One of the nightmare visions that has faded away in recent years is the "population explosion." Even in the Third World rates of increase are rapidly slowing down. The danger now lies in the opposite direction. Europe in particular is producing fewer and fewer children, with a high percentage of those who are born coming from immigrant families.
Italy is a sad case. As recently as the 1930s it had one of the world's highest birthrates. This was reflected in Mussolini's plans to colonize Africa and encourage migration to Argentina. Today Italy has one of the lowest birthrates. You can go into villages in northern Italy, whose inhabitants enjoy living standards their grandparents wouldn't have believed possible, and look in vain for children. The Italians are rich in all material things save life.
Germany is just as sterile. In France things are marginally better, but that's almost entirely owing to the country's huge Muslim minority, now making up about 10% of the population.
Last month I spoke with a woman who, a generation ago, conducted a detailed survey of British families. She recently returned to those same families and was dismayed by her findings. Whereas 30 years ago it was common for the families to have two to four children, the same families now had only one or two grandchildren or sometimes none at all. (I have four children and, so far, eight grandchildren. But some of my contemporaries have no grandchildren and little prospect of any.)
DECLINE IN MARRIAGE
Particular groups in society once noted for their philoprogenitive urges seem largely to have stifled them. During my childhood Catholics in Britain often had six to ten children. Now two is more likely.
Around 1900 Jews who had immigrated to Britain and the U.S. from eastern Europe often had huge families, with up to 16 children. Indeed, during this period Ashkenazi Jews probably had the highest birthrate in recorded history. Hollywood, for instance, was largely created by the offspring of such vast immigrant families. Now Jewish communities in America and Britain have birthrates well below the replacement rate, which constitutes a threat to their future.
Why is it that so many intelligent, well-educated, well-to-do people in the West are ceasing to reproduce?
One factor, clearly, is the decline of marriage as an institution. Young people marry later, or not at all. They often cohabit, with the vague intention of marrying "eventually," but don't have children. Then they quarrel and split up. Many a woman thus finds herself childless at 40 and must with the clock ticking start the relationship process over again or give up on the idea of having children.
Nearly everyone knows some horror story of a friend's failed marriage, involving acrimonious custody battles over the children. Why have them? Children are expensive. Whereas, in general, it used to take one income to raise a family, it now takes two. Then there is the claim of career. Whatever the law may provide, and however accommodating companies may be, having children is bound to hamper a woman's climb up the ladder of success.
Governments in Europe occasionally express dismay at low birthrates. But they do little or nothing about it. Indeed, what can they do? As far back as the mid-19th century the French began to worry about their low birthrate. In the 1930s the government introduced family allowances to try, through financial inducements, to persuade married couples to have more children. This device was copied elsewhere in Europe and became part of the welfare state. It doesn't seem to have had much effect anywhere and certainly not in France. Charles de Gaulle, when he was in power, used to boast that he would lay the foundation for "a nation of 100 million French people." That goal remains a fantasy. And if ever the French population hits the 100 million mark, half of it will consist of Muslims of North African origin.
The decline in religious practice may also be a factor. In western Europe many medieval churches and cathedrals are little more than museums. The new pope, Benedict XVI, is said to have chosen for his primary task the re-evangelization of Europe and its eventual repopulation. How he will bring this about I don't know. All the forces of modern society are against him, not least the European Union. In its proposed constitution the role of Christianity in the creation of European civilization was not merely omitted, it was deliberately excluded.
Yet while it is right to be concerned about this subject and discuss it frankly, we must not become despondent over it. We know from experience that demographic projections are notoriously subject to error. Birthrates can go up as well as down. Social fashions change. If there is a perceived "shortage of babies" or of young people entering the market, "an invisible hand," to use Adam Smith's phrase, may come into play. Supply rises to meet demand even in the most intimate aspects of life.
Then again the experience of having children however irksome, expensive, wearying and career-hampering it may be is also thrilling and delightful and full of continually changing fascinations. A child lifts the heart and gives meaning to life. Not to have a family is to deprive yourself of half the joys and interest of existence. These undoubted facts, true throughout the ages, will eventually reassert themselves, and the thrust of nature will return.