In two prior posts, reasons for long-term fertility declines among middle-class Americans were disussed.
The graph above (Fertility and abortion rates in the United States, 1960–2002. Hamilton, Brady E.; Ventura, Stephanie J. International Journal of Andrology, Feb 2006, Vol. 29 Issue 1, p34-45) shows overall fertility trends since 1930.
First, the large 1940-1958 increase corresponds with the prosperity of the period. After years of hardship, Americans didn't simply turn into mega-consumers like crazy when times turned for the better: following where the country was at culturally, they devoted a lot of their abundance on large families. Still, the pattern points to an economic as well as a cultural explanation.
But what about the subsequent fertility collapse of the 1960s? That was also a prosperous period, but the birth rate dropped by half. An obvious candidate is the pill: it gave couples the control over pregnancies, but why choose fewer when the money is so good?
In my view, an important part of the story was growing consumerism. The Boob Tube entered the scene, and Americans developed a real taste for stuff. Couples didn't just want a house, they wanted a huge one in the suburbs. They didn't just want a car; they wanted a Cadillac.
People bought like crazy, but soon realized that Dad's paycheck--large though it was--was not big enough. The service economy was growing, and it seduced more and more married women with better and better wages. Education is necessary for some jobs, so young girls turned increasingly to school and then the workplace, and something had to give. So family size dropped from 3 or 4 to 1 or 2. The graph shows us a bottoming out in the early 70s, and we've basically been there since.
All this happened before the economic turning point of 1973--the oil shock. So, at most, the subsequent loss of middle-income jobs, etc., can only help explain why fertility stayed down, not what caused the collapse in the first place.
Now, you might counter that my consumerism argument is an economic one and so supports economic determinism. While the changing of American values, standards, and tastes is certainly related to the marketplace, it is nevertheless cultural. Those three items I just mentioned--values, standards, and tastes--are cultural and have been manipulated by cultural elites. Madison Avenue being at the top of the list.
A standard comment among middle-class folks is that you just can't afford kids now. But people are "kidding" themselves. What they are really saying is that you have to live a little more like Grandpa did to have a large family, and consumption is simply more important.
Madison Avenue saw you comin'.
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