Wajahat Ali: Can Investing In Children Revitalize Economies And Our Humanity?

Apr 9, 2021
Originally published on October 15, 2021 4:40 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Revitalize

In some of the world's biggest economies, people are having fewer children. But writer Wajahat Ali explains why investing in future generations is key to rejuvenating our societies...and our humanity.

About Wajahat Ali

Wajahat Ali is a writer, public speaker, and lawyer. He is also a New York Times contributing op-ed writer, and frequent political commentator on cable news.

Previously in his journalism career, Ali helped launch the Al Jazeera America network, serving as co-host of the network's daily news program, The Stream. He also wrote and produced the play The Domestic Crusaders, and produced the 2017 Emmy-nominated series The Secret Life of Muslims. He was also the lead author and researcher of "Fear Inc., Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America," a report from the Center for American Progress. He also served as a consultant for the U.S. State Department.

As Creative Director of Affinis Labs, Ali worked with Facebook, Google and the UN to create social entrepreneurship initiatives that positively impacted marginalized communities and empowered young leaders to come up with innovative solutions to tackle world problems.

He holds a B.A. in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and a J.D. from University of California, Davis' School of Law.

This segment of TED Radio Hour was produced by Diba Mohtasham and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. You can follow us on Twitter @TEDRadioHour and email us at TEDRadio@npr.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


On the show today, we are talking about how we revitalize our neighborhoods, our bodies, our spirits and even entire populations.

WAJAHAT ALI: I thought we were going to talk about Legos.

ZOMORODI: Well, I could actually talk a lot about Legos as a fellow parent and how much pain they've inflicted on the bottoms of my feet over...

ALI: Oh, yeah. You don't have calluses? And now it's just like, whatever. You can just...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

ALI: You could stab me with a Lego.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

This is writer Wajahat Ali.

ALI: I think most people know me as a writer and a guy who builds Lego sets with his kids.

ZOMORODI: How old are yours right now?

ALI: Ibrahim is 6, and Nusayba's 4, and the tyrant is about to wake up.


ALI: But she's so sweet. She's 1.

ZOMORODI: I love it. OK, so you're a father of three, but that is not what you gave your TED Talk about. You actually - well, you started your talk saying that in some of the world's biggest economies, people are having fewer and fewer kids and that that could be a big problem. Why?

ALI: There was just this topic that was just circling in my brain. I had read about it almost every year for the past three years, that every year, the birth rate in the United States was falling. And specifically over the past 50 years, the birth rate around the world has halved, right? And I was like, why are people not having as many kids? Especially in the United States, in Japan, in China, in Eastern Europe - right? - people aren't having kids. And so I was just really curious about just digging a little bit deeper into why.

ZOMORODI: Wajahat Ali continues on the TED stage.


ALI: Why is the birth rate declining in these countries? In some cases, it's because women are more literate, more educated. They have more economic opportunities - all good things, yes, all good things.


ALI: Women also have more access to birth control, more control over their reproductive lives - all good things. But in the United States in particular, a lot of young people who are opting out of having kids largely cite the same reason - financial concerns. The United States is the most expensive country in the world to give birth. And guess what? The United States is the only industrialized country in the world that does not require employers to offer paid parental leave. Many of you are sitting there right now saying, Waj, there's also overpopulation. There's also orphan kids who still need parents. And, oh, by the way, we have a ginormous carbon footprint that is destroying this planet. And yet, despite all this chaos, I still think we should have babies. Now, I just want to acknowledge that choosing to have babies is a deeply, profoundly personal choice and that many who want to are unable. But just for today, let's examine the flip side of the coin - at how not having enough new people is going to be a major problem moving forward.

ZOMORODI: So I want to just make sure that we have it very concise and clear about what the downside is of fertility rates going down for our country. Why do we need to maintain a certain level of population? What happens to a society if you don't have enough people?

ALI: Sure. So the data shows that the global total fertility rate needs to be at least 2.1 children per woman today so that one generation has enough people to replace the other, right? So the question is, what happens when the total fertility rate decreases below that level and we don't have enough people? Specifically, what we're seeing in the United States, Japan, China, in the EU is that a plummeting population leads to rising labor shortages in the world's biggest economies.

Less workers means less tax revenue. Less tax revenue means less money and safety net programs that provide valuable benefits like pensions and health care. So there's going to be this huge, ginormous imbalance between young people and old people, right? It means that the consequences that will affect everyone - the elderly, the young generation - right? - that will have to now take care of the elderly...


ALI: ...Then putting more burden on a younger population already burdened and challenged with climate change and income inequality and racism.

ZOMORODI: And so is your thesis that actually to revitalize the world economies, to revitalize actually entire nations, we need to have more kids?

ALI: So the talk is - it's talking about, OK, so we have this problem where the global fertility rate has halved. But what we've seen is that if we actually invest in communities, if we actually promote women's health, promote progressive pro-natal policies, such as giving families affordable health care, giving paid parental leave...


ALI: ...Subsidized child care, then what we've seen - in countries like Sweden, the birth rate actually ticked up. And you see that people say, oh, we actually do want to have kids.

ZOMORODI: OK, but hold up. I do have to point out that some people listening might be thinking, like, Wajahat, you're a man, and you are essentially telling women that they should choose to have children.

ALI: No, so first of all, you're absolutely right. You know, obviously, this is a woman's choice. I'm a man. Who am I to say have kids or don't have kids? But I wanted to point out the problem that we have in certain countries, right? It is absolutely every couple and every individual's choice whether or not they should have kids or not have kids. What disturbed me was why we as a society are punishing women for wanting to have kids. Another thing I wanted to just touch upon is, everyone says, oh, I'm going to make my decision, and I'm going to live in my silo, and I'll be OK. It doesn't work that way. We're all connected. And so shouldn't we have a responsibility to take care of each other?

ZOMORODI: So you are an American. You live in a country which, as you've pointed out, does not support parents in much of any way. So why did you and your wife decide to have kids?

ALI: You know, I'll admit, growing up, I'm like, there should be no reason why I procreate. But when we had Ibrahim - it sounds like a cliche, but what happens is your capacity for love and sacrifice increases. You know, you didn't even know you had the ability to process these types of emotions. And, you know, it's selfish. The act of having children has given us tremendous joy. But what it also is - I think it's an audacious Hail Mary of hope, right? And what I mean by that is, there's a part of me that empathizes with all the concerns.

How are you going to afford this child? Why will you bring the child into a world where there's a rise of white nationalism and he's a brown-skinned and has a Muslim name? Why are you bringing in to a child that will increase the carbon footprint? But then another part of me says, children literally represent - what? - hope, a renewal. And so investing in having children and a family is my investment literally in humanity, that maybe this next generation can push things forward.

ZOMORODI: I can only imagine that your sense of that is even more heightened than any other parents because of what you shared in your talk because I believe just before you were about to give your TED Talk, you got some horrific news. Can you explain what happened?

ALI: Yeah, so this was the irony. Almost two years ago to the day, I'm in Vancouver in a hotel. I'm about to go on the TED stage and give my talk. I left my wife and my two children at the time, Ibrahim and Nusayba. And I get a call in the morning. And my wife calls me sobbing.


ALI: And she said, I'm calling from the hospital. We had to take my baby daughter Nusayba, who's named after a warrior princess, to the hospital because she found a bump on the stomach. We got back the results, and there were bumps all around her liver. We found out that she has stage IV liver cancer.


ALI: It has been a challenging week. It has been a challenging week.


ALI: As a parent, you immediately do a barter prayer. Whether or not you believe in God, you do a barter prayer with the universe. And so you say, OK, God, my life for the kid - fair trade. And you do the barter prayer knowing full well you won't receive an answer. But there seems to be a profound injustice that this two-year-old girl somehow magically overnight has stage IV cancer, which means she'll need a liver transplant to survive, and she'll need just aggressive, punishing chemo.

And so I'm sitting there thinking, God, I have to now go give a talk. And what talk do I have to give, Manoush?

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

ALI: The case for having kids. How can I make the case for having kids when one of my kids now has cancer, and we're going to be immersed in just chaos and pain? And so I thought it would be disingenuous to step on that stage and not make it personal.

ZOMORODI: So how is your daughter now?

ALI: So Nusayba is four years old, going to turn five in the summer. All of her hair is now come back, so she's like Halle Berry with this amazing thick curl of hair. And we just got results. You know, you do tests all the time. And just yesterday, all her levels came back. She's doing fantastic. And, you know, every day, my wife and I, we just look at Nusayba twirling around, dancing, being goofy, playing with her brother, and we just sit there and just say, my God, this is - look at this miracle.

ZOMORODI: I think it's interesting because we started off our conversation and actually you started off your talk in a very macro way. But I think what you've gone is to the sort of micro, which is that your children have really revitalized you in that you see the world in - as a place for change.

ALI: Absolutely.

ZOMORODI: I have to say, speaking for myself, I was a pretty jaded Gen Xer. And having kids, for me, it is like seeing the world new again.

ALI: Yeah, literally. As an adult, it's wonderful because you now have become the teacher, you've become the mentor. You see life through a different lens - right? - through a childlike lens where there is joy in this curiosity, and there's conflicting emotions. And you see the beauty of Lego sets again.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

ALI: I mean, in this pandemic, as I'm locked down with my three children and my wife, you know, I feel connected to this mirth and this laughter in our home. And there is something about revitalizing your spirit and re-finding a purpose, especially at this time.

ZOMORODI: That's writer Wajahat Ali. You can see his full talk at ted.com.

Thank you so much for listening to our show this week - Revitalize. To learn more about the people who were on it, go to ted.npr.org. To see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.

Our TED Radio production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala and Matthew Cloutier with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Janet Woojeong Lee. Special thanks to listeners James Daly, Kang Huh, Lucy Soucek and Lakshmi Sarah for sharing their thoughts, too. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.