Women Across the World Are Stapling Their Knees Shut
Lysistrata it ain’t. It’s actually much much better.
Something absolutely fascinating is happening right now, and I never saw it coming: women across the globe are opting out.
By “opting out,” I mean they are choosing career over marriage and children, and it is having profound consequences on the world economy. Fewer children means dwindling populations. Dwindling populations mean fewer taxable workers to pay into the system that supports retired workers. Most countries’ social security systems are structured around that one principle: younger folks are taxed to support the older folks; when the younger folks become older folks, then they themselves are supported by the younger folks.
Millions of young women are jettisoning the old playbook of getting married and having kids, especially since having kids often takes a sledgehammer their careers. Men are rarely dinged for starting families; women, always.
Welcome to the birth strike. Women in places like South Korea and China are spearheading a movement call “4B”: no dating, no sex, no marriage, no child-rearing, and it shows no signs of abating.
The New York Times ran an op-ed just recently on the movement, adding to a growing list of studies, articles, and surveys I’ve been collating that are as thrilling and inspiring as they are depressing and banal.
The sexism in South Korea that has galvanized this revolt looks slightly different across cultures, including American culture, but the disparities in distribution of labor is the same wherever you go. In dual-earner households, it is still the woman who pulls double-duty at home, clocking in three hours to her partner’s customary fifty-four minutes. Within cultures where chore division is ossified into male/female — including the U.S. — there is only one category where men outperform women in domestic labor, and that is house repairs.
Other countries with negative or zero population growth include: Italy, Japan, Albania, Poland, Cuba, Greece, Croatia, and a slew of others, many in Eastern Europe. Irony of ironies, the only thing bolstering the U.S. population is the number of immigrant births, a statistic anti-immigrant conservatives have whipped themselves into a frenzy over on networks like Fox News where they lament their Great Replacement. It’s the same quasi-supremacist nonsense they trotted out during the peak migration period between the years of 1880–1924, when millions of immigrants poured into Ellis Island.
Multiple surveys show that in South Korea, China, and elsewhere, including the U.S., a majority of women don’t want to have children — 56% percent of American women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, according to the Pew Research Center. In South Korea, it’s 65%. Different countries, same reasons: pervasive sexism, the staggering costs of raising children, lack of affordable daycare, lack of paid parental leave, growing up in a generation blighted by the economy, the pandemic, crippling student loan debt, the high cost of living, lack of affordable housing, unfair division of marital labor, and the increasingly fragile social contract between married or long-term partners.
Let’s face it, these are excellent reasons not to have a child.
The wonder of it is that anyone has children at this point. No rational person would. I say this as the mother of two children I would die a thousand horrible deaths for. But I had my youngest twenty-two years ago. The world was a different place then. If I were a young adult considering starting a family now, I would likely do the same things millions of women across the planet are doing, which is noping right the hell out of here.
This refusal to reproduce has grave repercussions. According to United Nations’ projections, South Korea’s population will halve by the end of this century. China’s birth rate has been falling for years, prompting a raft of government policies to reverse the trend.
The last time China’s population decreased was in 1961, when a famine killed tens of millions of people. Now, a combination of factors are at play, including the ongoing pandemic, the ramifications of China’s former one-child policy, an ageing workforce, the cost of living and education, skyrocketing property prices, stagnating wages, fewer job opportunities, and grueling work hours that make it unlikely any incentive program the government tries to implement will overcome Chinese women’s reluctance to start families. By all predictions, this will blight China’s hopes of overtaking the United States as the world’s #1 economic superpower, an honor that could possibly go to India this century with its superior numbers.
South Korea’s government, much like our own, takes a dim view of women’s autonomy. The more educated a woman becomes, the more likely she is to postpone having children, and millions will choose to have none.
Officials in Korea recently launched a host of revanchist policies and propaganda meant to subjugate women, including the publication of guidelines specifically for pregnant females. These guidelines included gems such as “prepare instant foods like curry, black bean paste and soup, so the husband, who’s unfamiliar with cooking, will be able to conveniently use them.” Also, “pregnant women should prepare undergarments, socks, shirts, handkerchiefs and outers in the drawer for the husband and children to wear for 3 to 7 days while they’re at the hospital.” Equally helpful is Seoul’s advice to buy a hairband “so that you don’t look disheveled, as you won’t able to wash your hair for a while.”
These helpful public service guidelines went on to suggest women lose weight by performing household chores such as washing dishes and cleaning. “Extending your hand forward when wiping the floor will help with stretching the back, shoulder and arm muscles.”
Do these officials truly not understand why their countries face plunging fertility rates?
In nations where there is a more robust social safety net, cooperative fathers, universal healthcare and paid parental leave — Sweden, for instance — zero or negative population growth isn’t a problem. In places like France that recognize diverse companionships, they’ve been able to actually increase their numbers.
Try telling Seoul that. Try telling Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, a lifelong abortion opponent, that condemning women to unwanted motherhood isn’t the solution to America’s problems.
Know what is?
- Affordable housing. Incentivize property developers to build it. Right now, renters and first-time homebuyers alike are being squeezed by a shortage in inventory brought on by greedy developers who are only building for the high end segment of the market.
- Paid parental leave. Few people want to have children they must immediately abandon to caregivers. The United States is the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t mandate paid parental leave, which is a disgrace.
- Relieve student loan debt and overhaul higher education. No one is going to have a baby if they are in ruinous and non-dischargeable student loan debt. End it.
- Make daycare affordable. Most parents pay tens of thousands of dollars each year for childcare. Do you think this incentivizes or de-incentivizes people to have more children?
- Encourage daughters and sons to cook, clean, and perform domestic chores. Government can’t solve all our problems. If we don’t do our part to model desired behavior — and to verbally point out sexism to our sons when we see it, whether in real life, the movies, or on TV — then we are the ones dropping the ball, not the government.
One last thing to consider: a declining birth rate doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Unfettered growth is a capitalist construct. What if, instead of aggressive expansionism, we content ourselves with having enough? What if, instead of the endless quest for world domination, we content ourselves with being enough? What if, instead of more, we celebrate women’s increasing autonomy, our overall change in values, and a greener, less population-stressed planet?
Dreams, you say? Absolutely.
But it could be that what dreams may come are the ones we needed and were searching for all along.
Copyright © 2023 Stacey Eskelin