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To be (born) or not to be

bookSince reading Ben Wattenberg’s The Birth Dearth 25 years ago, the subject of demography has fascinated me. This past week I finished Jonathan Last’s What To Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster (ISBN 978-1-59403-641-5, $23.99), a look at declining fertility rates in the United States and around the world. As libertarian humorist P.J. O’Rourke quipped, Jonathan Last’s book is “a powerful argument that the only thing worse than having children is not having them.”

In 1968 Paul Erlich wrote The Population Bomb, in which he claimed that “in the 1970s the world will undergo famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death … nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Erlich’s book became an enormous bestseller. Erlich appeared on several talk shows, and governments around the world embarked on various campaigns, using persuasion and, in the case of China, force, to reduce the number of children being born.           

Contrary to the doomsday predications of Paul Erlich and others like him, however, there was no worldwide famine. There were famines and hunger, but these conditions were nearly all caused by corrupt political regimes, and not by overpopulation.

Erlich was also wrong about population growth. While the population of the world has expanded at a startling clip, this growth, as Last points out, is not due to the number of births of the last two decades but to the bulge created in the population for 30 years after WWII. Increased life expectancy brought about this large population, but in fact fertility rates worldwide have plummeted in the last 50 years. The number of human beings on planet Earth will begin to diminish in the next century. Some countries are even now feeling the results of this decline. In Europe, for example, where fertility rates have long ago fallen below the 2.1 figure needed to replace a population, this baby-bust has become so precipitous that governments desperately promote tax breaks to families, free daycare, and long paid maternity leaves, all to little avail. The birthrates in countries like Spain, Italy, and Germany have all dipped well below replacement rates for years and remain so today. Among 97% of non-European countries around the world, similar trends are in effect. Modernization, wealth, contraception, later marriages, abortion, the quest for individual satisfaction and pleasure: all have brought steep declines in the birth rates.  

As a result, a few countries have already entered into active population decline. In Russia deaths have outnumbered births for decades. The past 15 years have seen the population there diminished by about 10 million, and the government now officially regards the absence of babies as a threat to national security. Japan, which has only just kicked off on its own downhill race, has lost a million people in the last decade. In the next quarter century, China faces the problem of a massive population of the elderly supported by a reduced population of the young.

Many people cheer this decline in fertility, claiming, rightly or wrongly, that the Earth is too crowded anyway. I have no intention of arguing that idea one way or the other. But what does seem to me inarguable — and this is the point of What To Expect When No One’s Expecting — is that we are facing a long period, perhaps a century or more, of social upheaval as a consequence of this downward demographic shift. Retirement ages will be extended. The tax base will be diminished. Entitlement programs will necessarily be reduced. There is, for instance, simply no way at the present that a platoon of younger people can support the services sought by a battalion of the elderly. In wealthier countries the situation will lead to reduced entitlements, at best; in poorer countries, where this same birth dearth is also occurring, and in many places at a faster rate, the lack of children to care for the old and the infirm will result in increased poverty.

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Though a conservative, Jonathan Last is no ideologue. In What To Expect When No One’s Expecting, he writes extensively of the expense and the stress of raising children. He is also careful when discussing causes of this fertility decline, pointing out that in the case of America the “decline was not caused by a grand conspiracy to eviscerate the family. Rather, it’s been the result of a thousand evolutions in modern life.”

Near the end of the book, Last offers some solutions to increase American fertility and to try to bring it again to the 2.1 mark of replacement. These suggestions seem wise, but it is unlikely that any of them — these range from reducing the costs of college to tax benefits for parents — will succeed. These same ideas have been tried and found wanting in cultures as different as Germany, Japan, Russia, Italy and Singapore.

Read the book. Argue with it. Whatever you decide, I would suggest that the next time you’re in a supermarket and see a young mother — you know, those women whom airheads refer to as “breeders” — with three, four, or five children, you might offer to help her with her groceries rather than grousing: “Are those all yours?”

You see, those aren’t just children. They’re the budding taxpayers who will be busting their backs paying for our Social Security and medical care.

What To Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster by Jonathan Last. Encounter Books, 2013. 240 pages.

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