I don’t want to alarm any readers unnecessarily, but sometimes you have to just take the message straight. So here it is:
A turning point has occurred in the life of the human race. The sustainability of humankind’s oldest institution, the family—the fount of fertility, nurturance, and human capital—is now an open question. On current trends, we face a world of rapidly aging and declining populations, of few children—many of them without the benefit of siblings and a stable, two-parent home—of lonely seniors living on meager public support, of cultural and economic stagnation.
That’s the opening to an essay titled, “The Empty Cradle,” by Phillip Longman and others, which led to an interview with NPR’s Lynne Neary last week. She apparently didn’t realize she was dealing with an end-of-days type (even though he wrote a book with the same name as this article in 2004), and naively thought the subject was just the fiscal challenges of aging populations.
So after he described the rising challenge, she naively instigated this exchange:
NEARY: So, what is the solution? Certainly it’s not just go back to have large families, is it?
LONGMAN: Right. Well, we find in much of the developing world people who say they wish they could have children but they can’t find a way because it’s seen as too expensive. So in some ways this is almost a human rights problem…
His answer became incoherent, as for some reason he didn’t seem to want to tell her the solutions he proposed in the essay. These do mostly boil down to just going back to having large families. (That and promoting marriage.) So we get recommendations like this:
RESPECT THE ROLE OF RELIGION AS A PRONATAL FORCE. Childlessness and small families are increasingly common among secularists. Meanwhile, in Europe and the Americas, as well as in Israel, the rest of the Middle East, and beyond, there is a strong correlation between adherence to orthodox Christian, Islamic, or Judaic religious values and larger, stable families.
This point is illustrated with this graph:
I don’t think it’s breaking news that religious people usually have more children than “secularists.” But I haven’t heard the suggestion that governments promote religion as a way to boost populations. But then again, I didn’t know this either:
Even in the remotest corners of the globe, when television is introduced, birth rates soon fall. This is particularly easy to see in Brazil. … Today, the number of hours a Brazilian woman spends watching domestically produced telenovelas strongly predicts how many children she will have.
Hence, recommendation #9: “Clean up the culture.”
Longman’s essay is in a collection published by a group right-wing institutes, including W. Bradford Wilcox’s National Marriage Project, and apparently funded in this case by the Bradley Foundation, known for supporting outfits like the Heritage Foundation, FreedomWorks, and the neoconservative militarist movement.*
Anyway, I have written before about what came to be known among demographers as “lowest-low fertility,” and the economic pressures that are both its cause and consequence. It is a tricky issue. As a non-expert, my reaction is that governments trying to get people to have more children is a fool’s errand — the way I view trying to promote marriage. It seems much more practical to look for ways to arrange resources to support populations with fewer children and more old people.
And environmentally, I thought it was good news that population growth is slowing globally. Admittedly, though, this somewhat perplexing argument by Longman et al. for population growth as a solution to the environmental crisis had somehow never occurred to me:
The more brains are available to work on natural-resource challenges, the sooner someone will come up with the idea that provides a solution.
Anyway, so what are the economic implications of population decline? This figure shows how lower fertility rates are generally associated with higher national incomes, from World Bank data.
Low fertility is usually an issue in relatively high-income countries. The average income in the countries with fertility below the replacement level of 2.1 is about $22,000 per person, while above that fertility level the average income is about $4,000 per person. But the figure also shows a lot of variation — all the rich countries have low fertility, but some relatively poor countries do, too.
As Longman et al. correctly point out, falling birth rates create a “demographic dividend,” as a smaller population of children provides opportunities for a generation of adults to invest in other things (such as higher education), and to spend time on other things (such as careers for women). But a few decades later those productive middle-aged adults grow into a big bubble of retirees, and that small group of children becomes an undersized group of prime-age workers, threatening to drag down the society’s total income. This potentially creates a fiscal crunch, as pension and medical costs rise relative to earnings.
But that’s not inevitable. If you take advantage of that period when there are fewer children — but not yet too many retirees — it is possible to reap a “second demographic dividend.” This is described in several papers by Andrew Mason and Ronald Lee, including this one, in which they write:
Given appropriate policy formulation, population aging will yield a second dividend. The same demographic changes that lead to low support ratios (high dependency ratios) in the future, namely few children and longer life, also both raise capital per worker other things equal, and additionally create a powerful incentive for individuals to accumulate assets to provide for old age. The result can be a period of rapid growth in per capita income. The rapid pace of asset accumulation is also transitory. However, per capita assets and income stabilize at a level that is permanently higher. In this respect, the second dividend persists whereas the first dividend is transitory.
They use simulations to work this out, which are quite interesting. It seems to boil down to two factors: increased investment in skills, education and experience; and increased savings (either individual or through taxation) motivated by the need to care for more retirees. I like this solution more than trying to get people to have more children.
* Aside: History is interesting this way. I used to associate right-wing foundations in America with funding for anti-population-growth intellectuals, as when the racist Pioneer Fund supported not only eugenics-type sociobiology but also Garrett Hardin’s “tough love” ecology — paraphrasing: “too many people in poor countries, aid and immigration will only drag out the problem, better just let them die.” I don’t know which of these tendencies is more active today.
I also don’t know much about Longman, but I did notice that in 2006 he predicted a renaissance for patriarchy, because conservatives have more children than progressives. He wrote in USA Today:
[progressives having fewer children] is a pattern found throughout the world, and it augers a far more conservative future — one in which patriarchy and other traditional values make a comeback, if only by default. Childlessness and small families are increasingly the norm today among progressive secularists. As a consequence, an increasing share of all children born into the world are descended from a share of the population whose conservative values have led them to raise large families.