunity for women plays a role in decisions about whether to have children (and how many). But as a mother of two who also maintains a fulfilling career, Sciubba later said she knows it’s not that simple, either. The math of raising children and working well at the same time “doesn’t always work,” she said. “You just do it.” 

As a Christian woman myself with friends who faithfully and joyfully work primarily in the home raising children, I bristle at the idea that fulfillment can only be found in certain forms of employment. But I am also intimately familiar with the struggle of raising three kids — alongside my husband — while we both maintain jobs we enjoy, pursue side projects, and engage in our community and church. 

So much of the fertility choices playing out at a societal level boil down to individual women like me grappling with these issues. And, too often, the church doesn’t provide a framework for faithfully making these difficult choices. 

A growing number of parachurch organizations such as the Denver Institute for Faith & Work, the Center for Faith & Work, and Women & Work are stepping into these gaps to help disciple Christian women as they engage in meaningful work in both their public and private lives. 

For me, working closely with the nonprofit Women & Work has greatly encouraged and equipped me to add deeper roots and more functional branches to my theology of work. The organization exists to help women to see all of their work, in and beyond the home and in various seasons of life, as meaningful to the kingdom of God.

I see in the Creation Mandate (Gen 1:28, 2:15), the Great Commission (Matt 28:16–20), and other passages (Prov 31:10–31, Eph 2:10) a vision for women and men to bear God’s image as they glorify him and flourish in various spheres of life. This gives me a framework to interpret both the good and the hard aspects of all kinds of work in light of the Bible’s themes of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. In the end, that big-picture view better equips me to weather the storms that inevitably come with any kind of both/and approach to life in this world.

Integrated workers

Jenkins writes that, time and again, increased access for women to contraception, education, and employment — to opportunities and options about childbearing — is linked to lower fertility. But that doesn’t mean those opportunities are bad — that the genie should or could go back in the bottle, returning American culture to some sort of Leave It to Beaver, mid-century ideal. 

“For large sections of the population” in low-fertility cultures, Jenkins writes, “founding a family and raising children cease(s) to be the … defining goal of life.” 

But it is still a central desire for many people and an endeavor any society that wants to perpetuate itself should consider a common good. So how could those societies — and the church within them — practically support families?

Braumann, who lives in Germany, said that couples across the world have to make sometimes-impossible calculations around their childbearing choices. In many countries, the dual-income household is not just the norm but a requirement to be able to afford living in or near cities. As rents, mortgages, and rates continue to creep upward, the question, she said, becomes, “How many children can we add to that calculation?”

Rachel Anderson, founder of the Families Valued project at the Center for Public Justice and a resident fellow, wants to see more people who want and have families equipped to support them through policies that serve the common good.

The Creation Mandate, she said, is not just a calling for an individual. “It’s also a vision of a flourishing life that is offered to a whole community.” That vision requires an interdependence between the flourishing of families and the flourishing of communities.

Anderson works out the implications of that mandate in her own life by advocating for policies that would enable more of America’s workers to flourish even as they find ways to care for children or, increasingly, aging parents. That means caring that low-wage jobs are “insufficient to enable workers to build a life for others.” It means encouraging workplaces to be less structured around “ideal workers” who function more like robots than humans and to be more sensitive to needs for regular rest, for health care, and the demands of pregnancy or illness.

She interprets the Creation Mandate as a call to stewardship that encompasses not just our own selves but also “a posture of care for the whole.” 

The pandemic highlighted many of the ways in which the modern workplace falls short of these goals. Nearly 1.8 million women, in particular, left the U.S. workforce during the pandemic as they cared for children or found their work unable to accommodate the changes it ushered in. Many of them have not returned.

Meyer says many workplaces aren’t set up to equip parents to raise children while working or caring for ill loved ones. That’s because, “in America, we haven’t considered the whole person and their integrated callings (and) we haven’t built workplaces or social structures around that.” 

But, in the absence of these systems, perhaps there’s an opportunity for the church to play a greater role. She’d love to see churches not just bringing meals when a new baby is born but also providing affordable, high-quality childcare to their communities, for example. 

“Sometimes, I’ll look at social problems that we’re facing,” Meyer said, “and I’ll say, ‘Wow, here is an opportunity for distinctive kingdom impact.’” 

Perhaps all our childbearing choices are based less on facts than they are on feelings. I still can’t answer the question about why we have the number of kids we have. I know we’ve never quite felt “ready” to welcome another life into this world, or fully assured we’d be able to support each child into adulthood. 

But every time we’ve run headlong into our lack, we’ve also stumbled into God’s providence. There aren’t a whole lot of guarantees in parenting. But having a child has always been an act of faith. 

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