Is Population Decline Our Golden Ticket?

If Individuals Have Stop Investing in the Future of the Human Race, Society May Just Have to Pick Up the Tab; Gender Equality Would Be Better Off For It

In today’s Sunday print edition of the New York Times, there is an article that we should all read - carefully and deeply - about the looming global population bust. Global fertility is on the decline.

Of particular note are two opposing demographic phenomenon spurred by the pandemic. First, older people have disproportionately died causing a kink in life expectancy. Second, they are less likely to be replaced by births as the pandemic has halted the rate of pregnancies/births. Births are plummeting partly because there was very little risky fortification going on during the pandemic and, as such, a reduction in unexpected pregnancies. In addition, those making intentional decisions to procreate were hesitant to bring a new baby into a pandemic world. Why? Going to the hospital during a once in a century pandemic seemed questionable (read: risky), and our individual (and collective) economic stability seemed, well, shaky. Intentional pregnancies are more likely to happen when people believe they are on solid footing economically (and otherwise) to raise a child.

What does all this mean for gender equality? As I and others have argued and shown, gender inequality is stubborn. We’ve slowly moved the dial by attacking low hanging fruit over the years. Women’s educational attainment has increased and women have slowly moved into more traditionally male (and higher paid) jobs, including leadership positions. These days most companies are very much aware of promoting and advancing women. With increased education and an increased awareness of business leaders of conscious and unconscious bias, women no longer get completely trapped at the point of entry due to these factors. However, even today, women still only make $0.82 to each dollar made by a man.

This rut we are stuck in, shifting under a shaky pandemic ground, is unlikely to move any further UNLESS…

…UNLESS we start making working life feasible for women by reducing the heavy burden of unpaid domestic labor at home. Nancy Folbre, Claudia Goldin, Eve Rodsky, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Sheryl Sandberg, and many, many others have spent time and careers brilliantly describing the heavy toll women face at home and in the invisible care sector that unequally hinders women’s ability to engage in paid work. This issue covered recently in a New York Times article articulating research by Allison Daminger describing the mental load women carry around.

Because society has ignored this issue for so long, today women (and men) with increasing levels of education are giving a big fat f$%# you to having children and raising a family - the cost too high. Women in particular see the struggle and are not interested in rolling the dice and playing a game that heavily disadvantages their economic future and driving ambition outside the home. They see society unwilling to step in to fix what is a huge disadvantage for them and would rather, perhaps, sit in their comfy corner office basking in the glory of independence.

So, society, I give you this. If we care about the extinction of the human race, then, perhaps, we’d better care about gender inequality. Maybe, as has recently been argued (although I do not agree), investing in childcare will not bring back lots of employees to all the hot jobs open today, but it WILL be essential if (1) we want women (and men) with children to work, and (2) we want childless working women (and men) to continue having babies.

Perhaps if society is not willing to provide more social investments in the care economy to help families (and women) succeed outside the home, it is willing to provide these investments for the legacy and continuation of the human race.