For two centuries, overpopulation has haunted the imagination of the modern world. According to Thomas Malthus, writing in 1798, human population growth would always surpass agricultural production, meaning “gigantic inevitable famine” would “with one mighty blow level the population with the food of the world.”
Later, eugenicists like Margaret Sanger in the 1920s fretted over the wrong people reproducing too much, creating what she called “human weeds,” a “dead weight of human waste” to inherit the earth. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich predicted that in the 1970s, “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death” because of the “population bomb.” These days, environmentalists worry that too many people will overload the natural world’s resources and destroy the planet with excessive consumption and pollution, leading to catastrophic global warming.
A strain of anti-humanism has always run through population paranoia, a notion that human beings are a problem rather than a resource. But as Jonathan Last documents in his new book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, it is not overpopulation that threatens the well-being of the human race, it is under-population. As Last writes, “Throughout recorded human history, declining populations have always been followed by Very Bad Things.” Particularly for our modern, high-tech, capitalist world of consumers who buy, entrepreneurs who create wealth and jobs, and workers whose taxes fund social welfare entitlements, people are an even more critical resource.
The Facts of Population Decline
Last, a senior writer for the Weekly Standard and father of three, provides a reader-friendly but thorough analysis of the demographic crisis afflicting the West and the “Very Bad Things” that will follow population decline. Clearly argued and entertainingly written, Last covers the how and why of our refusal to reproduce, and the consequences that will follow.
The facts of population decline are dramatic. Women must average a total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1 children apiece for populations to remain stable. But across the developed world, and increasingly everywhere else, fertility is quickly declining below this number: “All First World countries are already below the 2.1 line,” Last writes, and the rates of decline among Third World countries “are, in most cases, even steeper than in the First World.”
Japan and Italy, for example, have a 1.4 TFR, a “mathematical tipping point” at which the population will decline by 50 percent in 45 years. As for the rest of Europe, by 2050 only three countries in the E.U., which today has an average rate of 1.5 TFR, will not be experiencing population declines. Those countries are France, Luxembourg, and Ireland.
Immigration from the Third World will not provide a long-term solution, as fertility rates are declining there as well. The average fertility rate for Latin America was six children per woman in the 1960s; by 2005, it had dropped to 2.5. At that rate of decline, within a few decades, Latin American countries will likely have a fertility rate lower than that of the United States.
Compared to Singapore’s 1.1 TFR, or Germany’s 1.36, the U.S.’s 2.0 (an average of varying rates ranging from 1.93 to 2.18) looks pretty good. But, in Last analysis, the negative trends do not bode well for the future. The large numbers of Hispanic immigrants reached 50.5 million in 2010, compared to 22.3 million in 1990, a doubling of their population in 20 years. Hispanic women are outpacing the U.S. fertility rate with their 2.35 TFR. But that number represents a decline from 2.96 in 1990, plunging nearly 10 percent just between 2007 and 2009.
Last warns, “Our population profile is so dependent on Hispanic fertility that if this group continues falling toward the national average––and everything about American history suggests that it will––then our 1.93 fertility rate will take a nosedive.” The United States should not count on a population surge via Mexico, where 60 percent of the Hispanic immigrants into this country come from. Mexico’s fertility rate has fallen from 6.72 in 1970 to 2.07 in 2009, a trend that points to further decline. In addition, labor shortages in Latin America will likely lead to diminished emigration.
Causes and Consequences
Such are the brute facts of population decline. Why it has happened, what the consequences of it will be, and what we can do to arrest it make up the remaining bulk of Last’s book. The most general cause of population decline is modernity itself; birthrates started declining in the nineteenth century when industrialization and technological advances began to accelerate. Better nutrition, sanitation, and health care, for example, have reduced infant mortality in America from about 300 babies dying out of 1,000 live births in 1850, to about six today. More babies surviving lessened the need for multiple pregnancies, which in turn reduced family size.
During the Industrial Revolution, migration to cities made children less useful than they were on farms and more expensive. Easier divorce, reliable birth control, cohabitation replacing marriage, and women entering the workforce in greater numbers––since 1990, about 70 percent of women have been working at any given time––have all contributed to the decline in marriage and the diminishing centrality of children in people’s lives. These forces have created disincentives to reproduction, not the least being the $1.1 million price tag for rearing and educating a child today.
Two larger cultural trends have reinforced the effects of technological developments and industrialization. As Last points out, fertility rates among the educated classes began falling in the middle of the eighteenth century, which was about the same time as the rise of capitalism. The pursuit of individual initiative and self-interest contributed to the erosion of community and family. Economic advancement requires mobility and fewer obligations; constraints hamper self-improvement and risk-taking, after all. Having children, perhaps the greatest constraint of all, became less and less a factor in people’s calculations of their self-interests. Something else would be required to get people to procreate.
That imperative to reproduce used to be grounded in religion, but during the eighteenth century, secularization began to loosen the hold that religious practice––actually going to church rather than just self-identifying by sect––used to have on people’s behavior. The effect of religious practice on fertility is obvious from statistics. Indeed, the effects of religion on fertility can be “so powerful that even if you’re not the churchgoing type yourself, you’ll be affected if your parents are.”
People whose mothers never went to church are twice as likely to cohabit than those whose mothers went more than once a week. The direct effects of churchgoing are even more dramatic. A woman who never attends church is seven times more likely to cohabit than one who goes weekly. Cohabitation in turn affects marriage and divorce, making marriage less likely and divorce more likely. Churchgoers have happier, more stable marriages, contributing to the chance they’ll have more children.
This effect can be seen in “desired fertility” statistics, a measure of the number of children people say is ideal. Among non-religious Americans, 21 percent say three or more children make the ideal family size. Among weekly churchgoers, 41 percent do. Last concludes, “Religion helps marriage and marriage helps fertility––the end result being that religiosity winds up being an even better predictor of fertility than either education or income.” Fertility rates prove Last’s point. Observant Protestants and Catholics have a TFR of 2.25 compared to secular Americans’ 1.66. The highest fertility rate in the U.S. is in Mormon Utah, at 2.60.
The dire economic and social effects of plummeting birthrates remind us that marriage and childbirth are not just private lifestyle choices. A country with fewer children becomes, on average, increasingly older. Cities and towns begin to empty, while the cost of caring for retirees and elderly sick people skyrockets. Old people spend less and invest less, shrinking capital pools for the new businesses that create new jobs. Entrepreneurs do not come from among the aged: countries with a higher median age have a lower percentage of entrepreneurs.
Most important, a shrinking labor force means fewer workers contributing the payroll taxes that finance old-age care. The Social Security program is already beginning to be impacted by the decline in the worker-to-retiree ratio. In 1940, there were 160 workers for each retiree. By 2010, there were just 2.9. Once some 80 million Baby Boomers retire, the number will plummet to 2.1. This means taxes will have to increase and benefits be cut substantially to keep the program solvent. Medicare is similarly threatened by declining fertility. Both programs will cost more but have fewer workers footing the bill.
Finally, foreign policy will increasingly be impacted by the global decline in fertility. Those who fear China as a future superpower threat to our interests should remember that by 2050, China’s population will be declining by 20 million every five years, and one out of four people will be over the age of 65. China’s public pension system covers only 365 million people and is unfunded by 150 percent of GDP. What we need to prepare for “is not a shooting war with an expansionist China,” Last writes, “but a declining superpower with a rapidly contracting economic base and an unstable political structure. It’s not clear which scenario is more worrisome.”
Let us not forget the other rapidly aging and shrinking superpower, Russia. It has a fertility rate of 1.3, and an average life expectancy of 66 years. By 2050, its population will be a third smaller than it is today. Russia’s current global belligerence under Vladimir Putin in part reflects the fact that, as Last writes, “the country has very little to lose.” A “wounded bear,” as Last calls Russia, armed with nuclear weapons is likely to remain a serious font of global disorder.
Solving such a complex problem as declining fertility is not going to be easy. Last at least tells us what doesn’t work. As with many social problems, government intervention isn’t very successful. Bonus payments to expectant mothers, paid paternity leave, public holidays, “Motherhood Medals,” and tax incentives and subsidies have barely moved the needle in Russia, Japan, and Singapore. “People cannot be bribed into making babies,” Last concludes.
The best governments can do is “help people have the children they do want.” Since low fertility correlates with education, we could stop the government-subsidized promotion of a university education for all. A college degree doesn’t prepare people for specific jobs, but rather gives employers an idea of their intelligence and work habits, something that can be done more cheaply and efficiently. Making child-friendly housing more affordable, letting workers telecommute to lessen the career-costs of having children, welcoming more fecund immigrants, and ending the hostility to religion and the faithful, “if for no other reason than they’re the ones who create most of the future taxpayers,” are some of Last’s solutions. Unfortunately, they are as unlikely as they are sensible.
Last’s informative and crisply argued book strives to let “hope have the last word.” Yet his documentation of our self-absorbed commitment to our own pleasure and comfort, both of which child-bearing interferes with, and our indifference to the world that will come after us, suggests that for “a deeply unserious people,” as Last calls us, change will not come until the costly wages of our selfishness become manifest.
Bruce S. Thornton is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He received his BA in Latin in 1975 and his PhD in comparative literature–Greek, Latin, and English–in 1983, both from the University of California, Los Angeles. Thornton is currently a professor of classics and humanities at California State University in Fresno, California. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays and reviews on Greek culture and civilization and their influence on Western civilization. His latest book, published in March 2011, is titled The Wages of Appeasement: Ancient Athens, Munich, and Obama's America.