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Unfocused families

Money | Changing attitudes about children could have major economic consequences

Issue: "When the base cracks," July 21, 2007

Sometimes the most important economic stories do not make it into the business sections of major newspapers.

A late June report from the Pew Research Center was one such story. Pew found that only 41 percent of Americans now view having children as "very important" to a successful marriage, down from 65 percent in 1990.

Faithfulness, at 93 percent, topped the list of key marriage ingredients, followed by happy sexual relationships at 70 percent. But even sharing household chores (at 62 percent) and earning an "adequate" income (at 53 percent) beat out having children. Out of nine options given, having children came in eighth. Only the importance of spouses agreeing on politics drew less support.

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The social consequences of this shift in attitudes could be seismic, affecting everything from the debate over same-sex marriage to the content of popular entertainment. "The popular culture is increasingly oriented to fulfilling the X-rated fantasies and desires of adults," argues Barbara Dafoe Whitehead in a report for the National Marriage Project. "Child-rearing values-sacrifice, stability, dependability, maturity-seem stale and musty by comparison."

But the economic consequences are not small, either, and they did not receive much attention. Worse news, for example, could hardly be imagined for Medicare and Social Security, programs that were already staggering under a drop in fertility rates during the 1960s and 1970s. U.S. fertility rates bounced back slightly in the 1980s and 1990s and are now at about replacement level (2.1 live births per woman). But if the Pew survey portends a return to lower fertility rates, then the entitlements crisis in coming decades will be worse than advertised.

Demographers have pointed to other potential economic challenges stemming from low fertility: labor shortages, fewer buyers in the future to prop up stock and real estate prices, a dearth of customers for businesses. "The commerce of modern nations may slip the trap of the New Demography," writes Ben J. Wattenberg, "but we should not delude ourselves: the trap is there, and it may well be serious."

And if Pew has spotted a long-term trend in attitudes toward children, the trap may get more serious by the year.

Balance Sheet

WORK: For the first time in almost 60 years, a majority of teenagers don't have summer jobs and don't want them. The Labor Department reported on July 6 that only 48.8 percent of American teens either had a job or were looking for a job in June. That's down from over 60 percent in June 2000 and 51.6 percent last year. The government began tracking teen summer employment in 1948, and the statistic hovered around 60 percent until it began falling early this decade.

BUSINESS: Challenging the notion that the customer is always right, Sprint Nextel on June 29 told about 1,000 high-maintenance subscribers that the company no longer wanted their business. The axed subscribers were reportedly making dozens of calls to customer service each month. "If the average person is calling less than once per month and these people are calling 40 or 50 times more, that takes away from customer service," Sprint spokeswoman Roni Singleton told the Associated Press. "Our priority is to improve the customer experience." The company, which has about 53 million subscribers, told the terminated customers in a letter that they had until July 30 to switch to a different carrier if they wanted to keep their phone numbers.

Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is managing editor of WORLD magazine.

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