Friday 30 November 2012

Selfish Individualists: Why Europe is going the way of the dinosaur

Sorry for the long silence. Alex and I have moved into a new flat in Leipzig, and we are being kept quite busy by the daily affairs of PhD students. Our new flat is located in the ‘booming’ quarter of Schleußig. The average age here was 35.2 in 2009, compared with 44 for the rest of Leipzig, or 54.8 in Grünau-Ost. The birth rate here is about 20 per 1000 people, which is actually slightly higher than the global average of 19.15, and far outscores Germany’s national birth rate of 8.1. The difference is indeed noticeable, and sometimes we have to fight our way through the prams stacked in the entrance area to our building. It’s nice to have lots of children in the neighbourhood. They fill the streets with life and sometimes I almost forget that I live in a shrinking country, and, indeed, a shrinking continent. Yes, Germany, and Europe as a whole, tops the sad ranking of places with the world’s lowest birth rate. I don’t have much sympathy with the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, and I think that a low birth rate is a symptom of there being something profoundly wrong with our society. I want this blog post to examine some of the reasons behind it, and I want it to be an appeal to policy-makers to identify this issue as one the great challenges we are faced with, one that even outweighs the economic crisis.

European fertility rates in 2004, the numbers
have not changed a lot since, 2.1 is the natural
replacement rate
In some sense it is obvious what caused the sudden drop in births between 1966 and 1972 in Europe. Birth control and the increasing involvement of women in the labour market made an obvious difference. The role of men and women in the household has gradually shifted, and while it is seen as positive for women to take on the traditional role of men, the reverse is not so much looked down upon, but it seems that masculine pride prevents men from being housemen for a while. For me that is one of the great paradoxes of the emancipation movement. Instead of lifting up obvious female virtues, such as motherhood, and striving to make them admirable, the traditional male ‘qualities’ of competitiveness and emotional coldness were somehow made even more commendable. Women who possess these virtues can be ‘successful’, success being incrementally increased by the amount of money a woman earns, of course. Gender mainstreaming is indeed a misnomer, because while women becoming more like traditional men is apparently praiseworthy, men becoming more like traditional women has remained an injury to a man’s self-esteem. The realisation that emancipation goes both ways, that it ought not to be the masculinisation of women, but the deconstruction of fixed gender roles, is, in my opinion, critical to understanding the European demographic crisis. Emancipation also means for men to emancipate themselves from the limits of misguided notions of masculinity. If seen in this light, the feminist movement was indeed a particular capitalist type of feminism. While its leaders would of course reject this accusation, it is nevertheless the case that ‘emancipated’ women who ‘want a career’ define their own ‘success’ primarily via their income, an idea that we were all indoctrinated with by the institutions of the capitalist system (in fact, I remember quite clearly how this was done to me in primary school).

While this applies to Europe as a whole, Germany has problems of its own to deal with. I’m not going to dig up statistics to prove this, because I believe that anyone who has ever lived in Germany is familiar with that, and because I know plenty of Germans who are in their late 20s and still doing their Master’s degrees. While I do not regard this as intrinsically negative, it nevertheless causes women to spend their most fertile years in the universities. Birth rates are indeed higher for women who do not go to uni.

So, let me come to some conclusions. The most basic function of life is to reproduce itself. If we were studying any other form of life that insufficiently reproduced itself as European apparently do, we would see immediately that there has to be something profoundly wrong. If humans do not fulfil the commandment to ‘go forth and multiply’, we need to ask ourselves why, and we need to find solutions to the problem, leading to a globally sustainable demographic development. I believe that there is another, even more profound reason, which I do not want to analyse, because it is merely a direct accusation: people who choose their ‘career’ over their family are selfish individualists. That is the true disease of our society, and policy-makers need to ask themselves whether egotists are the kind of people they want to breed in their schools and universities. The worship of youth and money is ultimately the worship of the self. While I learned plenty in school about compound interest, no one over taught me about family-planning. Our education systems must therefore be adapted to the demographic situation, and studying while raising kids must become affordable as well as manageable, otherwise it seems to me that in the long run, Europe and Germany are going the way of the dinosaur.

Harald Köpping