My wife was called for jury duty when she was pregnant with our fourth child. Since her due date was looming, her doctor wrote a letter to the court, asking for an exemption. When I went to the courthouse office to deliver the letter, I was taken aback by how long the line was.
It seemed everyone wanted to get out of jury duty.
When my number was called, I proudly explained my wife's situation to the courthouse clerk. I expected the clerk to coo with delight and maybe wish me mazel tov.
"How can you have four children when the world is overpopulated?" she bellowed instead. "You're a drain on the planet," she said, citing "pollution" and "carbon footprints" and "limited resources."
As I walked away, my wife's exemption safely in hand, I overheard the next woman in line explaining her jury-duty excuse: as a contestant on "The Biggest Loser," she couldn't miss her only chance for reality television fame and fortune.
Not only did she get her exemption, but the same clerk who'd yelled at me insisted on having her picture taken with this future celebrity. Society's priorities have certainly shifted.
At that time, I was working on a book to be called The Case for Children: Why Parenthood Makes Your World Better. Thanks to my research, I could have easily challenged that clerk's misapprehensions about population, pollution and parenting. (I wanted my wife's precious piece of paper too much to risk doing so, however.)
The fact is that throughout the Western world, young men and women are doing everything in their prime reproductive years except reproduce. Close to half the planet (including most of Europe, East Asia and many Central and South American countries) has a fertility rate below the replenishment rate. America is barely at maintenance level, and new census data shows our population growth at its lowest level since the Great Depression.
So what? Many will reply. Won't the planet be better off with fewer people consuming precious natural resources and creating more pollution? Won't an under-populated world be a quieter and calmer place? Wouldn't it be nice to actually be able to find parking in Manhattan?
Demographers call these positive things "demographic dividends." Sure enough, in the early stages of fertility decline, a nation experiences greater prosperity.
However, that dividend is more like a loan that eventually needs to be repaid. Fewer babies mean a smaller workforce at the precise moment the number of now-dependent elders explodes. Who will cover the soaring costs of public pensions and health care? Who will administer those plans and operate on Grandma?
Without a sizable, stable tax base to fund them and a workforce to manage them, many of America's entitlement programs will crumble. After all, they were designed on the assumption that birthrates would remain steady; when the United States instituted its Social Security program, twenty workers were paying into the system for every retiree. Today, the number of workers is two. The retirement age was pegged at 65 because most people in those days only lived to be 67.
The welfare state taken for granted by Europeans has flatlined for precisely these reasons.
Many people claim they can't afford to have children, but if we want to maintain our social safety net and standard of living, we can't afford not to.
Even if you aren't swayed by all the "policy wonk" talk about Social Security's shrinking tax base, consider this: technological, artistic and cultural developments are overwhelmingly spurred on by young people, who are more willing and able to take risks.
Innovation may suffer if we need to tap into our senior population for employees. And not all these seniors can or want to go back to work, anyhow. We hear that "50 is the new 40" and so on, but this trend can't continue forever, and most people think of that in terms of leisure, not employment.
Quite simply: youthful, optimistic innovation, not weary pessimistic resignation, is the very definition of progress.
Back in the 1970s, overpopulation was the global warming of its day. But as a chorus of modern day demographers have pointed out, those experts' doomsday predictions didn't come true. Not only is there enough food to sustain the world's population -- which could theoretically fit comfortably into the state of Texas -- but food prices are declining while distribution has improved exponentially.
Other experts warned that we were running out of coal, oil and other raw materials, yet inevitably, new sources of these fuels were discovered, along with alternatives. Every generation has witnessed human innovators developing new ways to harvest resources and use them more efficiently and cheaply.
We take progress for granted, but we shouldn't. You can't remove an important element (in this case, a new generation of children) from any equation and realistically expect to get the same end result.
It's awfully tempting to drop off a copy of my book about all this to that courthouse clerk, but I figure I should try to stay on her good side, if and when Baby #5 comes along.
About the Author
SIMCHA WEINSTEIN is an internationally known speaker and the best-selling author. He has appeared on CNN and NPR and has been profiled in leading publications, including the New York Times, Miami Herald, and London Guardian. A syndicated columnist, he writes for the Jerusalem Post, JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), the Royal Shakespeare Company, Condé Nast, and many other agencies. He chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at Pratt Institute, the renowned New York art school. He was voted "New York's Hippest Rabbi" by PBS affiliate Channel 13 and recently published his latest book, The Case for Children: Why Parenthood Makes Your World Better.