In Praise of Children

December 30, 2010 07:36

Rediscovering the importance of children will also require reawakening a sense of self-reliance and lessening our dependence upon government as a de facto parent and caregiver. We could also do worse than to rekindle the idea of having children as a necessary social good – an unselfish act that perpetuates our civilization.

By Pete Farmer

According to an Associated Press story by Dave Carpenter (click here to read it) “baby boomers near 65 with retirements in jeopardy” – the first wave of “Boomers” – will turn 65 years of age in January and thereby begin collecting social security benefits for the first time. The same story notes that these individuals face an uncertain future with “retirement security” in doubt. The worst economy since the Great Depression has done nothing to ease these fears, nor has an administration whose outlook is – to be charitable – slanted against the needs of the elderly and middle-aged. These factors have placed Boomers in a position to which they are unaccustomed – one of scarcity and hardship.

What is the crux of the problem? Why are the baby boomers and their counterparts abroad in such dire straights? A single word sums up the problem: demography. The huge generational cohort born in the prosperous aftermath of World War Two – now entering late middle and early old age and raised upon a steady diet of environmentalism, the benefits (real or imagined) of zero population growth, and feminist post-modernism – has declined to replace itself in self-sustaining numbers. In consequence, they are about to relearn a great truth – that demographics do indeed matter. Phrased differently and quite aptly by Mark Steyn, the future belongs to those who show up. The decision not to have children, or to have fewer of them may mean a more pleasant and less-demanding lifestyle in the short term, but across a society or a civilization, if enough people remain childless, it must eventually have dire consequences in the longer term. One of those consequences is that there will be proportionately fewer younger workers to support and care for their aging predecessors.

U.S. citizens are not the only ones affected by the unfolding problems of demography. The coming age wave has yet to break full-force upon the developing world, but it is drawing nearer, and its effects are already being felt in places as disparate as Russia, Portugal, and Japan. Policy-makers are belatedly waking up to the link between the problems of aging and population replacement rates. Vladimir Putin, alarmed at Russia’s declining birth rate, has instituted a bonus of 250,000 rubles (approximately $9,200 USD) for women who elect to have a second child. Portuguese Prime Minister José Sócrates, whose nation also faces a declining birth rate and looming pension reform, has tied future pension benefits to the number of children a worker bears. In Japan, the situation is worrisome, as that nation’s people have life expectancies among the highest in the world, and a precipitously falling rate of birth. Faced with a potential shortage of caregivers for a graying population, Japanese technologists have invented Wakamaru, the world’s first robotic elder-care companion. Marvelous, yes, but also sad that such a device is necessary.

In addition to inadequate population replacement and increasing numbers of gray-haired citizens, many nations of the developed world have enacted social benefits programs that cannot be sustained by current demographic trends. This is particularly true in Europe and Japan, whose nations have benefited from a half century of living under the defensive umbrella of the United States and thereby grown accustomed to lavish cradle-to-grave social welfare programs which are now bankrupting their governments. The recent Greek solvency crisis is one example of such a scenario, but there will be others.

Although U.S. birthrates are better than many of their foreign counterparts, America will soon face many of the same problems other developed nations do: inadequate population replacement, inadequate economic growth to sustain promised social welfare benefits, and disproportionate numbers of elderly or middle-aged people. The unfolding entitlements crisis is just now beginning to hit in selected areas of the U.S., as local and state governments search in vain for the means to make good on their economic promises but increasingly come up empty. The author’s home state of Illinois has run up $89 billion in unfunded pension liabilities; some experts put the real figure closer to $200 billion. How can the state possibly make good on these promises, without killing the goose which lays the golden egg – namely the private sector? And as the screws of economic hardship tighten, couples of childbearing age are even less likely to have offspring. A vicious negative feedback loop ensues.

Clearly, a massive readjustment of expectations is in order – from how we view everything from work and retirement to public spending and finance, and much more. But it is also essential that we rediscover the virtues of more children and larger families, and enact policies that favor them. For most of human history, it was axiomatic that large families were a good thing; not all children survived to adulthood, and since offspring were needed to help out on the farm and in the home, that meant siring large families. Post-modern America would do well to rediscover the virtues of children, while there is still time to do so. That means revisiting contentious questions on divorce, family law, feminism, the nature of community and family, and a host of other topics. Rediscovering the importance of children will also require reawakening a sense of self-reliance and lessening our dependence upon government as a de facto parent and caregiver. We could also do worse than to rekindle the idea of having children as a necessary social good – an unselfish act that perpetuates our civilization.

Reviving the idea of having large families will have many beneficial second- and third-order benefits. Among these will be the rebalancing of the number of younger versus older workers, as well as increasing the number of young people who will be present to ease the aches and pains which invariably attend the process of aging. Promoting larger families and more children will also lessen the economic drain imposed by the elderly and aging on medical and social services and put a larger cohort of taxpayers in the pipeline. Perhaps it is too much to hope that the old model of the multigenerational family will return in this day-and-age, but if some variant of it comes back, it would do much to ease the coming crisis in eldercare we will soon face. And few of us would argue that growing old in a warehouse for the elderly is preferable to being at home, among loved ones.

So, if you and yours are worried about the graying of America or the unfolding fiscal and financial crises in the news, here is a modest proposal: promote children and the families that raise them. The community – and civilization – you save might very well be your own.

Pete Farmer is a scientist with a BS and MS in biochemistry, and is also a registered nurse. Please email your comments to

The CJS Forum seeks to promote an open exchange of ideas about the relationship between faith, culture, law and public policy. While all the articles are original and written especially for the CJS Forum, they do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for a Just Society.

By Pete Farmer | Posted in CJS Forum, Featured Post | Dec-29-2010

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