Can Starlink Save the American Mother?
Entering the synthetic womb debate with a different take
The American mother is tired. For one, she is older: the average age of a first-time mom is 27, up from 22 in 1994. If she is a high-earning, Bay-area working mom, she had her first child at 33 and is paying $35 an hour for a nanny. If she works late, she may have two nannies trading off shifts. One of those nannies would have likely come down with Omicron in the last few weeks, so she will have needed a backup nanny to cover for her primary one. She will be managing a spreadsheet of household contractors who are so busy working for other mothers that they often don’t answer her call. And even if her marriage is balanced in responsibilities, I know that she is managing these affairs because she is pinging my mommy group chats asking if I know a baby-sitter who’s available tomorrow.
These are the few and lucky women of extreme privilege. They have the money to pay for help. Now, subtract the funds to pay for the nanny or the housekeeper. Subtract the on-call babysitter who makes it possible for an American mother to have a career where there are “working dinners.” Add some student loans for that master’s degree because this mother is more in debt and more educated than previous mothers, working more hours than she ever has and raising children in a more competitive world where housing, education and specialized healthcare have become more expensive than previously imaginable.
The fertility crisis isn’t just a crisis of fertility. It’s a crisis of the family.
A year ago, my husband and I decided we couldn’t do this. I couldn’t do this. And like many American families, we moved East from California and actively chose a different life for our family. We bought a house that our friends have described as “in the middle of nowhere” where our mortgage is less than our rent in California. But most importantly, the house has enough space for a grandma to move in and help us raise our child.
Help raise our child. My grandparents helped raise me when my mother went to work. And my great-grandmother helped raise my mother. And my other grandma moved into the basement of my aunt’s house to help raise my cousins. And on and on this family history goes, especially if you were from a poor immigrant community who knew that the ladies at the church could fill in while you worked a laborious job. In the long history of motherhood and childrearing, the women were tired and overworked—often raising kids and supporting a family business or bringing in extra income. But they weren’t alone. There were other mothers. Grandmothers. Neighbors next-door. This was how the family worked. How it scaled.
But we took away the infrastructure for scale a few decades ago. Our culture has sold us a convenient lie that puts most young people at a grave disadvantage: to get a good job, one needs to go to an expensive college in a different state than where they grew up. After college, one needs to move to a big city for that job and crushing student debt makes it too expensive to save for a home. By the time a young person reaches their 30s and their career aspirations of middle management, their savings are dismal—and their city apartment provides enough space for exactly one.
I think a lot about how organizations scale and the nuclear family simply doesn’t. The arrangement described above is enough to drive working women out of their minds. There are other ways to scale a family, and I wrote about it in “Can Zoom Save the American Family?” a daydream of how normalizing remote work might lead us back to a world where multigenerational living and community support become the backbone of the American family. But I’ve come to realize it’s not just Zoom we need. We need to move knowledge work to the Internet so families can live everywhere, even remote parts of the country where the Internet is about to go.
The Case for Starlink
The post-war growth of American cities coincides with the decline in the birth rate —and the cultural reasons for this decline are deeper than just the cost of raising a family. It began accelerating as the nuclear family replaced the multigenerational family, and as expensive cities became the nexus for economic opportunity not only in the U.S., but in the Western world. A country that was once dotted with rich farmland and frontiersmen who sought to live off it is now dominated by coastal cities that refuse to build more housing. The “two Americas” refrain that has been the hallmark of American political debates for the last 40 years is not an economic one, but an urban-rural divide that encourages ruthless competition for housing and economic opportunity in only a handful of wealthy states. The brain drain from the heartland and rural America over the last fifty years is at the crux of many of our civic problems, and most importantly, our family problems.
When America’s favorite engineer tweeted about the declining birthrate this week, many followers tweeted technology solutions, most humorously, that if we wanted to solve our birthrate crisis we need artificial wombs to make more children. The pushback was fierce, and the pushback against the pushback derailed a conversation about immediate and more obvious solutions to a catastrophic fertility problem. The irony of the discourse on Twitter was that most commentators ignored the technological infrastructure poised to have a greatest impact on the family: satellite internet. Starlink is perhaps the most high-profile American product—SpaceX’s low-earth orbit satellite constellation providing affordable, reliable internet access—built for rural and remote communities first, the enabling technology that will support mass migration to cheaper parts of America and the world. It will ultimately power new economic opportunity in places that were forgotten by 20th century growth.
When we moved East and found our home, the main problem was reliable Internet. We were remote but not rural—it shouldn’t have been a problem—but a major source of anxiety was dropped Zooms at work. We are under-estimating the impact of instant connectivity everywhere, and what it will mean for a country and a world that over-indexed on cities and under-valued family units that want to stay together. This connectivity and move to Internet-first work will lead to a rural land-grab that has a profound impact on the family.
In the information economy, land seemed irrelevant, but as we move out the office to the Internet, this infrastructure liberates us from the constraints of location. As more and more people move to operating their full lives on the internet, expensive states like California and New York will become less dominant in both their cultural and economic power. Starlink’s impact on federalism will be even greater than we realize. The promise of federalism—that people can live with like-minded individuals who represent their interests and values in politics—was always a unique facet of the American experience, a Tocquevillian fantasy that died with the 20th Century. Washington was built to be a weak capital city with much of the primary decisions—housing policy, education—decided by counties and states for the needs of the community. But the post-war era pushed talent to a handful of big cities, leaving both a commercial opportunity and talent vortex in much of the country. Moving life to the internet means federalism and community in its initial formulation can become prominent once again. And we’re already seeing this movement: Texas and Florida have been the beneficiaries of staggering growth during Covid, as people are voting with their feet on policies such as lockdowns, education and housing costs without having to sacrifice their careers.
Work-from-a-home-near-San Francisco-or-New York will not solve America’s declining birth rate. Wealthy women will be tired but fine with this arrangement, but most women won’t be. We need an exurban and rural renaissance—powered by space and technology— that allows our best and brightest minds to move to the zip codes of their choosing. Where they can surround themselves by family and community to support their needs and values. And where many hands can support our tired American mother upon whom this country is forever indebted and dependent.