July 02, 2018

Micro Meets Macro: Gender Selection and Population Problems

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

When we think about our family decisions, such as whether to have children, this may seem to be based solely on individual preferences. After all, child rearing and family planning are very personal.

But our decisions take place within both structural and cultural conditions that are not just individual. For instance, if you live in an agrarian-based society, where many hands are needed in fields and farms, you might have more children than in a highly industrialized society that rewards high levels of education.

In this type of society, families higher income countries tend to have fewer children on average than lower income countries. This is not just personal, but shaped by economic forces. In countries dependent on the labor of family members of all ages, more children can provide an economic benefit. In more affluent countries, children are often an economic liability rather than income generators. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average cost of raising a child in the U.S. is around $233,000. This does not include the cost of higher education, which in some cases can cost that much as well. So the personal decisions we make about whether to have children, and if so how many, are rooted in structural and cultural conditions.

Our economic realities shape our cultural practices. For instance, think of how many cultural practices in the U.S. are shaped around education: school sports promote enthusiasm for (and often donations to) one’s alma mater, the ritual of applying to and admission to college has become a rite of passage for many young people, and for some people joining campus organizations like sororities and fraternities are as much a part of the college experience as the classes they take. For some people, their sense of identity might come from the schools they attended long after they are no longer students.

Other cultural practices are shaped by larger social forces as well. The Washington Post recently reported that in India and China there are nearly 70 million more males than females. This is not the result of chance, but instead the result of a preference for selecting male babies (through selective abortion, infanticide, or in some cases placing female infants for adoption to families in other countries).

It’s not that millions of families simply decided independently that they liked boys better than girls—both structural and cultural factors shaped these decisions. China’s one-child policy (1979-2015) meant that many families who had girls were allowed to have a second child, but not so if the first child was a boy.

Although technically illegal, dowry system is still practiced in some communities in India, making it costly for families of women when their daughters marry. Sons are expected to provide economically for their parents in old age, while daughters are expected to care for of their husbands’ families. These practices have shaped the cultures that favor bearing boys over girls, and boys are more likely to benefit from more of the family resources and even nutrition.

These practices have societal-level consequences. As the Washington Post reported:

Beyond an epidemic of loneliness, the imbalance distorts labor markets, drives up savings rates in China and drives down consumption, artificially inflates certain property values, and parallels increases in violent crime, trafficking or prostitution in a growing number of locations.

The gender imbalance might also lead to changes in migration patterns, if people leave or immigrate to find spouses. Adult men might live with their parents longer, and have less emotional support or power to make family decisions, the Post also notes. Some historians and social scientists have expressed concerns about social instability and social unrest, which has corresponded to a gender imbalance in populations in the past.

Thinking ahead, men who do not have children of their own might find themselves without economic and social support in their old age. When countries have a high old age dependency ratio, there are more elderly than young people to actively support them and contribute to economic growth for the country.

Our personal decisions are shaped by both our culture and social structure. Public policies created to reduce fertility rates and stem poverty can have unintended consequences, as we have seen in China. What might help reverse these demographic trends?


I am all that much satisfied with the substance you have said. I needed to thank you for this extraordinary article.

It makes since to have less kids in an industrialized society as they take a lot of effort and resources to raise, as your article points out. Things such culture also plays into the over all composition of the country, as you point out do to selective abortions places like china and india now have a deficit of females and often males are forced to look outside their country for mates. I should point out that in does countries a divorced or widow of the female gender is often looked as “damaged goods” and there for not marriage marterial.

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