The reason for falling fertility levels

There is now an over-investment in status seeking and underinvestment in reproduction

Published - November 01, 2023 08:30 am IST

For representative purposes.

For representative purposes. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Yong, Jose C., Lim, Amy J., & Li. Norman P (2023), Desire for social status affects marital and reproductive attitudes: A life history mismatch perspective, Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology, Volume 4, 2023, 100125

Fertility levels have dropped drastically across the world in recent decades, particularly in developed Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore. A common reason cited for falling fertility levels is the rise in living costs, which makes it hard for people to afford many children. The truth, however, is that people across the world today enjoy higher living standards than ever before, yet have far fewer children than their ancestors who were much poorer. In “When social status gets in the way of reproduction in modern settings,” Jose C. Yong, Amy J. Lim and Norman P. Li argue that evolutionary mismatch may be the reason behind falling fertility levels despite the rise in living standards over time.

Modern times, old habits

Evolutionary mismatch refers to the phenomenon wherein traits that worked to the favour of an organism’s survival in the past become disadvantageous to survival chances in modern times.

The researchers note that human beings evolved to seek social status because it improved their access to resources, and thereby their ability to attract mates of the opposite sex and produce offspring bearing their genes. Such status seeking behaviour, while it worked well to improve the survival or reproductive success of people in the past, may be working against them in modern settings, they argue. In ancient hunter gatherer societies, which were egalitarian in nature, gaining status did not require hoarding more resources than others but rather depended on one’s contribution to the group. And since these groups were small in size and family-based, fierce competition to seek social status was discouraged. In such an environment, while there was still competition for higher social status, the cost of such status seeking behaviour was kept minimal by the social setting.

In modern societies, individuals exhibit their social status mainly through the hoarding of more resources. And unlike primitive societies in which individuals had to compete against only a small group of people, people today have to compete for higher social status against a much larger pool characterised by extreme wealth disparities. This can have adverse consequences.

The authors cite the example of East Asian countries today with extremely low fertility levels where people may ironically enjoy an abundance of resources yet choose to delay or permanently stall reproduction because they want to compete for higher social status. Education, career and wealth are common markers of status in East Asian societies, and people in these societies are found by the researchers to value social status more than those in the West. This leads to over-investment in status seeking and underinvestment in reproduction.

It should also be noted that the perceived cost of raising children can rise as people compete for social status based on resources. Take the case of educating children. Even though average education may be sufficient to impart enough skills to children, parents may opt for higher degrees that are unnecessary simply because these degrees offer better social status to their children. Parents may also prefer expensive schools for kids because they offer social status. This ‘rat race’ to gain higher social status, the researchers argue, can compromise reproduction.

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