What Our Baby Bust Says About Modern America

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How could America shift so babies were more welcomed, less dreaded?

Tim Carney, author of the new book “Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be,” has a few ideas. He’d like to see corporations offer parents their child’s birthday off every year. He wants parents to not work so hard at parenting–and to never, ever, sign up their kids for a travel sports team. He’d like to see local governments prioritize sidewalks and denser housing, which would make neighborhoods safer for kids.

But he also wants us to think about why we have a falling birth rate–and what it says about us. After World War II, America had a baby boom, while Germany experienced a baby bust. Now, we’re struggling with our own baby bust, even as we are hammered by relentless discussions of America’s failures, the threat of climate change, and more. “The spirit of the age now is what I call civilizational sadness,” says Carney. “And the sadness is a belief that we’re just not good or that humans were a mistake.”

Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation on “The Daily Signal Podcast.”

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Katrina Trinko: Joining me today is Tim Carney, author of the new book “Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be.” Tim is also a senior columnist for the Washington Examiner and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Tim, thanks for joining the show today.

Let’s start with the book subtitle. How did our culture make raising kids harder?

Tim Carney: In all sorts of ways. For one, it made parenting culture way too intense and we’ve replaced, you know, local Little League where the dads are all volunteers with intensive expensive travel sports.

We’ve created these expectations and norms that parents are supposed to helicopter their child at every moment to make sure little Connor never skins his knee.

We also have a mating and dating culture which is dysfunctional. I think a lot of that stems from the apps, a lot of it stems from problems with not just modern feminism, but the idea of the individual as this sort of super-autonomous bundle of rights and … commitment infringes on our autonomy.

Also, the values of our culture are more individualistic and we don’t think that it’s the job of society to support families, but it is and it should be. That’s definitely something we should talk about today. And ultimately, our culture teaches us that we’re not good, that humans were a mistake—as I put it. And that’s obviously not going to encourage people to start families.

Trinko: You talk in your book about lazy parenting. And I don’t have kids myself, but I was like, man, if I do have kids, this sounds great. So unpack what is lazy parenting, is it just you do nothing or is it a little bit more complex than that?

Carney: No. But the question you’re asking, when you’re thinking, “How am I going to spend my time? How should my kids spend their time?” shouldn’t be a constant question of, “How can I maximize the enrichment for my child and and get them ahead?”

So, one thing, one example I discuss in my book is how when we moved from Maryland to Virginia, for that first school year we had a fifth grader and a first grader in the same school that was walking distance from our house, but then my wife would have to drive and pick up the other, the older kids.

And so there would be a period of time—well, first of all, the fifth grader … was walking the kindergartener to and from school every day. And they’re in their Catholic school uniforms and so of course that’s the cutest thing in the world. So that’s good for your neighborhood.

But also, then, when they got home, she—the older one—would make a snack. They would sit and read together. And the time they spent, it made my fifth grader who has a learning disability, made her a better reader. … She’s a middle sister so it made her adopt more big-sister attitudes.

None of this was, like, preparing her for AP courses. None of this was athletic. None of this was training her in anything. It was just really nice time with her little sister. And that was the right way to do it and it didn’t involve us at all. So we could have put her in tutoring, we could have put her in some intensive sport, but we thought you hanging out with your little sister is the right thing to do here, similarly with running around the neighborhood.

And I spend a lot of time, actually, on walkability—which a lot of people think of as a liberal issue—but kid walkability, kid bikeability.

Our kids don’t have as much freedom as we would want for them to walk and bike the neighborhood in part because we don’t have a sidewalk. Part because other kids, other families aren’t sending their kids out to walk and bike the neighborhood.

But that’s another way where mom and dad get to sit at home, have a drink on the front porch while the kids might be five blocks away. And that’s good for the kids and good for the parents.

Trinko: You talk a lot, and you address this a little bit in your first answer, about all the different areas in which our culture, our policies, our economics are unfriendly to kids. If a fairy showed up and it was like, “Hey, you’ve got one wish, Tim,” what policy or change would you do to improve America’s birth rate, what is the most urgent thing?

Carney: My jokey answer is I would outlaw travel team sports and everybody would just play in the local rec league—from the guy who’s a future major leaguer, down to the kid who you’re a little worried the baseball is going to break his glasses. They would all play on the same local rec league.

But the actual policy, if some mayor called me or any lawmaker and said, “What policy could we implement and it would help make parenting less stressful, children less anxious, the birth rate rebound?” I would probably go to the mayor’s and I would say, again, “Sidewalks, bike trails, crosswalks, playgrounds. Make every neighborhood where parents might live as walkable, bikeable for kids as possible to let kids roam free. And allow for more family homes to be built.”

You know, duplexes for a starter home, modest single-family homes. They don’t need a big backyard. A front yard, front porch is probably better, more community-oriented, which is exactly what parents need. So in some ways that infrastructure of parenthood is the most acute policy question that I write about in “Family Unfriendly.”

Trinko: So, you just mentioned travel teams. Let’s say that a parent is told little Connor has got a real shot at being an MLB player, and this isn’t completely crazy talk. And they’re told, in order to do that, Connor has to be on one of these fancy travel teams, they’ve got to give up their lives, yada yada. Does research bear out that there is a real conflict between excellence and lazy parenting?

Carney: That’s a good way of asking. So, I’ll answer your question directly after addressing it indirectly.

The first thing I would say is, your kid probably isn’t going to be a professional at any sport. The best kids, especially if we’re talking about age 10 and 11, when they start specializing, those kids often aren’t the best kids even by age 14 or 15. It just has to do with when your growth spurt is.

I changed the names of the kids in the book. This one kid I call Ricky, his dad, we met to talk about something else and when he saw me working on my book, he said, “Oh, I fell into the travel team trap hard.” And it’s because his son just had a growth spurt ahead of the other kids. “Oh, Ricky’s going to be great. Da da da.”

So now Ricky’s playing baseball 10 months out of the year. He’s driving down to North Carolina from Northern Virginia for baseball tournaments and it eats up his whole life and makes him hate it.

So you put your kid into a travel sport, there are a few possible upsides. A) they might get much better, professional coaching, much better fields, better competition. All of that stuff.

The downsides are they really might grow to hate the sport sooner. They might get injured because if they’re specializing, if they’re giving up stuff like playing pickup basketball or being on the soccer team or going for hikes on the weekend or just riding their bikes around the neighborhood, they’re doing repeated stress on particular joints and on particular muscles.

But the saddest part for me of the travel team trap was the sort of psychological harm to kids. They actually have a lower estimation of their own value and skill as athletes because they get exposed to the best athletes on the whole East Coast or the whole state of California and suddenly they realize, “Wait. I’ve dedicated my whole life to this one thing and I’m not even the one-hundredth best at my position in my age group in my state.”

And so those are the reasons not to do it.

If your goal as a parent was really to get your kid into Major League Baseball, well, yeah, you would probably pay the thousand dollars a year, a season for this coach. But also, you would let your kid do other stuff, cross-training.

My friend, who I quote in the book, Pete Zoccolillo, who played a few months in the major leagues, he said he really has to tell these kids’ parents you can’t do baseball 12 months out of the year. A) you need rest, B) you need something else. And he has to talk the parents out of that.

So if for some reason, and you shouldn’t do this, but if for some reason you decided your job as a parent was to get your kid into the major leagues, you wouldn’t specialize. …

Part of the reason I call it a trap—my wife and I, we have six kids, we are not going to do travel sports, no matter what. We accidentally did and that’s where Chapter 1 begins. But we just can’t do it.

Does our son suffer a little bit because he’s now on the bench instead of starting and the kids who are starting include kids who do this year-round with thousands of dollars? Yeah, you could say he suffers a little. And that’s one of the worst parts.

The real worst part is the kids who are told, “Oh, well, you’re kind of shirking. You spend fall just hanging around the parking lot, just walking in the woods and catching snakes with your bare hands. You should spend fall also playing baseball.” No. Your childhood should be expansive.

Trinko: Yeah, that makes sense to me. I think some of my best childhood memories were just hanging out in the backyard, not doing anything and yet having a wonderful time. I think it’s sad to me when I see how scheduled kids are nowadays.

So you mentioned you have six kids. It cracked me up during the book that you talked about, I think you had your first kid in 2006 when Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, a few other celebrities had it. And you said there was a baby boomlet in that time but that did not really pan out. So what has happened to our birth rate in the past two decades and is this definitely something we should be worried about or is it just people are marrying and having kids older?

Carney: It is definitely something we should be worried about. The most common birth rate statistic you’ll hear is a number called the total fertility rate, which can confuse people because it doesn’t have to do with biological fertility, it’s actual births that happen.

And 2.1—it’s births per woman and it’s modeled to sort of take into account a woman’s whole life. 2.1 is what demographers call the replacement rate. That is if a population that was closed off to immigration, immigration was 2.1, in the long run it would maintain its population. Below that it would shrink, above that it would grow.

So the birth rate was just above replacement in those years, 2006 and 2007, when Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise and I were were having babies. And since then it’s been falling steadily. The number of babies born has fallen steadily since 2007.

At first people thought it was a Great Recession but then it kept going. And it was much lower in the last few years, before and after the pandemic it was still much lower than it was during the recession.

One of the consequences of this is we have fewer children today than we did a decade ago. Soon we will have a falling working-age population. So just economically that’s going to be a problem. More retirees than ever, fewer workers than in the past, that’s a problem. …

Ten, 12 years ago, Jonathan Last wrote a book called “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting” and some of the response to that was, OK, yes, we have falling birth rates, but that’s just a statistical anomaly. What’s really happening is people are getting married later. Their marriages are thus stronger. They’re starting marriages, they’re starting their families when their careers are stronger and therefore they still get the two to three kids that they want and they’re more economically stable and more mature. I called that the “Happy Planning Story” and the last 10 years have blown that up.

A lot of Gen X people aged out wanting kids, never got kids. A lot of millennials have said, “I want kids but I don’t think I’m ever going to get them.” And now, increasingly, Gen Z is saying, “We don’t want kids.”

So that “Happy Planning Story” fell apart. So we really are going to have a shrinking working-age population. Elementary schools are already shuttering. High schools are feeling it. Now colleges are bracing for it. … Right now, next year will be the peak in high school graduates and then it will go down every year for the foreseeable future. The number of potential college kids will go down.

Beyond the economic, I think there’s real moral and social harms because I think kids make people happy. In fact, I cite a lot of studies about having kids around making people happy.

And then I think I should have just filmed, had my daughter wear a GoPro as she was walking her little sister to school and showed how even these like sort of mean old ladies around the block, when they see these two girls walking together, they can’t help but smile.

I remember seeing this one woman who I called the Ice Queen, like, literally melt on Halloween. I mean, not literally, almost literally melt on Halloween when she saw my daughter dressed up as an orca.

So … we are worse off when we don’t think about the future.

… There was once this commercial I remember seeing about, like, if you were being spied on at all times by the public, would you behave better? Would you be less likely to drink milk from the carton? Would you be less likely to curse at people? Would you be less selfish? Then they’re like, it’s kind of what having kids is like. So kids make us be better people. They make us aspire to be better people, both our kids and other people’s kids around us.

Trinko: You mentioned people smiling at your daughters, who sound very cute. I have a sister who lives in Spain, she’s got a little baby. And Spain is one of those countries where there’s not a lot of kids. And she talks about how she and my niece, there’s so much excitement and joy at seeing her.

But I wanted to bring up Europe more generally because in the book, you look at some of these countries that gave quite a bit, whether through day care or other subsidies, to people who chose to have kids. And this is a big policy discussion of both Left and Right now, is government intervention the answer? And what does the data show from these countries that have really intervened to try to increase fertility?

Carney: Now, I want to be careful because what we haven’t had is a lot of clear-cut experiments. It would probably be kind of cruel to conduct experiments on parents and that sort of thing. But we do have a lot of observational data, some quasi-experiments out there. And here’s a general thing that I found, government can nudge upward the birth rate by spending a ton of money and just giving it directly to parents.

So the the caveats around that—subsidizing child care doesn’t work in the long run. In the short run, if somebody wants kids and is putting it off, subsidizing child care can allow them to speed it up, but it doesn’t reduce the number of people who are falling short of their family size desire.

And in the long run, I think it changes the culture and the culture’s values by emphasizing work because subsidizing child care is subsidizing work. It’s saying, “Oh, the problem here is that work competes with family. So we’re going to take the family stuff off your plate and allow you to focus all your time on work.” So, again, that shifts the culture.

We’ve seen this happen. Polls of the values of people in Northern Europe have become steadily less pro-family and more workist, careerist in the last decade as these supposedly pro-family policies of subsidizing child care have gone into effect.

Giving lots of money to people—I argue in the book and I wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed about this a few weeks ago that a child tax credit that the U.S. has right now is a simple fairness measure. If you got rid of a $2,000 child tax credit, it would be discriminating against families, it would be counting children as non-humans. But if you double it or triple it, what happens? Again, there are some things that are kind of like studies in this regard and they show that it does drive up the birth rate. It also can discourage marriage.

France spends a ton. One of the things that they do is they pay what’s basically a stay-at-home mom benefit. They call it maternity leave. But if you have three kids over a six-year stretch you can stay at home for basically four of those six years and get paid by the government to do it.

That might actually be one of the best ways to drive up the birth rate because it increases stay-at-home moms and stay-at-home moms are good for community. But I would say, not if what you mean by stay-at-home mom is a single, unwed mother who isn’t working. Then her children grow up without the example of a working parent and that’s a whole welfare problem in the United States, right? That’s what intergenerational poverty is.

So if somebody wanted to—and Hungary is trying this and they haven’t shown great success—but if somebody wanted to say, “We will subsidize one stay-at-home parent among married families,” that might be the most effective way to do it because one of the things I argue in the book is that stay-at-home moms and stay-at-home dads are good for communities and particularly they’re good for building that village. Remember, it takes a village, they are important to that.

Trinko: You also talked in the book about one country, Georgia, that did have some success not using a fiscal method. Could you outline what happened there?

Carney: Georgia—I don’t know if it’s nearly all the population but a huge portion of the population belongs to the Eastern Orthodox Church. And it’s a very national church. There is a patriarch for the nation of Georgia for the church and he announced at one point, looking at the low birth rates, “If a couple has three kids, I will baptize their third child and their fourth and their fifth and however many they have after that.”

That not only preceded an uptick in the birth rate, it specifically preceded and it only seemed to cause an uptick in the birth rate among married people and it increased, really, their third, fourth, fifth kid.

So all the evidence suggests that if you have a very popular, national religious leader who would do the baptisms, that could drive it. But I don’t think that person exists in the United States. I mean, it’s not going to be Joel Osteen, it’s not going to be Pope Francis.

Again, a huge portion of the book is on religion. Religion is definitely central to this story. The secularization of the United States and Europe is driving down the birth rate and I think driving up the childhood anxiety. Individuals who go to church regularly or synagogue or mosque, they do have more babies than Americans who do not.

Trinko: Well, maybe we need Father Mike Schmitz to start offering baptisms for third and fourth. But no, I thought that was very interesting and how that was, yeah, a cultural thing, a religious thing.

And you also talk in the book quite a bit about what corporations could do, what employees could do to set a good example. And then how work itself and our values of it are affecting this whole larger conversation and decisions.

Could you unpack that a little bit? I thought especially interesting was your idea that every employee should get their kids’ birthdays off, which I was like, shoot, you’d rack up an extra six days there.

Carney: Yeah, so, I’ll start with that, what you’re sort of pointing out there. It wouldn’t be totally fair and by some measures it wouldn’t be totally equal to institute the pro-family policies I’m talking about. But it would be taking a side, the pro-family side. So you could argue by the current definition of equity in DEI that equity is not treating everybody equally but accommodating some things. …

You know if Seth Mandel, who is our magazine editor at the Washington Examiner, … nobody would ever expect him to work late on a Friday night because he had to be home to observe the Sabbath.

So there’s all these things where you sort of can decide, “OK, faith and family are the most important things and we’re going to accommodate them more. We’re going to say your family is more important than your job and we’re going to show that we mean it with some of these things.” So I said, “You know, your kid’s birthday should be a day off.” And then after I wrote that I had to start doing it, but I’m burning vacation days to do it.

I also say, hey, there’s this thing called the SNOO, which didn’t exist when I was having babies. It’s this magic rocking bassinette that puts your kids to sleep. Because the hardest part of each subsequent child for us was the period when you’re not sleeping because a baby’s not sleeping through the night and this apparently addresses it and it’s super expensive. So some people buy it and then try to resell it. Some people lease it. Some people buy a used one.

And I said that sort of thing, that’s super useful for about four or five months and then would just take up space, and you paid for it, that’s a sharing economy thing. Heritage Foundation, AEI, they should go out and they should buy like two or three of these and then loan them out to new parents.

And paternity leave, I say I should be allowed to use that any time in my first my child’s first 18 years because with my subsequent children, yeah, I really was just hanging out with the older kids and not with the baby because our dynamic is my wife really takes care of the baby. And I take care of her and the other kids when we have a newborn. But some people are giving out 20 weeks, what if I got to take some of those weeks on his 12th birthday to go on an awesome camping trip? That would be amazing and that would also build loyalty for employees who say, “OK, I’m here. I know that at any point in the next 12 years I can take off a week with my kids. I’m going to do that.”

Trinko: To be clear, by the way, I think that, yes, someone like you, a father of six, might get more days off than someone like me or doesn’t have kids. But I also realize your kids are paying my Social Security in the future.

Carney: Yes.

Trinko: So there’s some farther-looking equality here.

At the end of the book, you talk about how the United States had a baby boom after World War II, but you look at how Germany had the opposite. They had a baby bust. And you connect that to what’s going on in the United States. Now, can you unpack that a little bit?

Carney: So, yeah, this is the end of the book because I do try to build up to something more, I mean, you could call it spiritual. It’s not not specifically religious, but the the spirit of the age. And the spirit of the age now is what I call civilizational sadness. And the sadness is a belief that we’re just not good or that humans were a mistake.

The U.S. manifests itself primarily in discussion of of climate and pollution. But secondarily, in discussion of we’re fundamentally a racist nation, where we are a colonialist settler nation. And just trying to drive home this idea that people are bad, people were a mistake, or we particularly as Americans are bad. Or if you’re a white American, you’re irreparably racist. And if you’re a black American, you will always be the victim of a society that is irreparably racist.

So I look at the numbers in the polls and, actually, a recent one just came out on Thursday about how America’s becoming sadder and sadder, less happy, less happy, and that that’s being led by Gen Z and the younger millennials—people who could be starting families but aren’t.

So I connect the dots, I believe, between this civilizational sadness and the other maladies that I address in the book, which is childhood anxiety and the falling birth rates.

And the baby boom is kind of the counterexample. The baby boom was not simply a makeup for babies that couldn’t happen because men were off at war, it was a massive generation-long increase in family formation.

I argue that that happened because our men came home from war, got off the boats—just having defeated two evil empires—the women were on the dock—just having kept the economy going for four—years and they smooched on the pier, got married, went home, and had a ton of kids because never before or since have we really believed so clearly that we are good.

And that belief that we’re good, that also can help explain why religious communities will have more kids. Because certainly, I’m a Catholic, I believe we’re fallen, we’re sinners, but I also believe we can’t be made perfect, but that God loves us.

You see the the Mormon Church, they have a higher birth rate. Orthodox Jews have a higher birth rate. … But that fundamentally, it’s good to have us, that the world is better off for us, regardless of our sins individually or collectively.

Trinko: Great. Well, again, Tim Carney is the author of the new book “Family Unfriendly,” gives you a lot to think about about our current culture. And Tim, thanks for joining us.

Carney: Thank you very much.

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