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Go Make Babies!
A new advertising campaign for the Chicago Public Radio station, WBEZ, is gaining attention with its unusual appeal – “Go make babies!” Concerned that the next generation of listeners is not likely to be as excited as older ones of us by an eccentric story teller from Minnesota regaling us with tales of quirky Swedes and Norwegians, or by two brothers discussing pistons and spark plugs, WBEZ is plastering bus and subway cars with slogans like, “We Want Listeners Tomorrow. Go Make Babies Today," "Do It. [ed. note: You know, It.]For Chicago," “Hey Interesting People, Get a room already. And then put a crib in it,” and "Interesting People Make Interesting People."
I doubt that WBEZ really believes in a strategy of encouraging couples to have babies who will grow up to become listeners and donors. What it has done, of course, is create a buzz, a conversation about public radio, suggesting a far more playful and hip product aimed at an audience made up of the children and grandchildren of the stereotypical listener. It’s all aimed at diversifying an aging audience that could otherwise relegate NPR to generational decline not unlike what the mainline church and many other post World War Two social organizations are experiencing.
Interestingly, the timing of the roll out coincided with news of a new study by the Pew Research Center showing that the United States birth rate had fallen to a record low, matching the rate in 1920 when statistics were first reliably kept. From a high of 120 births per thousand women in the late 1950’s at the height of the baby boom, the birth rate has been nearly halved. After dropping dramatically in the 1960’s, the birth rate had remained low, but relatively stable until 2007, supported in part by the growing number of births to immigrant women. But the Great Recession has obviously taken a toll on both U.S. born and foreign born women. A similar dip occurred in the 1930’s, leading many to assume that the current drop may be temporary. But the fact that the largest drop in the last five years is among immigrant women, traditionally the group that has fueled population growth in the United States even in hard times, means that we are moving into uncharted waters, statistically speaking.
The Pew study does not speculate about the reasons for the decline. Women are waiting longer to have children. By the time my baby boomer sister and I were thirty-two we had four children between us. Those four children have now all passed thirty-two and none has a child. It’s a small sample, to be sure, but anecdotally not atypical. Contraception is more readily available and, the Catholic bishops’ latest campaign notwithstanding, more widely acceptable. Comprehensive sexuality education is offered to more and more children. (The really good news in the report is that the birth rate for women between 15 and 19 has dropped over 40% in the last twenty years.) And, then, of course, there is the loss of confidence in the future in the stagnating recession we are enduring.
Should we care? The answer is yes, for at least three reasons. First, most economists tell us that declining birth rates foretell declining productivity, falling economic growth, and eventual economic stagnation. Second, as the baby boomer generation grows older and lives longer, a smaller and smaller cohort of young people will be called upon to support a growing aging population that will be living longer with more expensive long term health care needs. Finally, and most tragically, declining birth rates may likely be a symptom of the economic malaise that has settled over the families of low and middle income workers in the last thirty years. Five years of high unemployment and flat or declining wages for those who are working coupled with the sense that those in power are more interested in their game of sequestration chicken than creating a healthy economy leaves many young people wondering if they can take on the financial demands of parenthood in the midst of such uncertain times.
It will do more than clever advertising to create a stable and sustaining birth rate in the United States. Even before the recession birth rates hovered just below the level required to maintain population levels, absent the infusion of new citizens through immigration. Comprehensive immigration reform will help restore the conditions that once enabled the immigrant community to contribute so impressively to the next generations. Reestablishing economic equity and providing economic opportunity for all rather than the very few will also do much to restore confidence to a generation that now often describes itself as lost. Making babies is usually thought to be an intimate, private matter, not generally suitable for subway car advertising. It may well be, however, that it is a far more public matter than banner ads, with economic and social implications for all of us. We can’t all go out and make babies. Thank God! But we can all care about the generation that can and whose decisions about whether or not to become parents will have an impact not just on them, but on their parents and grandparents as well.
John H. Thomas