“Where have all the babies gone?” is a question that has recently been on the minds of social anthropologists, demographers and concerned citizens. Yet the more we look into it, the more the question seems to be coded language for a class and race discourse.
It seems that apprehension is growing about the rapidly declining birth rate in the developed world. In Italy, for example, in 2018 nearly 60 percent of the population were 40 or older and nearly 23 percent were over 65. Since the death rate also increased as a result of aging, the net population dropped by 100,000 from 2017. In Italy only 8 babies are being born for every 1,000 residents. When you factor in the number of immigrants that enter the country in any one year, the annual net drop becomes even more noteworthy. While a certain segment of the Italian population may find this suddenly alarming, the so-called baby drought phenomenon should be nothing new to Italians; there has been talk about this growing problem– if it is a problem–for decades now. As far back as 1992 author Tim Parks wrote about the scarcity of babies, perceptively, bitingly and humorously, in his excellent travel memoirs, Italian Neighbours and An Italian Education.
While it is Japan and South Korea that are graying the fastest, Australia too is concerned about their plummeting birth rate; today it is the lowest since 2004 and economists predict it will only fall further. Researchers are trying to figure out why. The surprising and somewhat amusing conclusion Australian researchers have reached is that, “mum and dad may be to blame.” It would seem that a growing number of young adults are living at home with their parents well into their 20s and even 30s to save money, and they are delaying having babies. They are therefore missing out on their most fertile years.
This perpetual state of adolescence may be a new social trend to Australians, but in Italy, jokes about the “mammone” who remains firmly ensconced in his nest well into his middle age have been a staple for decades, if not longer. Indeed, it is a well-known stereotype about Italian men that that has been exploited in television and movies. Marcello Mastroianni being one of the most famous self-declared mama’s boys.
More generally, Axios reports that the number of people on Earth under 15 years old will peak at 2.09 billion in 2057 and afterwards decline at a global scale. While this may sound like a great thing to those of us who have been conditioned to fear the “population bomb” or as it used to be called, the “population explosion,” there are serious consequences that hit “graying societies”. For example, as populations age, the number of able bodied workers declines, and as the elderly population expands, the cost of health care and related social services skyrockets.
At least for the first of these consequences the solution is just around the corner, robotic workers will take the place of the missing humans. Indeed, even today they constitute a good part of the work force and according to Axios, corporations prefer them to humans: robot workers have no unions, get no perks or benefits and do not strike.
But is the population decline brought on by the “baby drought” as real as it sounds? Walk down Fifth Avenue on any day of the week and you will notice that the sidewalk is jammed with your fellow human beings jostling each other for space. Drive through the suburbs and notice the out of control development, entire mini-villages of houses being constructed where up to last year there was open space. Even in remote areas of the South West I see housing developments cropping up like mushrooms. And let’s not talk about the overcrowding that we see in European cities, they have already been suffering from this plague for decades.
While the baby drought in the developed world is a relatively new “hot topic” in the media, the population explosion in the developing world has been the subject of an endless number of articles reporting on its wide ranging consequences: famine, war and massive refugee displacements. It is virtually a catalog of the calamities foretold in the Book of Revelation.
So why then, are we talking about a declining population? Where exactly is this baby drought occurring? Let’s make this clear, talk about a baby drought may simply be coded language for “too few white babies, too many brown ones” or at least too many poor ones. Some experts go as far as declaring that “wealth has become a social contraceptive (all over the world as societies get richer their citizens bear less children)”.
According to demographers, the global human population still grows by 83 million annually. It has grown from 1 billion in 1800 to 7.6 billion in 2017, and it is expected to keep growing despite this hoopla about a baby drought. Estimates have put the total population at 11.2 billion by 2100. The Earth cannot sustain such a population. If you thought that the “baby drought” would mean that we no longer need to worry about the population explosion, you need to rethink the issue.
So, what to do? What is the solution? For the moment we cannot foresee any definitive solution, but Jeff Bezos has come up with one: establish a moon colony. “We will have to leave this planet. We’re going to leave it, and it’s going to make this planet better,” he says. Bezos has already proposed a public-private partnership between Blue Origin and NASA to create a moon lander to test the possibilities of lunar manufacturing and habitation. Bezos’ vision is not only one that would relieve the population pressure, it is also utopic, as he looks forward to a time when “lunar residence…will be a shared privilege, with countries working together… combining their strengths rather than testing them against one another.”
It is possible that the baby drought may be the start of a self-regulated cycle that oscillates between overpopulation and self-correction. This is an intriguing idea expounded by some demographers. If so then perhaps Bezos’ utopic moon colony won’t be necessary after all. But even if this is so, then the results won’t be apparent for many generations. In the meantime, rather than worrying about the baby drought in the developed world we should be worrying about the war and famine that are raging in the developing part of it as the existing humans slaughter each other over rapidly dwindling resources like food and water.