Conspicuous consumption may drive fertility down

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | March 29, 2016

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"As competition becomes more focused on social climbing, as opposed to just putting food on the table, people invest more in material goods and achieving social status, and that affects how many children they have," says anthropologist Paul Hooper.

Competition for social status may be an important driver of lower fertility in the modern world, suggests a new study published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

“The areas were we see the greatest declines in fertility are areas with modern labor markets that have intense competition for jobs and an overwhelming diversity of consumer goods available to signal well-being and social status,” says senior author Paul Hooper, an anthropologist at Emory University. “The fact that many countries today have so much social inequality – which makes status competition more intense – may be an important part of the explanation.”

The study authors developed a mathematical model showing that their argument is plausible from a biological point of view.

Across the globe, from the United States to the United Kingdom to India, fertility has gone down as inequality and the cost of achieving social status has gone up. “Our model shows that as competition becomes more focused on social climbing, as opposed to just putting food on the table, people invest more in material goods and achieving social status, and that affects how many children they have,” Hooper says.

Factors such as lower child mortality rates, more access to birth control and the choice to delay childbirth to get a higher education are also associated with declining fertility. “While these factors are very important they are insufficient to explain the drops in family sizes that we are seeing,” Hooper says.

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