The Demography Disaster You Weren’t Expecting

Everything that you know about demography is a lie.

That’s the message that Weekly Standard writer Jonathan V. Last screams from the mountain tops in What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster. By examining unprecedented, worldwide shifts in population trends, such as in fertility rates and societal age structures, Last comes to several gloomy conclusions about where we’re headed – but not for the reasons you might expect.

Last’s goal is to debunk widely held beliefs about overpopulation, particularly the claims made by author Paul Ehrlich, who plays the villain in Last’s story. Last is the Batman to Ehrlich’s Joker; the Luke Skywalker to his Darth Vader; the Mr. Darcy to his Mr. Wickham.

Ehrlich came to international fame and fortune in 1968 when he published his world-wide best-seller, The Population Bomb, which Last jabs at as “one of the most spectacularly foolish books ever published.” And it’s not hard to see why. Ehrlich’s book actually begins: “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines – hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent substantial increase in the world death rate.”

This book has sold 3 million copies to date. Yet, even today, Ehrlich’s ideas still hold some weight. And perhaps they make intuitive sense. We’re bound to reach our carrying capacity at some point. Overpopulation will naturally lead to resource scarcity, drive down wages, and increase unemployment as too many young people flood the labor market, which will cause global unrest, instability, and violent revolution, so the story goes. Couple all of those factors with increasing worries about a growing population’s effect on environmental degradation and global warming, and you’ve got yourself a doomsday scenario that can go toe-to-toe with the best of ‘em.

But Last is not hard on Ehrlich simply because some of his more dramatic predictions have not exactly panned out; rather, Last goes on the full offensive against Ehrlich because at precisely the time that The Population Bomb was hitting bookstands and Ehrlich was getting spots on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the exact opposite of what Ehrlich predicted was happening.

Although they had gradually been declining for many years beforehand, right around 1968, world fertility rates actually began to go into free fall.

The golden number in demography is 2.1. If a country’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) – the average number of children a woman can be expected to have by the time she completes her reproductive years assuming the birth rate remains constant throughout – is above 2.1, then that country’s population will grow; lower, it will shrink; exactly 2.1, and the population will remain constant, which is why the number is often termed the “replacement rate.”

In 1979, world TFR was 6.0; today, it’s 2.52 – and rapidly declining. And that 2.52 number is just the average. In many countries, the TFR is substantially lower. Europe is well below the average – such as in Germany, Italy and Greece, all of which sit at right around 1.4; China, an interesting case study because of its one-child policy, is at 1.55; 30 years ago, Iran’s TFR was soaring at 6.5, but today, it’s below the replacement rate at 1.88. Singapore brings up the global rear at a precariously low 0.79.

Although the trend has hit more-developed nations harder and faster on average, the majority of less-developed nations are also exhibiting a similar declining trend. In fact, fertility rates are on a downward trajectory in 97 percent of countries around the world. The only exceptions to the great population crunch are several central- and north-African countries, such as Niger (7.03) and Uganda (6.06).

The United States, which Last spends the majority of his book discussing, is relatively exceptional (true to form) for a Western nation, sitting at 2.06 – but much of that can be attributed to a growing Hispanic population, which has a TFR of 2.35 and contributed half of the population growth in the U.S. from 2000 to 2010. The white, middle-class TFR in America more closely resembles those found in Europe, at 1.79.

While advocates of Ehrlich’s brand of death by overpopulation see these falling numbers as a good thing, Last believes that greater problems than those promised by overpopulation loom in the shadows of a population that is decreasing. But before delving into what some of those problems may be, it is worth detailing what exactly Last believes has caused fertility rates to reach these historic lows in the last 50 years.

College students (and institutions of higher learning themselves) are one of the primary culprits in the era of depopulation. According to Last, higher education has indirectly become one of the most effective forms of birth control in America. The crux of the argument is that couples often put-off having children until they are finished with their educations and well-situated in the workforce. Those four (or more) years of hitting the books, which have become a staple of middle-class life in America, have taken a toll on the number of babies that a family can reasonably be expected to have. Increasing college tuition costs also leave more students straddled with debt by the time they graduate. Many couples are reluctant to start families with a significant amount of debt, pushing the age of family formation back even further.

The notion that couples don’t want to start families while burdened with debt tells us something: namely, that kids are really, really expensive. By some measures – when factoring in costs such as paying for college and the lost wages of a spouse who exits the workforce – it costs an average of $1.1 million to raise a kid in middle-class America today.

This economic disincentive marks a striking difference in how we view children today and how they have often been looked at throughout human history. There used to be an economic incentive that motivated couples to have children – the need for someone to take care of them in old age; however, with the advent of the New Deal and programs like Social Security and Medicare, one sees little reason at all, at least when the bottom line is concerned, to have children anymore.

Last even notes that things like car-seat laws have added yet another economic burden on the prospect of having children. It’s not the car seats themselves that are expensive, but the bigger (or additional) cars that car-seat laws force families to buy if they want more than two children. The typical five-seat sedan can only fit two gargantuan booster seats in the back, and some state laws may cause smaller children to use them until they are 12 years old. If a family wants a third child badly enough, they will likely do so regardless of such seemingly trivial extra expenses. After all, what’s a few thousand dollars more on a potentially $1.1 million investment? But the increased cost may cause some families on the margin – debating whether or not to have number three – to stick with two. At the very least, it may cause a couple to wait until they are financially better-off to add another member to the family – closing the fertility window ever more.

Last also spends considerable time on several social phenomena that emerged out of the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s: Higher divorce rates mean couples are splitting up before they would have normally been finished having children; the prevalence of abortion and increased access to birth control have played an obvious role that needs little elaboration; and changing norms about women in the workforce have given many women the choice to put-off having children (or not to have children at all) in favor of beginning their careers.

Attributing declining fertility rates with these phenomena is not to say that many of them have not been an overall boon for both individuals and society as a whole; few would argue that more educational and career opportunities for women are bad things. But, as Last stresses, our attitudes and behaviors toward having children and forming families sit precariously upon a ledge. Even minor changes in cultural norms or seemingly irrelevant policy measures have the ability to tip them right over the edge – let alone the vast technological and societal revolutions that have upended American culture since the 1960s – and it’s important to recognize that.

“OK – so population is actually declining. What’s the problem?” an Ehrlichian might ask at this point. Well, Last provides a few answers in response.

First, when a country remains at sub-replacement-level fertility for a prolonged amount of time, eventually the age structure inverts (imagine an upside-down pyramid). Suddenly, the elderly (or those dependent upon the labor and wages of others) outnumber the youthful (or those who provide the labor and wages). To put it in another perspective, in the German city of Westphalia, there are such tremendous labor shortages for workers to take care of retirees that the government started a program to convert prostitutes into elder-care nurses.

Another problem comes with the benefits that the elderly are dependent upon from the state. When Social Security was first enacted in America, there were 160 workers for every one beneficiary; today, that ratio is approaching just two to one. The state is left with a difficult decision: either cut the benefits that the elderly have been promised (and for which they have paid) or increase the tax burden on the young. Neither solution is particularly optimal for maintaining societal stability.

The inverted age structure also leads to a second, perhaps more obvious problem: The overall number of people begins to contract and decline as the elderly die off faster than they can be replaced. This phenomenon has hit Germany particularly hard, where, for instance, the city of Hoyerswerda (with a TFR hovering between 0.8 and 1.2 since the fall of the Berlin Wall) has lost half of its population in the last 30 years. The primary role of the Hoyerswerda government today is to demolish buildings in areas that have become ghost towns. More than a third of the housing in Hoyerswerda has been torn down in the last 30 years.

But these problems (if one can even call the prostitute-to-nurse program a problem) are trivial compared to some of the others associated with a graying population. Primarily, Last argues, an aging population is not conducive to innovation. The elderly do not invest nearly as much as the young, which will lead to shrinking capital pools and opportunities for technological innovation. Furthermore, innovation is a young man’s game. Economists often point to one’s prime innovative years as between 18 and 34, before one has settled into an established niche. With an aging population comes economic stagnation (if not decline) and an across-the-board hit to quality of life. Conservative pundit Mark Steyn summed it up well: “There is no precedent in human history for economic growth on declining human capital.”

Yet, for America, the future remains bright. While world population is expected to peak somewhere around 2050, America’s will keep growing so long as it keeps the proverbial Ellis Island open. A steady flow of immigrants has the ability to curb just about any problem that even the most pessimistic demographer can muster. While conservatives are often quick to harp on the problems associated with illegal immigration (of which there are many legitimate ones, of course), perhaps there will be a time when we desperately want energetic and hard-working young men to cross our borders to take care of our elderly, but we simply won’t be able to entice them to do so.

Last offers a crash course in demography – spending much of an early chapter going over the basic terminology and equations in the field – and the oft-overlooked subject’s implications on American politics and culture. Although the subject is serious, the read is enjoyable, and Last is never light on jokes and dry wit. (Chapter names like “SEX!” and “How to Make Babies” give you an idea of what kind of humor you can expect.) It may not convince you to have a baby yourself, but perhaps it will give you an increased level of appreciation for those who do undertake the not-so-glamorous-but-vitally important task.

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