A Pretext to Panic

Michael S. Teitelbaum and Jay Winter

"The Global Baby Bust," by Phillip Longman (May/June 2004), offers a new version of an old fear: the threat of population decline, which has emerged periodically throughout the past century as a major focus of political discourse. Such worries seem to crop up at predictable moments: when a dominant political or economic power begins to feel unsure of its mastery and uncertain about the future, many thinkers turn to demography for an explanation of its plight.

In the late nineteenth century, for example, French patriots of all political stripes, following their crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, began to blame France's low fertility (compared to that of then demographically dynamic Germany) for its decline. Similarly, a few years later, in the early 1900s, the sorry performance of the British army in containing a handful of Boer farmers in South Africa gave rise to worries about population decline in the United Kingdom.

Again in the 1930s and 1940s, dire projections (which we now know to have been exaggerated) led to concerns about low fertility rates in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. When fertility rates rose sharply in the 1950s, however-largely irrespective of policy-such concerns disappeared, only to be replaced by the opposite fear of a population "explosion." Then came the economic and political crises of the mid-1970s, sparked by the 1973 Middle East war and the oil crisis it precipitated. Suddenly, new voices began predicting a decline in U.S. power, linked to falling fertility and a "birth dearth."

Today, Americans are even more anxious-about global terrorism, the military and economic costs of the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the re-emergence of large budget and trade deficits. Thus it should not be surprising that we are once more confronted with worried conjecture about population decline, from Longman and other writers.

Longman argues that increasing levels of fertility will ward off economic collapse and reinforce "modern" rather than "traditional" societies committed to conservative religious ideas. Government, he argues, can play a role in increasing population in developed countries by making the trajectories of family life and working life more compatible. This is a valuable point in principle. The problem, however, is that both Longman's diagnosis and his prescription are based on unproved or unprovable assertions. There is very little evidence, for example, that the kinds of economic incentives Longman urges have ever reversed long-term demographic trends. In some cases, policies have helped to accelerate an already existing trend, but there is no evidence that government can turn around behavior as complex as that relating to child-bearing.

There are two other general problems with Longman's argument. To begin with, he makes unproven claims about the link between fertility on the one hand and politics and economics on the other, stressing demographic explanations for global or national power shifts instead of more obvious causes. Longman also makes unfair assumptions about aging societies, suggesting, for example, that they become stuck in older patterns of thought and practice. But the histories of technological innovation and economic dynamism provide no support whatever for this assertion. Thus even if it were possible to reverse demographic aging through the right policies-which it is not-there is no reason to assume that it would make a difference in patterns of economic growth. We simply do not know enough to make daring claims such as Longman's.

Instead of using dramatic metaphors such as a "population bomb," "birth dearth," or "empty cradle," it would be wiser to view demographic change as the shifting of the tectonic plates of human societies. Compared with political, economic, and technological changes, demographic growth or decline is usually slow and gradual. Indeed, it is often impossible to perceive in the short term, proceeding so slowly that societies have plenty of time both to adjust to increasing or declining numbers and to modify their fertility behavior should they choose to do so.

The slow pace of demographic change also forces those seeking to amplify its importance to deploy long-range projections in order to forecast the future. But it is impossible to accurately anticipate what will happen in 50 or 100 years, and it is a mistake-albeit a common one-to embrace such projections as reliable predictions.

Rather than resurrecting the old ghost of population decline, as Longman does, it would be far better to consider the more intricate and complex interplay between demographic and economic or military phenomena. Contrary to what Longman argues, some societies actually benefit from lower fertility rates. It is simply not credible to explain the turbulence of the contemporary world by pointing to declining fertility rates alone; this attributes far more geopolitical significance to demographic trends than they deserve. Demography matters-but not as much as pessimists such as Longman think.

LONGMAN REPLIES:

After World War II, the GI bill dramatically lowered the cost of home ownership for millions of young Americans. Its educational benefits also allowed millions of men still in their twenties to start earning nearly as much as their fathers. The bill's purpose was not to create a baby boom in the United States. But that is what it did-a good example of how government policies, even when not explicitly pro-natal, can make the economics of parenthood less punishing and thereby enable more people to afford the children they want.

Today, in both Europe and the United States, women coming to the end of their reproductive years report that they did not have as many children as they would have liked. Such statements suggest an implicit demand for children that is not being met. The reasons for this trend are complex, but many are clearly within the scope of government to ameliorate.

One way to do this would be to give parents relief from punishing and unprecedented payroll taxes. Other ways would be to make access to health care less contingent on full-time work, to encourage greater age diversity in university admissions, and to provide more resources for childcare. Within Europe today, the highest fertility rates are found in the nations that do the most to ease the strains between work and family life.

Are fears of population decline overblown? The matter cannot be settled by pointing to history, because no previous society has experienced population aging on the scale and at the speed of that now occurring throughout the world. Demographic change once moved at a tectonic pace. But countries such as China are now aging as much in one generation as countries such as France did over the course of centuries. And even in healthy, peaceful populations, fertility rates are falling well below replacement levels and staying there-a trend that, again, has no historical precedent.

How certain is the global aging trend? One can be quite sure how many elders there will be over the course of the next 70 to 80 years because those people have already been born. And without some new totalitarian or fundamentalist force commanding procreation, the global decline in fertility rates is unlikely to reverse itself.

As I stated in my article, lower fertility does seem to bring some economic benefits when it begins. And as I discuss in greater detail in my book, The Empty Cradle, there are many ways in which societies can encourage more productivity and more productive aging. But a society that consistently consumes more human capital than it produces obviously must prepare for new and difficult challenges.

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