We had the baby boom. Now it's the baby bust?
As issues like sequester cuts, fiscal cliffs, war, guns, and natural disasters dominate national conversations about what could doom us, a slow and silent problem is looming.
The nation's fertility rate is at an all-time low; its decline shows no signs of stopping, and it could have major effects on our economy.
“The problem with fertility decline, as we’re experiencing it, is that everybody crashes below the replacement level, which is 2.1 children for the average woman over the course of her lifetime,” The Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Last told The Cycle hosts Thursday. “And as you crash through that, you wind up with an inversion of your age profile. You wind up with many more old people than young people.”
Last, who recently wrote a book called, “What to Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster,” said the “replacement level” is the birth rate the country needs in order to keep the population from going down. Today the fertility rate in America is 1.93. Compare that to 200 years ago when the average white American woman had seven children. (Statistics from that time include only white women.)
Depending on who you talk to, the reasons for American women having fewer children are tied to a wide variety of factors: the high cost of raising a child (Last estimates this surprisingly high at $1.1 million), the invention of birth control, the passage of Roe v. Wade, greater access to college education, and lack of access to quality affordable childcare.
In the Wall Street Journal, Last argued that lower fertility rates can create greater economic instability:
“Low-fertility societies don't innovate because their incentives for consumption tilt overwhelmingly toward health care. They don't invest aggressively because, with the average age skewing higher, capital shifts to preserving and extending life and then begins drawing down. They cannot sustain social-security programs because they don't have enough workers to pay for the retirees. They cannot project power because they lack the money to pay for defense and the military-age manpower to serve in their armed forces.”
Others say that the sky is not falling yet. The Los Angeles Times published an in-depth series last summer that examined why the world population is still exploding even as global birthrates are falling. It’s due to what scientists call “population momentum.” Writer Kenneth R. Weiss explained:
“Think of population growth as a speeding train. When the engineer applies the brakes, the train doesn't stop immediately. Momentum propels it forward a considerable distance before it finally comes to a halt. U.N. demographers once believed the train would stop around 2075. Now they say world population will continue growing into the next century.”
The train may not have completely halted worldwide, but Last and The Cycle hosts brainstormed ideas that would encourage people to have children.
“What we need to be doing is not yelling at people and trying to lecture them, ‘you should have more babies,’” said Last. “We should actually be trying to make their lives easier and trying to help them achieve the families that they want.”