Depopulation Bomb

A crisis in Western birthrates?

Long before I took a professional interest in demography I had noticed a puzzle in the history of my family. Why was it that my wife Sidney and I, born in the 1930s, had seven children (one of whom died) while the families of my father and mother, serious Catholics but born at the turn of the twentieth century, had far fewer? My father’s siblings, ten in all, procreated only seven children from nine marriages, and my mother had just two siblings. She herself had just two children, my brother and I, born in the early 1930s.

I soon gained some demographic insight into that puzzle. Those procreating during the depression years of the 1920s and ’30s had a much reduced birthrate, while my wife and I, living in the more affluent 1950s and ’60s, were among the prolific source of the baby boomers. The average number of children for women born in 1933, my wife’s birth year, was 3.8, a record for the twentieth century. That postwar baby-boom era is now seen by demographers as a surprising and temporary event, interrupting a long historical decline in birthrates. And times have indeed changed: only three of our six children (aged forty to fifty) are married, and we have just four grandchildren. Few middle-class couples these days have even three children, and it seems positively heroic to have four. Younger couples tend to gasp when I mention the number six.

With the exception of the United States,...

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About the Author

Daniel Callahan, a former Commonweal editor, is president emeritus of the Hastings Center and the author of What Price Better Health: Hazards of the Research Imperative.