If underpopulation is a real threat, unfettered capitalism has only itself to blame

I’m writing this from a train somewhere between Montreal and Toronto. I took my six-year-old son on a three-day train adventure. Train there, train back, and train museum between. We had fun. But it wasn’t easy.

So I read with some amusement Jack Ma and Elon Musk’s recent discussion of underpopulation. Both entrepreneurs lament declining birthrates. It’s a socio-economic risk. Fewer people means fewer young producers and consumers. This might reduce environmental degradation. But economies would shrink. And countries couldn’t support their number of elderly.

Now, let’s set aside a few things. First, that anti-aging advances won’t let people contribute longer. Second, that artificial intelligences and robots won’t do many jobs instead of people. I think both are likely. But that’s not my focus here.

Rather, I want to focus on the hypocrisy of Ma’s comments. This is a man who advocates 12-hour workdays, 6 days a week. Yet he’s surprised that people have fewer babies? What kind of parents could they be outside of that workload? How would they even find the energy to procreate?

Parents today spend more time both working and taking care of kids than any prior generation. This is an outcome of politics and culture. Unfettered capitalism has kept wages depressed. Both parents in families often need to work. When both parents work and childcare is expensive, why would they have more kids?

I don’t agree that underpopulation is a priority concern. There are more imminent risks such as climate change. But I’m not an expert in demography. I do know what it’s like to raise kids while both parents work. Population issues aside, all parents would embrace more work flexibility and affordable childcare. Given their immense influence, that’s somewhere Ma and Musk can start.

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