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Escalating Signals Cut Fertility
My wife and I feed wet food to our two cats Ben and Jerry at the same time every day. Ben spends the whole prior hour crying for that food. He seems to be expect that, if not for his lobbying, we’d never feed him. Jerry instead spends a similar time spread out across the prior 24 hours lobbying for our immediate attention. He seems to expect that we wouldn’t feed or house him if he could not induce us to pay enough regular attention to him.
I interpret this as our cats being stuck in signaling equilibria. You “signal” when your actions take into account the inferences you expect others to draw from them. And you “screen” when you take actions to induce others to signal. Many call me an extremist for estimating substantial signaling and screening effects in 90% of human life areas, but that still seems plausible to me.
Our cats want to show us that they need us, and want us to show them that we care about and plan to take care of them. Less by directly taking care of them, and more by giving them lots of attention. Mutual need and attention signals take a lot of time and energy, but are quite common not only between people and pets, but also between friends and lovers, and parents and children.
For example, I’ve been watching my 18-month-old granddaughter interact with her parents. And it is pretty clear to me that the kid demands and gets far more attention than is strictly needed to feed, protect, and teach her. The “over-parenting” attention that US parents have been giving to their kids has greatly increased over recent centuries. I interpret this as an escalation of our signaling standards. Previously typical levels of parent attention are now seen as inadequate negligence, cruelly letting your kids see that you don’t love them as much as other parents love their kids. (I think our signals to pets have also increased.)
(Note that the capitalist fertility solution I’ve outlined, wherein parents pay for parenting by endowing kids with debt or equity, would send an an especially bad signal in these terms. Parents are supposed to eagerly give kids the gift of life and attention, not charge them for the privilege.)
This escalation of parent signaling is an obstacle to reversing fertility decline, as parents who feel obligated to attend more to each kid are inclined to have fewer kids. This is why my colleague Bryan Caplan wrote The Selfish Reason to Have More Kids, to argue that less-attended-to kids will do just fine. Alas, we also have many other escalating signal trends that discourage fertility. Together these add up to our biggest obstacle to increasing fertility.
For example, while our standard career ladders contain some actually useful training and preparation, much of it is signaling. By successfully running standardized gauntlets on fixed time schedules, we show our attractive abilities and inclinations. (See Caplan’s book The Case Against Education.) But as those who have worse abilities and inclinations are naturally more tempted to take pauses from such gauntlets, we tend to think less of those who pause them for any reason, including to have kids. This encourages us to wait to have kids until after we have completed as much as we can or desire of available gauntlets.
And as years of schooling has been increasing over the centuries, especially for women, this has discouraged childcare-requiring fertility by young people. By the time women feel ready, their bodies are often unable to have kids. And even men notice that their declining energy levels may not be sufficient for our demanding over-parenting effort standards. Less career security, and more work hours per week, also likely discourage fertility.
A third escalating signal that discourages fertility, besides more over-parenting and pause-less schooling, is our increasing respect for “finding ourselves” before picking a long term mate. In previous centuries it was more okay to pair up early, while your identity was still plastic, with an easily found local mate. You’d then mould yourself to your partner, and explore what the two of you might become together. (Which for peasants usually wasn’t much.)
We now look down on that, and more respect young adults who shape themselves alone. Then once they’ve achieved more distinctive personal styles and interests, they search among vast numbers of potential partners for the few who most closely match what they have become. (This trend goes along with an increasing taste for variety more generally.)
To many, it makes more sense for better artists to develop more unique personal styles, while lesser artists master existing styles. And that it makes more sense for top intellectuals to pioneer new frames, while lesser intellectuals fill in existing frames. Similarly, we tend to see choosing to be flexible to shape yourself to another person at a young age as admitting that you have less potential for what you might become by yourself. We thus see traditional gender roles as disrespecting the younger women who it matches to older men.
We also look down on those who marry early in life as we see them as more boring and less “fun.” That is, we see dating many different people over many years as more “fun” than marriage, and see it as inducing a wider ranging experiences that make us more interesting. (Relatedly, the book Pedigree reports that elite recruiters dislike job candidates who are “tools”, with hobbies too close to their careers.) Our looking down on those who “settle” early on long-term mates thus induces us to take longer to choose. As with long career gauntlets, by the time we feel ready to choose a long term mate, we may be too old to have kids.
The book Promises I Can Keep (recommended to me by Caplan) describes how lower class US women now wait longer to marry because of their increased reverence for marriage. They have sex and children with men they do not see as good enough to marry. This is because they see marriage as a declaration of life success, and so wait to marry until they have collected a good enough career, partner, home, etc. To marry without these is to publicly admit to life failure. Such signaling habits plausibly reduce their marriage rates. And as marriage tends to increase fertility, this plausibly cuts fertility.
Marriage rates are also cut due to women feeling reluctant to marry men with less education than they, while women on average now get more education than men. And in the US, the welfare system also penalizes marriage; the tax system sometimes penalizes and sometimes rewards it.
Fertility would be easier to increase if we had retained traditional gender roles, wherein raising kids was the primary female life role, and other work the primary male role. But our culture has decided that parenting has less potential for respect, glory, or fulfillment than other work careers, making traditional gender roles disrespectful of women. We are thus eager to signal our respect for women by encouraging them to pursue the usual career gauntlets as strongly as men, which cuts fertility. People who express concern about low fertility rates are often accused of being sexist or racist.
In the US at least, political polarization has increasing for many decades, leading to more efforts to signal allegiance with your political side. And the side that seems more militant against sexism and racism also seems more militant against total resource consumption and ecological impacts. Many on that side feel that being for low fertility is being for their side.
Fertility also seems easier to achieve if we arranged to have grandparents use their time and money to help more with parenting. However, we tend to think less of both grandparents and parents who seek this arrangement. Such grandparents are seen as pushy and controlling, while such parents are seen as dependent and immature. These perceptions make it hard to coordinate on such help, such as via living near each other, grandparents saving up beforehand, and parents counting on such resources when they need them.
If grandparents more helped parents who paired up when younger, it would make sense for those grandparents to be more involved in selecting who paired up with whom. This could mitigate any tendency of younger folks to make bad choices of partners. But while such arranged marriages were common for our ancestors and seem to make folks as happy, we look down on them today as speaking badly about the parents who arrange, and/or the children who allow their marriages to be arranged.
Over the centuries, as the importance of family clans has declined, we have spent less time with our families, and more time with our friends, co-workers, and neighbors. In part because non-families are more selective in associates, making it more impressive to be selected by them. This has cut the amount of time that young adults spend around their kid relatives together with other adults. And this has made it harder to impress other adults with how well suited one is to interacting with kids. So when we try to impress potential mates, we focus more on our hobbies and careers, and less on our parenting-adjacent abilities. Which makes it harder to prioritize parenting.
People who live in denser urban areas tend to be more skilled, and to earn higher wages. They are also able to enjoy a wider variety of products and services, and to better realize their personal potential. As we respect such people more, we tend to respect those who live in denser urban areas, and thus we each want to be seen to live there. And as fertility tends to be lower in such areas, our efforts to achieve higher personal density tends to cut fertility.
The first fertility decline in France 250 years ago seems to have been due to declining religion there. While those who are more religious tend to have higher fertility, respect for and participation in religion has greatly declined over recent centuries. We tend to be less impressed by, and more eager to disparage, the religious. And we are thus less eager to be religious. It’s not clear to me exactly why, but the overall effect of this is clearly to cut fertility.
Spending on medicine and leisure as a fraction of GDP has been steadily increasing worldwide for many decades. And both of these have large signaling components. (While the US medicine fraction has paused its increase since 2009, medicine fractions in other nations continue to rise.) More resources spend on medicine and leisure makes less available for parenting. And in the US, medical malpractice incentives induce too many cesarian section births, which cut the risk of death in that birth but at the cost of hindering future births.
As war has declined, we spend less to signal our readiness for war. Which is a de-escalating signal that leaves more resources available for other activities, like parenting. But the decline in war also means fewer of the sort of baby booms that tend to happen after wars.
So far I have listed many ways in which lower fertility allows for better looking signals. What about ways that lower fertility makes people look bad? For example, the childless are often accused of being immature, incompetent, and selfish. But we seem to care less than we used to about immaturity, other kinds of competence can adequately substitute for parenting competence, and the childless often go out of their way to show generosity in other ways, in addition to saying that they intend to have kids someday.
The above survey of escalating signals that discourage fertility helps me to see more clearly just how hard it may be to reverse fertility decline. There are so many signaling forces that discourage fertility, most of them are trending the wrong way, and signaling processes tend to be hard to deliberately change. (For example, it is hard for governments to promote values that typical citizens don’t personally embrace.) As I’ve discussed previously, whatever process manages to succeed at resisting these trends seems likely to cut many things that we now value highly.
A detailed suggestion for how our fertility fall may reverse should specify which of these signals we will change or defy, and how. What changing context will result in pro-fertility choices no longer supporting negative inferences about the chooser, and for which choices will people be willing to look bad, due to what other stronger incentives?