It’s funny what you say that gets noticed. Apparently, the bit in my piece on birth dearth that got the most attention was an aside, quite off the main point of the piece, to this effect:

Inasmuch as Japan currently has a transition problem (until longevity stops increasing and/or fertility picks up to closer to replacement and/or it achieves rapid advances in productivity), the most obvious solution is to export its elderly to retirement colonies in countries with a large and substantially under-employed youthful labor force, such as India.

Matthew Schmitz, writing in First Things, has a number of positive things to say about my piece, but this suggestion appalls him:

That we are even entertaining such proposals, let alone calling them “the most obvious solution” reveals a massive blindspot in the neoliberal view to which Millman ascribes. Meaning in life derives not just from wealth achieved by the efficient allocation of resources, or of retirees. It also comes from the network of relations with those older and younger that gives us a sense of continuity and community. This is not to say that with bigger families life is necessarily happier, but instead that it is richer, denser. What happiness we have will be more widely and immediately shared, as with our sorrow. One need not think this the highest or only value to be alarmed at how utterly absent it is from the neoliberal view.

A few points.

First, there was a clause at the beginning of my appalling sentence that seems to have gotten clipped by some readers, to whit: “Inasmuch as Japan currently has a transition problem.” Which Japan currently does. Japan’s fertility rate has been well below replacement for decades, and it has among the longest-lived populations on the planet. A significant fraction of Japan’s rising elderly are going to have few or no grandchildren. Someone has to care for these people. That’s a problem. It requires a solution, not sentiment.

The usual neoliberal answer is immigration: bring in cadres of Filipina nurses to care for their elderly and repopulate Japan. But Japan is not in need of repopulation – it may be overpopulated already. Moreover, the Japanese don’t want to become an immigrant society (though young people are more open to immigration than their elders are). The practical alternatives to immigration are reliance on robots and migration by some of the elderly to retirement colonies abroad. It’s not clear to me why the creation of such colonies and voluntary migration thereto is less humane than importing foreign labor or relying on machines. To me, voluntary migration is a more obvious and less-disruptive solution. The Japanese, so far, prefer robots, though a handful of retirement communities have popped up in Southeast Asia.

But the point is, this is a solution to a transition problem. It’s the flip side of emigration of young people from countries whose populations are growing faster (because of improved health care) than they can produce jobs. That’s not ideal either – balance is preferable for both the emigrant and immigrant nations – but in the absence of balance migration is preferable to, say, war as a solution to the transition problem.

Schmitz raises two specific objections to the idea, nonetheless. The first:

[I]f grandma and grandpa have already moved from Poughkeepsie to Miami-Dade, would it make much difference if they went a couple hundred more miles to, say, a liberalized Cuba? Well, yes. As the Euro crisis has shown, whether logically or not, national borders define our circle of solidarity.

That’s true, but it’s still a matter of degree not of kind. As Arizona’s politics demonstrates, when generational divides line up with ethnic ones, your “circle of solidarity” within a community can fray pretty badly. Ask any shore community how they feel about the “summer people” or any college town how the townies feel about the students, or even the professors – you’ll likely get, at best, a complicated reaction, a mixture of gratitude and resentment. That’s worth recognizing, and managing with sensitivity, but it’s not a reason to say that we are a reprehensible civilization for allowing communities to develop riven by town vs. gown or summer vs. year-round divides. If there were a large American community in a liberalized Cuba, that would undoubtedly introduce tensions into Cuba society – in large part, though, because it would force the Cuban government to be attentive to the sensitivities of Americans in a way that native Cubans might not appreciate.

His second objection:

To send one’s elders overseas makes plain and explicit a kind of neglect with which we may already have become too comfortable.

I opened myself up inadvertently to this line of criticism by using the cold word “export” to refer to voluntary migration. But I’m aware that “voluntary” is a fuzzier concept than libertarians might like. Government policies can encourage or discourage this kind of migration. The assumption that migration is an option may shape the willingness of some children to provide care for their elderly parents themselves. And so forth.

Nonetheless, I think there should be a presumption of agency in these matters. Some people lack the cognitive capacity to make good decisions for their own welfare, but most retirees are mentally sound. Lots of retirees choose to live close to their children so as to be near grandchildren. Lots of children choose to live close to their parents for the same reason. But many don’t, and the reason isn’t necessarily neglect. Children migrate for economic reasons; retirees migrate for reasons of health and personal comfort – or even to be near friends who have also migrated.

Schmitz, assuming I’m a “neoliberal” (not a label I would pin on myself in general, though I agree that this particular argument is a neoliberal one) declares that an appreciation for a “dense” life – where happiness and sorrow is widely and immediately shared – is “absent” from my worldview, which, he assumes, derives “meaning” from the efficient allocation of resources. I don’t see how he can get any of this from anything I’ve written – and he doesn’t know me personally, so I don’t know how he can assert anything about how I derive “meaning” from life. As it happens, I’ve never met anyone who derives “meaning” primarily from the efficient allocation of resources. The question, it seems to me, is how important such allocation of resources is to public policy (very important, I would argue, but not the only thing that’s important) and whether “meaning of life” questions have any relevance thereto (they do, I would argue, but you have to be cautious about casual assumptions about consensus around such meaning).

Since the subject has been broached, though, I’ll talk a bit about the “meaning of life.” I’m instinctively inclined toward narrative approaches to psychology according to which we find meaning in our lives by seeing our present as embedded in a life narrative, a story we tell ourselves about our lives. “Density” is important to our happiness for the same reason that it’s important to a good story. A story full of incident but without a strong character arc is a shallow story, and similarly a life full of experiences but without long-lasting and character-shaping relationships is a shallow life.

That’s an approach to thinking about “meaning” that’s perfectly compatible with Schmitz’s, but it’s not identical, because it doesn’t assume that everyone wants to tell the same story. Some people really do derive a huge percentage of the meaning of their life from their work – from their vocation – and much less from their familial relationships. For that matter, some people are just shallow. But more to the point, the narratives we construct for ourselves ought to be related to the lives we are actually living, if they are to prove satisfying. And longevity imposes new constraints on effective narrative construction.

There is a difference between expecting to marry at 21, have three or four children, work at the same job until you are 65, and retire and die at 70 – and having to figure out how to switch careers at 50, and then live until 80 or 90. Longevity, along with economic dislocation, forces us to think about our life narratives as having potentially more “acts.” The narrative that Schmitz implicitly endorses as “right” for people in general was never the way all or even most people lived, but was something of a midcentury American ideal form. It broke down for a whole host of reasons, but it’s worth noting that the generation that married younger and more comfortably than any in American history – the median age of first marriage for men in 1990 was the same as in 1890, 26.1 years, whereas in 1960 it was 22.8 years – was also the generation that experienced skyrocketing divorce rates.

The way we actually live now is that – on average – we marry later and have smaller families. As I said in my original piece, that strikes me as an adaptation to changing economic conditions, and what seems to have happened primarily since 1970 is not that birth rates have dropped precipitously, but that we have started to construct narratives that actually match the way we are living – and, relatedly, that our narratives have become more diverse, such that different subcultures are starting to talk past each other. Schmitz’s reaction to my piece feels, to me, like an instance of the latter.

I’m blessed that I still have one living grandparent. She lives with my mother, in her small apartment. That proximity has imposed costs on both of them, but it has been enormously beneficial to my grandmother and my mother has gained a great deal as well. If my mother needs the same from me one day, I’ll oblige her with love – but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if she takes a different road, and buys a condo in a newly liberalized Cuba, or (more likely) travels the world for as long as she is physically able. My stepmother’s mother is also still living, and her children are scattered around the world from the Philippines to California to New Jersey, where my father lives. She is still able to travel, and goes from one daughter to another around the world. This is also the way we live now. And it’s not a sign of “neglect.”

I’m also a parent of a single, adopted child. That wasn’t my life “plan” – if you asked me at 26, when I married, I would have said ideally I wanted three kids, probably would have to settle for two – but it’s the way it worked out. And it’s working out reasonably well, narrative-wise.

I want men and women to have the freedom to construct the narratives that provide them with meaningful lives. That means not lying to them about the costs of delaying childbirth – which are very real – but I don’t see why it should include lecturing anybody about decadence or how they aren’t leading a sufficiently “meaningful” life. As for public policy, I think we should assume that replacement fertility is something of a ceiling rather than a floor for developed societies, since that seems to be the reality looking across a very long list of countries. If that assumption turns out to be false, we can adapt. In the meantime, I’m completely on-board with a “pro-family” policy agenda because, funnily enough, most people want to have families, and the point of public policy is to serve the needs of the people. But we should be realistic about what such a policy agenda will achieve. It will not turn all of America into Provo, Utah. And we shouldn’t make policy on the assumption that we are trying to achieve such a result.