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A Closer Look at What's Behind Birthrate Decline Scares

02/08/2013 11:50 am ET | Updated Apr 10, 2013

After seeing Jonathan Last in the media this week talking about his new book, What to Expect When No One Is Expecting, if you find yourself being swayed by his reasons why we need to have to more babies to sustain our economic success, as Loretta (Cher) says to Ronnie (Nicolas Cage) in the movie, Moonstruck -- snap out of it!

What's at work here? A dimension of what I call "the baby matrix."

At the heart of the baby matrix is a set of beliefs called pronatalism, which exalts fertility. Its influence goes back a long time to when societies needed to grow their populations to survive. To ensure population growth, those in power devised social messaging that romanticized reproduction, created laws to reward it and promote the idea that having children was one's duty to society.

But here we are today, according to John Seager, president of Population Connection, with the world seeing a net gain of about 8,000 babies born per hour, 200,000 per day and 80 million annually. And in the U.S., "we're expected to cross the 400 million mark" in just 37 years.

With these kinds of numbers, why do folks like Last continue to use age-old pronatalist thinking to try and influence us to bring even more babies into the world?

Because since its beginning, pronatalism has served the agendas of power structures like church, state and industry -- not individuals. And Last's concerns come straight through the state and industry pronatalist lens. We need more "future tax payers" (aka children) to continue to foster our economic dominance. And as Amanda Marcotte puts it in her Slate piece, women as baby maker "cogs in our country's economic machine" are key to what Last describes as the "sustainability of human capital" (aka people). More new "human capital" breeds more capitalism, which breeds more power to those in power.

Like the characters in the movie, The Matrix, we need to unravel what we've been taught to believe versus what is real, in this case about reproduction in our society today. According to Last, economic doom and gloom caused by fertility decline could be avoided as long as each baby maker has at least two children. Anything below that, our prosperity machine is in trouble.

But Seager gets at what's real. In the mid-1970s (when the use of the Pill was on a dramatic rise), "America's total fertility rate was at its lowest, at 1.74 births per woman. It inched back up in the following three decades and has only recently declined again, to about 1.9 in 2011," in a very challenging economic time. As the economy continues to strengthen, Seager predicts those rates will likely tick up again.

What we're to believe versus what is real also relates to this new call for our baby-making reproductive duty to society. As Seager writes, rather than shaming Americans into having more children, to "embrace a stronger American future," we need to better invest in the children we already have. Instead of pushing more new babies, we need to solve problems, like the "16 million American children who live below the poverty line," the "17 million American children who suffer from food insecurity," the thousands who are foster children and the children who suffer from the effects of unfit parenting, including the child that is abused or neglected every 13 seconds in this country.

And the environment? Matrix: Last would have us believe that the more people, the more innovation, which will spur environmental conservation. And besides, our environmental situation is better now than it was in the '70s, when there were fewer pollution regulations.

Truth: More babies equal more carbon. More carbon means more climate change.

Last does speak a truth about historical messaging about having babies. It has been an "aspirational behavior." People have had babies because they have been led to believe the myth that it makes for true success in life, and is the only real way to fulfill the human experience of extending beyond oneself.

It's time to redefine aspirational behavior, starting with finding answers to how we can sustain economic success in today's society given the current demographics and people's decisions to have fewer (or no) children.

To figure this out, we need to see past pronatalist influence, and begin to envision a "post" pronatal society, one that looks to solutions that see people as more than cogs in a capitalist machine.