Expectations and reality: a window into the liberal-conservative baby gap
Post edited (12/10/12). See below!
Commenter szopeno once noted that if you ask women what their ideal family size is, you will get an average of about 2.1-2.5 children (trending towards the low side in Western world). As previously discussed here, the decline in fertility among Whites in America is primarily among liberals, with White conservatives still breeding quite well. A variety of potential explanations have been put forward for why this is so. For one, a general decline in birth rates seems to be related to the difficulty in attaining the means to comfortably raise a family. In addition, some of the key qualities that differ between the two ideological groups include the fact that liberals tend to get married later (or not at all), and that conservatives tend to live in more sparsely populated areas of the country (and population density appears to severely impact fertility). However, perhaps more significant is the notion that liberals simply want to have fewer children than do conservatives. That is, conservatives may be more “pro-natalist” than liberals. Jason Malloy hypothesized people have weak desires for children for their own sake, and that changing standards of living are responsible for the drop in fertility; this suggests that “natality” is typically low. I have disagreed with this point, at least as far as that the desire for children is typically weak—indeed, as Half Sigma has noted, people (especially women) tend to obsess over children.
Indeed, my own pioneer hypothesis posits that people’s desire for children, for their own sake, varies according to political/ideological belief. At the heart of the issue is whether people are having fewer children because they actually want fewer children. Has that changed over time? Do conservatives want more children than do liberals? I decided to find out. The Inductivist and the Audacious Epigone have both tackled this issue before, but I wanted to do an in-depth analysis of the data from the GSS.
This is the mean number of children desired by non-Hispanic White women (CHILDIDEL variable), by decade of birth, 95% confidence intervals shown. To maximize sample sizes, and to restrict the survey to those at least 20 years of age, I gathered my data as follows:
- 1800-1940s cohorts from the 1972-2010 data
- 1950s cohort from the 1985-2010 data
- 1960s cohort from the 1990-2010 data
- 1970s cohort from the 2000-2010 data
Despite the caveat that the respondents are at quite different stages of their lives when answering this, I think the results are interesting. We see that the mean number of children desired has actually remained pretty steady of over the past century (assuming that it’s not just “after-the fact” answers that tend to converge), at about 3 children, dipping slightly of the people born during the lean times of the Great Depression. (Note: the distribution of people along the political spectrum is much like a bell curve, with most people near the middle as moderates, and trailing off towards both extremes. Hence, the overall average is close to the average of the middle three columns.)
As seen previously with fertility data, the distribution of desired family is pretty even in the earliest cohort, but starts to slant more heavily towards conservatives in successive generations. But note that in all cohorts for all political orientations, the desired number of children is always over replacement, even for “extreme liberals”, who we know are today poorly fecund.
Now, let’s compare this to what actually happened:
These are the average number of children had by non-Hispanic White women by political orientation, by decade of birth, 95% confidence intervals shown. As with the above tables, in order to give everyone enough time to complete their reproductive careers (except the 70s cohort), I gathered the data this way:
- 1800-1920s cohorts from the 1972-2010 data
- 1930s cohort from the 1985-2010 data
- 1940s cohort from the 1993-2010 data
- 1950s cohort from the 2002-2010 data
- 1960s and ’70s cohorts from the 2006-2010 data
Here, the rise and fall in fertility rates during and after the post-War Baby Boom and the “demographic transition” that followed is evident (presumably, I just miss the tail end of the high-fertility pre-Depression era generation trough here). Indeed, most cohorts reliably under-perform their expectations, except the Boom cohorts, who exceeded their wishes with family size.
A funny fact that is evident here is that it seems that conservative women didn’t quite get the memo that they were supposed to “transition” demographically, and maintain fertility rates comparable to their pre-Boom levels. It is everyone else—especially liberals, who have greatly changed their behavior with regards to having children.
It’s quite likely that the gap between desired children and number of children actually is somewhat different in nature today from times past. As we’ve seen, back in the day, there were proportionally more people who had a lot of children as well as more people who had none (particularly so with women); the spread in children was more uneven, with some people breeding a lot, and others not at all. Today, things are more leveled out, with most people having a small number (1-3) of children.
|difference between average children had
and average children wanted
|extreme liberal||liberal||slight. liberal||moderate|
|difference between average children had
and average children wanted
|political orientation||Total Average|
|slight. conserv.||conservative||extreme conserv.|
We see here that in most cohorts, each group falls shorts of its desired family size by an average of a half to a whole child. The notable exception are the Boom cohorts, who generally exceeded their planned number of children. However, after the Boom years, liberals begin to significantly miss their goals for family size. This is on top of a preference for smaller families.
Conservatives on the other hand generally don’t fall anomalously short of their expectations, and even then, the impact is blunted because their desired number of children is so high. If anything, their desired family size appears to have only increased, especially for those on the far Right.
There is no question that in today’s environment, liberalism is, evolutionarily speaking, maladaptive. (Conservative fertility advantage in the 1960s cohort falls a bit if men are included, but not tremendously so. Liberal fertility doesn’t significantly improve.)
However, these data show that the liberal failure to reproduce isn’t due, by and large, to a lack of desire for children, since liberals do want typically reasonably sized families. However, the loss stems primarily from delayed marriage/family formation, particularly due to the pursuit of lengthy educations, as my earlier research showed. I’ve heard it said that women pursuing lengthy educations, assuming that can just begin to have families later in life (late 20s and 30s), fail to realize how much their fertility falls with time (with 90% of a woman’s egg cells typically already gone by age 30, [edit:] original paper here, opens pdf). As extreme K-competitors, generally with ancestral origins from behind the Hajnal line, liberals especially appear to have been selected to seek economic viability before procreating. In today’s environment, with its stagnant wages that compare poorly to expenses, economic viability is increasingly more difficult to attain.
Genotypically, White Americans are getting more conservative, and the future will come to be dominated them (and the non-White groups in the country). While this shift towards the Right among Whites is likely to be slow, it appears, at least for now, to be inevitable.
Edit, 12/10/12: There is a paper by Marcus Jokela that shows fertility can also be correlated, as I have done here, with personality on the Big Five scale. It finds that, among both sexes, the Big Five dimension of openness to experience, the hallmark of liberal-minded people, is strongly negatively correlated with fertility. Among women, conscientiousness is also strongly negatively associated with fertility. This is probably because these are the women are most likely to pursue lengthy educations and most likely to feel the sting of resource insecurity.
Edit, 8/24/13: Added the chart of the personality-fertility correlations from Jokela paper: