Demographers and environmentalists have long warned about the coming perils of overpopulation — in the 1970s and 80s, books like The Population Explosion, Earth: Our Crowded Spaceship, and Planetary Overload filled bookstores, and in 1979 China created its infamous "one-child policy" program to curb overcrowding.
But it turns out they couldn't have been more wrong, according to Jonathan V. Last, a senior writer at The Weekly Standard and author of the new book, What to Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster. Ninety-seven percent of the world's population currently lives in a country where the fertility rate is falling, and America is one of them. In the last few years, the fertility rate in the U.S. has plummeted and recently fell below the replacement level of 2.1 (the number of children the average woman needs to have over the course of her life in order to keep the population constant). Today, it's 1.93.
Last calls it a "demographic cliff," and we're standing on the edge, looking into the horizon of a country plagued with too many elderly citizens and too few workers to support them, economic decline, little innovation, and class warfare. The best-case scenario, Last says, is that the U.S. will start to look more like Japan and suffer prolonged economic stagnation, but the worst case could mean a collapse of our democracy as we know it.
He says that "tiny evolutions in modern life" have slowly brought us here. Factors like the cost of raising a child, delayed marriage, the birth control pill, abortion, the rise of divorce, women in the workforce, and government entitlement programs that force generations to be interdependent, have all played a part. The Fiscal Times talked with Last about the worrisome consequences of having too few babies.
The Fiscal Times (TFT): Many experts say the fertility rate typically falls during a recession, but climbs after the economy recovers. Do you see this happening?
Jonathan V. Last (JL): Economists always think that, but demographers don't, and I side with the demographers on this. The reason is that throughout the last 100 years, you see the fertility rates only going downward. There are very few instances of rebound and increases in fertility rate. The only increase in the history of America was the baby boom — we had 20 years of elevated fertility following WWII, but that was it. Historically, once a country goes below the threshold replacement rate, which is 2.1, it usually doesn't stop until it hits about 1.5. There are no examples of countries coming down from 2.1 and just sitting at 2.0 naturally for generations on end.
TFT: You say that in a way, like China, America has its own one-child policy. Why?
JL: The Chinese have this big coercive system and have worked hard to get their fertility rate low. And the name ["one-child"] isn't quite accurate — If you live the Guangdong Province and work for the party, for example, you can have two children. Or you can apply for a special permit to have two. So China's total fertility rate is about 1.54. Then, if you look over to America at the middle class and white women who are educated with a college degree, their fertility rate is 1.6 — incredibly close to what the Chinese have achieved.
TFT: The U.S. has historically relied on immigration to keep its population growing and its fertility rate high, but now even immigrants and the countries they're migrating from are seeing lower rates — what's driving this?
JL: This is a global trend, so what's true of America is true of Iran, Brazil, Japan, and all the countries in Central and South America. Once a country goes sub-replacement, it's no longer a source of immigration. Right now countries like Uruguay, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico no longer send us immigrants in any meaningful way. Everyone else in Central and South America is heading in that direction, and in the next 20 years they'll probably be below the replacement level as well. We can't rely on there being continued mass immigration.
TFT: You say that "children are now a marker of social failure." Is that true?
JL: Yes. If you look at the socioeconomic scale, the people with the least amount of education and the lowest income have the most babies. But even with their higher fertility rate, they are not all that far above the replacement level. Fertility is what demographers call an "aspirational behavior," which is to say that people pattern their fertility to the most successful parts of society — the phenomenon goes back about 700 years and it doesn't matter if you're in Asia or America. The reason we care about the fertility rates of our middle class and upper middle class is because they're essentially leading everyone else.
TFT: What's the connection between high fertility rates and technological innovation?
JL: When you have increasing populations due to a high fertility rate, economists suggest it correlates with increasing innovation and technological advancement. When it comes to the environment, more people beget more innovation, which begets more conservation. In the 1970s, the American environment was sort of a disaster — we had acid rain, smog, our lakes and rivers were terribly polluted — and we've increased our population by 50 percent over the last 40 years, yet we've cleaned up all these things. We actually live in a smarter and more sustainable way now — that's because of innovation. Human ingenuity, the most precious resource, is precisely what you risk with declining populations.
TFT: So how do we address it? Do monetary incentives work to encourage childbearing?
JL: Societies with fertility problems have been literally trying since Ancient Rome to get people to have more babies and nobody's succeeded. The Romans passed a bachelor's tax to try and force men to settle down and have kids. In Soviet Russia, Stalin instituted a "Motherhood Metal" to women who had more than five children. None of this works. The most success we've seen is in France and the Scandinavian countries were they have generous social welfare programs. They first had something called the housewife's allowance, a tax credit for stay-at-home mothers, and now they've created massive state-run daycare systems. But their success is marginal. The studies suggest that for every 25 percent increase in state spending on measures like these, you get a 0.4 percent increase in the fertility rate.
TFT: But we've had a baby boom before, so could it happen again?
JL: The baby boom was really the stars all aligning at once. We were post-war, and people were realizing how serious life is. You also had an enormous expansion in the standard of middle class living. With just a factory job or normal office job, you could have a single-family home, you could afford having children, and all this economic progress was taking place when all the old conservative cultural traditions — that it was important to get married, that contraception was not the most important thing — still held. That's what produced the baby boom.
TFT: While there's a baby bust, there's also a pet boom right now. Are we really replacing children with pets?
JL: In a funny way, yes. I don't mean to insult pet owners. I like pets too, but some things are ridiculous. There are now challenges to estate planning, so you can set up trust funds for dogs. There's even some interesting research that women who have abortions immediately go and get pets. You can see the links. And frankly it's because pets are a lot like kids, except they're cheaper and you can board them if you go away for a week. I have three kids under the age of four and the people who sentimentalize children drive me nuts, because it's not a bowl of cherries.
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