Failure to Thrive

‘Tomorrow’s People’
An Orthodox Jewish family walks together at Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel, 2016 (Nancy Anderson/Alamy Stock Photo).

From time immemorial, the human population on Earth has been remarkably stable. Over extended periods and many generations, the number of births almost perfectly equaled the number of deaths. Women bore many children but most were lost before reaching adulthood. Plagues, famines, and infections kept populations in check, and some control over births was exercised through abstinence, breastfeeding, and infanticide.

About three hundred years ago, this all began to change. Plagues became less frequent and less virulent. Sanitation and nutrition improved. And in some small, rural villages in France, toward the end of the eighteenth century, couples began to systematically limit the numbers of children they birthed. We don’t know how they achieved this or why; we know that birth patterns changed in a way that can be explained only by deliberate control.

The reduction in human births and deaths—the “Demographic Revolution”—has touched every community on Earth. The French controlled births before they controlled death and so the French population grew slowly in the nineteenth century. The British brought their births under control a century after the declines in mortality, and in the century in which births outstripped deaths, the British Isles exploded with people who spread out over the empire.

The Demographic Revolution isn’t over. Humans are still in the midst of dramatic reductions in both births and deaths, as Paul Morland explains in Tomorrow’s People. Morland is a senior member of St. Anthony’s College, University of Oxford, and this is his second popular book on demography. He cuts through the complexities by telling a story of the human race in ten numbers: infant mortality, population growth, urbanization, fertility, aging, old age, population decline, ethnic change, education, and food.

Morland shows how different mixes of births and deaths within and between countries are shared through migration, and what that means for the future of nations and states. And although the developed world is fixated on living as long as possible, Morland shows that our future depends not on extending life spans, but on the birth rate, which continues to decline. Group survival is determined by the production of children. At a time of almost perfect birth control, births are no longer determined by biology, but by culture and, particularly, religion—any and all of them—because most religions promulgate the idea that life is worth reproducing. In a world that is dominated by secular values, there is only one developed country birthing enough children to replace its adults. (Have you guessed which? Read on to find out.)

Why do we moderns wish to live forever but not wish to have children? Morland can’t answer this question; no discipline has been able to answer it. But he gives us a view of what happens to countries when its people live ever-longer lives and have ever-fewer children.

Morland’s story begins with death at birth. In Swedish villages two hundred years ago, more than 40 percent of infants died within a month of birth. Who can imagine such loss? And yet this rate of death was typical worldwide. Today, the U.S. infant mortality rate of 5.5 per 1,000 is high compared to Western Europe’s, but that’s half what it was in 1980. Eliminating death at birth has been the largest contributor to quality and quantity of life. Women today everywhere give birth with some confidence that they will survive the birth and that their babies will survive to adulthood.

Why do we moderns wish to live forever but not wish to have children?

When mothers know their children will outlive them, birth rates usually fall. Usually, but not always. In Africa, Morland tells us, couples have large families even though their infants mostly survive to adulthood. High rates of African births in the face of reduced mortality have confounded expectations.  The quantity of children still counts more than the quality of the child’s life, and the religious structures prevalent across Africa support large families—not only because their women are mostly illiterate and poor. In Bangladesh, in contrast to Africa, dramatic drops in birth rates were achieved even while women were illiterate and poor.

African children will make up most of the growth in the human race in the next hundred years. No other continent has enough children to replace the adults. India’s historically high birth rate has fallen to mere replacement level. Even after ending its one-child policy, China is struggling with ultra-low birth rates long experienced in the rest of Asia. Europe has had below-replacement childbearing for a generation and the Americas, including the United States, have arrived there too.

Why is there only one developed country with enough children to replace its adults? A woman in Singapore reveals possible motivations to Morland: “Why bother having kids when a child-free life is so much easier?... All those sleepless nights, dirty mornings, shit and piss everywhere.” Unsurprisingly, Singapore has an average of one child per woman, but it is hardly an outlier. Even countries with pronatalist religions—Italy, Spain, and Greece—are approaching one child per woman.

Two hundred years ago, Morland tells us, the British spread their excess population over Africa and Asia. Now Africans are sending their young adults to the developed world. The rich world relies on immigration from poor countries to keep their lands from emptying. Morland notes that this will bring enormous ethnic changes to the receiving countries. Continuously absorbing people with different outlooks and histories can put a strain on even the best-run countries, but nations without enough births that also cannot absorb outsiders turn into populations of the old and immobile.

In the United States, Morland finds two places with enough children to replace their adults: Utah and South Dakota. This is clearly a result of Mormon teachings that do not forbid contraceptives but that do celebrate large families. It seems that the attitude toward birth control is less important to birth rates than attitudes about “sleepless nights” and “dirty mornings.”

Morland doesn’t dig deeply into the connection between faith and family size. But I have been studying parents of large families of varying faiths for two decades and have found some common themes. “Faith makes you optimistic,” a father of five told me in Atlanta. An English-born mother of four in Jerusalem agreed. “You want to have a family. There are a certain amount of risks—some don’t have even the first! But there’s inner faith that you’ll have the strength to deal with it.”

A mother of eleven in the Midwest puts the high birth rates of the faithful in a larger context: “Because there’s something holy in a life—life is precious,” she says. “We were sharing in creation…. It’s counter-intuitive: this is life, and eleven children is copeable and you can give each love and attention as you would for an only child.” She admits it wasn’t easy. “At the time that I was going through it, there were many times where I wished I wasn’t pregnant again and then I remember thinking: which kid was it I wished wasn’t born? I truly believe that this was part of God’s plan, and I am very grateful for what I went through.”

Throughout human history, what we consider “old age” was a rarity and children were unavoidable. Modern humans think of old age as inevitable and having and raising children as too difficult. The net result, Morland shows, is that our species is growing older and more peaceful, but also more risk-averse and more anxious about child rearing. Our lives are so structured and planned that finding the right spouse and collecting enough resources to raise a child is beyond our means. We are afraid of climate change, pandemics, wars, and inflation. Even though we are the healthiest, most materially rich, longest-lived humans ever, we are increasingly anxious about continuing life.

Among developed countries, Morland identifies one exception to the trend—a nation in which the birth rate is three children per woman despite existential threats and political instability, urban crowding, technological innovation, and rapidly increasing wealth, a nation whose two major religions are equally enthusiastic about children. That country is Israel. It may be an oddity, but political scientist and demographer Eric Kaufmann (a mentor to Morland) thinks Israel may be a harbinger of a world in which child-centered cultures prevail.

One British mother of five I interviewed who raised children in both England and Israel was able to compare the two countries’ attitudes. She said that in Israel “the whole social structure is geared to families…there’s a much more vigorous, active approach to families rather than fitting them in where career comes first. It doesn’t mean time is different in reality, but certainly the approach may be.”  

The humanity that Morland describes, aging and failing to reproduce, brings to mind the letter Jeremiah wrote to the exiles, who were also apparently failing to thrive:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.… Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord (Jeremiah 29:5–9).   

Morland makes a persuasive case that those who will inherit the Earth are not the fittest of us, but the ones who have the courage and faith to keep having children. The risks have always been there. Only now we have the hubris to believe we can eliminate them. Our anxieties are today’s false prophets. There is no greater risk to us as a group than the failure to have children, but there needs to be some reason for individuals to take on the “sleepless nights” and “dirty mornings.” So far, only religion has provided those reasons, beginning with a blessing: “Be fruitful and multiply.” 

Tomorrow’s People
The Future of Humanity in Ten Numbers

Paul Morland
Picador
$28 | 304 pp.

Published in the November 2022 issue: 

Viva Hammer, formerly of the Joint Committee on Taxation in the U.S. Congress, is currently at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute of Brandeis University, where she is completing a book, Child Desire: Large Families in a Small Family World.

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