Why People Used to Have Children

Sister Y:

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been characterized by a massive decline in fertility, beginning in rich Western countries and spreading all over the world. It is a transformation that is still underway in poor countries today.

Technological advances have, over the same period, radically decreased child mortality and increased life span. Modern parents need not have many children to ensure that one or two survive; almost all children survive to reproductive age. But Darwinian genetic interests cannot explain the modern decline in fertility (if Darwinian interests dominated, fertility should increase with increased survival, as observed in many historical elites). Rather, the fertility decline to present levels is mostly an economic response to the changing value of children, and to the changing economic relationship of parents and children. The economic transformation is not spontaneous, but the product of cultural transformation through education.

The economic value of children has decreased, but this is not the most important cause of the fertility decline. The transformation of countries from predominantly agricultural to predominantly urban reduced the value of children, especially where the industrial employment of children was restricted. Each child’s labor contributed positive value to a family farm or cottage industry, but in an urban setting, children began to have negative economic value. Indeed, the fertility decline correlates somewhat – though not perfectly – with the transformation from agrarian to city life.

But the fertility decline is not merely the product of a price effect – of people having fewer children because children are more costly. Children are not normal goods (or even inferior goods, as might be surmised from low fertility among the highest income groups): they become not goods at all, but rather bundles of claims on their parents. This transformation is a culturally-controlled change in direction of the flow of resources. Before the fertility decline, resources flowed from children to parents (and even up to grandparents and kin); after the transformation, resources flowed from parents to children. In Mass Education as a Determinant of the Timing of the Fertility Decline, John Caldwell argues that the vector of this cultural transformation has been mass education. He characterizes it as the replacement of “family morality,” in which children are expected to “work hard, demand little, and respect the authority of the old,” with “community morality,” in which children are dependent on their parents to become future productive citizens (perhaps even upwardly mobile) for the good of the country.