Sunday, June 18, 2006

Mating Dilemmas

by Edward Hugh

Recently I have been reading a lot of material about allocative decision processes coming from a branch of evolutionary anthropology known as Life History Theory (this is a reasonable summary paper). Now essentially life history theory is about the allocation of somatic energy resources to various competing demands (namely maintenance, growth and reproduction) in a way which has suprising parallels with the ways in which economic science tries to study how we take behavioural decisons between competing demands under similar resource constraints. Well, as I say I have been think about all this a lot, and then Lo and Behold:

Japan’s notoriously hard-working salarymen are being given a chance by the government to cut their hours in a bid to improve their health – and their fecundity.

Workers who put in more than 40 hours of overtime a month will earn the right to an extra day off the next month, according to a policy paper prepared by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.....

The problem of overwork is particularly severe among men in their 30s, the ministry says. About a quarter work more than 60 hours a week, according to official figures, though the real number may be higher.
The Labour Consultation Centre, a non-profit organisation, takes many calls from both men and their wives complaining about overwork. Husbands grumble that they do not see their home for a week, says Ari Sugano, secretary-general.
Wives say they worry that their husbands might suffer “karoshi”, a word coined during Japan’s economic miracle that means “death from overwork”.
This leaves Japan’s 30-something male with little time to think of other things – such as starting a family. It is small wonder, then, that Japan’s birthrate, at only 1.25 per woman and falling, is among the world’s lowest.
The government plans to change this, with a better balance between work and leisure. “If a man has time off he can do whatever he wants,” says Shinichi Akiyama, a research officer at the ministry who has worked on the proposals. “He can find a girlfriend, he can go out for dates, he can share in raising a child.”
Now lets leave on one side for the moment that such headline seeking proposals will do little if anything to change Japan's lowest-low fertilty profile, and concentrate instead on the conceptual issues this way of looking at things raises. In life history terms the Japanese government seems to have decided that individual Japanese males are devoting too much time and energy to growth and maintenance processes, and insufficient time and energy to mating. In this sense, they might be suggesting that the Japanese male is not being 'fully rational' since he is not taking into account the evident negative externalities of people not having children.

Is it possible to use this LHT classificatory schema in terms of strategic economic decision taking? Well we could just have a try.

Maintenance: this is esentially what we do every day. It is the expenditure of time and energy which enables us to get through to tomorrow. This operates on a number of levels. Existentially it could mean watching a film, to 'disconnect'. Physiologically it could mean exercise, time at the gym or something, or it could mean work being done by our immune system, or lying in bed to recover from a cold. The trade-off between growth and maintenance could be considered in terms of decisions about whether or not to go to work when we are 'under the weather'. We may put increased demands on our body in terms of long term maintenance costs in order to achieve some other objective like growth (which could even be understood here in much more general terms like growth in our own self respect).

Growth: well in childhood and adolesence this has a fairly simple and literal interpretation. But there is a much more general idea of growth, like personal growth and development. Going on courses, reading books, anything which enhances our self-image of ourselves as persons, and of course anything which enhances our economic value. This latter could also be thought of in terms of wealth, and the accumulation thereof, whether in terms of assets or of consumer products, whatever.

Reproduction. Well lets call this mating, since not everyone reproduces. But nearly all humans do try to engage with mates at some stage or other in their lives. So it is not normally something which we sit back and think about, whether we want to find a mate or not, we just meet someone, something happens, etc etc. And this process is then terribly energy consuming, and detracts resources from both maintenance and growth as we all probably know. Of course there may also be 'search costs' as we may decide at some point to invest time and energy in actively looking for a mate. And there is also a lot of time and energy consumption here. But I'm not sure that people actually rationally plan this in a precise trade-off evaluation with say growth or maintenance. People just do it, because it fulfils a need. Of course some people are more concerned with this than others.

And then there is the actual partnership formation part. This is another enormous investment of time and resources in something which doesn't always (in fact more frequently doesn't than does) work-out as initially planned. Then there is the decision about whether or not to have children. As David Coleman points out somewhere, from strictly economic point of view it is hard sometimes to understand why people have children at all, since in many ways they are all cost. But OTOH we do normally want to have children at some level or other, and when people don't it is interesting to investigate why they don't. The decision has normally been, at least until very recently about how many to have, and when to have them, not about whether.

Of course this is just what I said it was, a classificatory schema (or taxonomy of decision types if you will). It doesn't mean to say that we actually function in this way, just that it might help us think about the classes of decision that we take, and in that sense make us better able to analyse our decision making processes. And of course, there *are* spillover externalities, like from falling in love. When we are in a process of requited love we may not only have resolved (at least temporarily) the mating issue, we may also be happier, be more efficient in covering maintenance needs, and grow more quickly. This takes us back to the Japanese government, and what they had in mind when they suggested eveyone took a day off: maybe it was this.


S.M. Stirling said...

The problem is that humans have no inherent desire to reproduce.

They have an instinct to have sex, but not to actually _have_ the children as such.

We wouldn't need pronatalist propaganda (which every culture indulges in) if we did. Nobody needs to propagandize people to have sex; quite the opposite, usually.

This is because we didn't need such an instinct. In preindustrial conditions, the two we do have took care of it.

The problem isn't 'mating'; the problem is that people have figured out ways to have the sex without having children as a consequence.

And given the competing satisfactions, it requires very strong ideational pressure to get people to forego them.

Edward said...

"The problem is that humans have no inherent desire to reproduce."

Exactly, this is influenced by a series of finely-balanced trade-off decisions. It isn't a problem though, the planet as we know will soon 'abound' in people (around 9 billion). The problem is at the policy level in handling this part of the transition.

Of course it would help if people were to first recognise that it is actually happening.

S.M. Stirling said...

"It isn't a problem though, the planet as we know will soon 'abound' in people (around 9 billion)."

-- ah... no. There will never be 9 billion people; there probably won't be 8 billion either.

The world population will top out within 30-40 years, probably at something around 7.5 billion, and then start to fall.

Gradually at first, and then with accelerating speed. The great problem of the 21st century will be aging, declining populations worldwide.

(The UN's "low estimate" has consistently proven to be the best of their predictions -- and even that is usually too high.)

Edward said...

"The great problem of the 21st century will be aging, declining populations worldwide".

We don't really disagree about this. But I think a lot will depend on how we handle it. There is nothing inevitable here. Policy will matter.

I don't disagree with your general synopsis that population may peak well below the 9 billion mark, but at this stage it is hard to be precise. Even if fertility drops dramatically (as we both appear to be convinced it will) there will still be considerable momentum in the currently high fertility areas.

There will also be large health issues in the rapidly evolving societies, partly due to the fetal programming effect (posts to come on this).

georgesdelatour said...

I find this whole subject fascinating. Here are a few rambling, incoherent thoughts from a non-specialist.

We're told Americans have more children than Europeans and the Japanese. Is a broad spectrum of US society significantly more fecund? Or does it just have large minority groups - maybe Latinos - who are having lots of babies?

As a Brit, when I visit the US I notice everything about the country is more spacious. American houses are bigger, and more ready to accommodate children. American cars are bigger, ditto. Does this make having children feel a little less burdensome?

I and my wife have two children. But we have several friends who will grow old childless, even though some of them really wanted children. My brother wanted children but his girlfriend didn't, and now it's too late. But mostly it's the other way round. Three women friends who want children but probably won't have them, tell us the same story - that men are really immature, with an unreal "eighteen 'til I die" mindset. Mention children to them and they back away.

In the west, super-rich celebrities like Posh and Becks have children, almost flaunting them as status symbols. They seem to be saying, "look, we're rich enough to be able to afford the nannies, the school fees, the toys, the massive family house". At the opposite end, among the super-poor, we're told of single mums in the underclass, with children by several different fathers. I don't know how true this picture is. Is it in the middle income range where the birth rate is declining most steeply?

Edward said...

"Here are a few rambling, incoherent thoughts from a non-specialist."

Thanks for the interesting comments Georges, you might also find this post and comments relevant and interesting:

S.M. Stirling said...

"Or does it just have large minority roups - maybe Latinos - who are having lots of babies?"

-- no. Current US TFR is around 2.09 (EU average around 1.5).

Non-Hispanic whites have a TFR in the 1.95-2.0 range.

Generally speaking, Hispanics have the highest fertility, followed by non-Hispanic whites and non-Hispanic blacks, then by Asian-Americans.

However, Hispanic birthrates are falling steadily. Some Hispanic groups (Cuban-Americans and Puerto Ricans) are well below the national average -- 1.6 and 1.7 respectively.

Other minority groups are also falling. Non-Hispanic white birthrates are rising, though slowly and with large regional differences.

S.M. Stirling said...

Fertility rates in the US, apart from recent Mexican immigrants, are more closely tied to religious affiliation and region than anything else; but regional differences are closely related to religious ones.

The religious link is between frequency of practice rather than any specific denomination. That is, those who attend services regularly tend to have much higher TFR's than those who don't, irrespective of formal denominational affiliation.

georgesdelatour said...

stirling - thanks for that. Does the same apply in Europe? Do Europeans who regularly attend the church or the mosque tend to have more children?

My wife is from Poland. Poles seem to me to be the most pious nation in Europe, but their birth rate is now very low, I believe.

Edward said...

"My wife is from Poland. Poles seem to me to be the most pious nation in Europe, but their birth rate is now very low, I believe."

Good point Georges, I think. It seems the US with this kind of correlate between religious practitioners and fertility is pretty much an exception in the developed world.

Then again there is another dimension which is drawn attention to in this New Economist post:

The point here is, that for one part of the US population life is rather too nasty, a little bit brutish, and at the same time excessively short (think health, obesity, and diabetes). So one possible outcome might be thought to be that these people wise up, get more education, postpone childbirth and have less children.

And guess what, that is just what seems to be happening:

and this:

So I think the future path of US tfrs must be a very open question, one which only the data will clarify, one way or the other.

Robert said...

It's become a commonplace observation to note that fertility is higher where gender roles have seemed to soften, and men do some of the work around the home, and that some countries where, whatever access women have gained to the marketplace, they are still expected to fulfill traditional gender roles at home (I'm specifically thinking of Italy and Japan here), are among the lowest of the low in fertility.

But, before we jump to conclude that gender roles are the problem, I want to observe that it isn't so simple as concluding that men in certain cultures feel that certain work is "women's work" and therefore beneath them. For, again using Japan and Italy as examples, both these countries have cultures of a certain high cuisine, dominated by male chefs. Even if cooking in the home is women's work, cooking for profit is manly.

So I want to recast the discussion of "soft feminism" or "feminism in the home" in these terms: rather than saying that the problem is that men view certain work activities as unmanly, and the solution to "market" those activities as manly, I want to say that the problem with a lack of "soft feminism" is that in cultures that lack it, there exists a category of emotional compensation that male authority figures can give other men, but that a man's family cannot give him. Financial compensation aside, the boss can validate a man's work in the marketplace, but the wife cannot validate his work at home.

Now, having waxed altogether too social-theoretical for my own taste, I will redeem this comment by posing a testable hypothesis. I pose that if differences in male views on validation from the boss vs. validation from the family have an impact on fertility, then, for a given level of household income, the households of self-employed men will be distinguishably fertile from those of employed men.

Edward Hugh said...

"the households of self-employed men will be distinguishably fertile from those of employed men."

Interesting thesis, but hard to decide about, since there may be multiple factors at work here, and they may be hard to distinguish one from another.

I'm sure you are right about the 'soft feminism' though. But I also think it is important to realise just how quickly some societies - Southern Europe for example - are changing in this regard. The change is of coures generational, but this would be just the point, since the important generation is the one which is now in the fertile age range.

This is why aggregate figures about (eg) female labour market participation rates in Southern Europe are virtually worthless, since there is a dividing frontier around the age of 40, with very high female participation rates below, and very low participation rates above. Of course, it is the people under 40 you want to know about in fertility terms (and they are nearly all working, when they aren't studying), unless, that is, you are working the grandmother hypothesis.

Coming back to the issue of inequality and fertility (or if you like fertility and its impact on inequality) I did find this interesting. This would suggest that in the younger age ranges, and for whatever reason (ie this could be labour market rigidity), France is producing relatively more qualified people than it is able to accommodate (with slightly lower fertility and a slightly higher average aga for first birth among women, while the US is producing less qualified young people than it needs, and thus has to import talent.

Obviously the situation is far from perfect, but France does seem to have found a short-term bandaid in outsourcing training places to the US.