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Baby Talk

Do low fertility rates spell economic collapse?

Sean Gallup/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Forget the debt ceiling. Forget the fiscal cliff,” wrote Jonathan Last, “The root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate.” This view, as recently expressed in The Wall Street Journal and at greater length in Last’s new book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, holds that a decline in fertility rates (the average number of children born per woman) means nothing less than the end of civilization as we know it. According to Last, fertility decline will inevitably lead to population shrinkage, which in turn will inevitably doom us to economic stagnation and social breakdown. In fact, he says, ongoing fertility decline has already saddled us with slow economic growth since the 1970s.

If Last’s claims sound hysterical and overwrought, that is because they are. Let’s start with his dire predictions about population shrinkage. It is true that fertility is lower now, at 1.93 children per women, than the standard replacement rate of 2.1. But it’s also higher than it was in the mid-’70s, when it bottomed out at 1.74. Indeed, the fertility rate has mostly risen since that period, with the exception of several years in the mid-’90s and the years of the Great Recession. And population has not gone down—it is up over 50 percent since 1970. The Census Bureau does project that the fertility rate will diminish, but only by a modest .09 over the next 50 years. And while the fertility rate is likely to remain below the replacement rate for the next 50 years, the Census Bureau expects us to add another 100 million people by 2060 due to immigration and “demographic momentum.” (Despite sub-replacement fertility rates, a relatively large proportion of the population will be in prime reproductive years for decades to come.) So much for population collapse.

Last is similarly off base in his projections for the rest of the world. He sees global population decline and then, of course, certain collapse—economic ruin, war, and disease, the whole Mad Max bit. The U.N. Population Division begs to differ. According to their 2010 projections, the countries with the lowest fertility rates today—typically, more developed countries—should see fertility rates rise somewhat over the century and converge with rates in less developed countries. World population should rise from about 7 billion today to 9.3 billion in the middle of the century and 10.1 billion by end of the century. This includes a slight rise, not decline, in the population of more developed countries.

Last is not unaware of these projections but he dismisses them out of hand. Why? Because, well, they sound like “guesswork” and “wishful thinking” to him. Not that he has own projections of course—he’s just sure the official ones are wrong. So who are we to believe then? The Census Bureau, the U.N. Population Division and the consensus of professional demographers or Jonathan Last? Not a tough call, in my opinion.

If Last’s claims about the impending population crash are fanciful, his claim that fertility decline will lead to economic collapse is completely ridiculous. Economic projections that incorporate the Census population projections show per capita income rising by 61 percent over the next thirty years. It is certainly possible the average American many not see their fair share of this rise in income, but that’s not a fertility problem, it’s an inequality problem.

Last’s worldview, however, does not allow for such complications. To him every problem is somehow caused by fertility decline. He is truly the man with a hammer who sees nails everywhere. Which makes it all the more peculiar when he rejects or refuses to consider some of the more obvious steps we might take to solve the problem, such as it is.

Take immigration. If you want more bodies in the U.S., why not support immigration reform, as well as generally higher immigration levels? Immigration to the U.S. and the higher fertility of immigrants, particularly Hispanics, is already contributing to population growth and elevating the country’s fertility rate. But Last claims this is not a solution. Declining fertility rates outside the U.S., particularly in Mexico, means that these countries soon won’t have any immigrants to send us. He also claims that those immigrants, once settled in the U.S., would lose their relatively high fertility rates since fertility decline is inescapable in America. So, he more or less says, why bother?  These objections are so weak that you might suspect Last just isn’t very interested in seeing more immigrants in the country. 

No, what he wants is more homegrown American babies, and he wants them now. OK then, how to do it? Here things get a bit tricky. The reasons that fertility has declined, Last believes, include: increasing levels of higher education, which both delay marriage and make it more costly to raise a child; the liberation of women; the spread of contraception; and shifting social norms related to premarital sex and cohabitation, which have broken the iron triangle linking sex, marriage and childbearing. It would be hard to argue for turning back the clock on these advances, and Last, to his credit, doesn’t even try. He argues instead that we should make it easier for people to have all the children they want by reducing the costs of child-rearing. Fair enough. In this cost-cutting spirit, how about paid family and medical leave, flexible work schedules and, especially, affordable, quality child care? Expanding government programs to make college more affordable would also bring down the higher education costs of child-rearing and encourage parents to have as many children as they desire.

But these obvious proposals are rejected out of hand by Last. His solution is to exempt parents from part or all of their payroll taxes. (Have three kids and you pay nothing at all!) The resulting funding shortfall for Social Security and Medicare, not to mention inevitable political conflict arising from the creation of two classes of taxpayers, could kill off both programs pretty fast. But those possibilities do not seem to bother Last. (He refers to Social Security at one point as a “Ponzi scheme.”) His other proposals are so fanciful and eclectic that they seem little more than quixotic Band-Aids. “[E]liminate college’s role as a credentialing machine by allowing employers to give their own tests to prospective workers,” he wrote in the Journal. We should also improve the highway system so folks can afford to live farther outside of town and raise their young’uns in a healthful atmosphere. 

If fertility levels really did constitute a looming disaster, and we had to confine ourselves to Last’s solutions, we would be in big trouble. Fortunately, the problem is far more manageable than Last believes and can be addressed effectively by the very things Last rules out—more immigration and more robust government programs. We are not doomed or even close to it.

Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progess and author, most recently, of America’s New Swing Region: Changing Politics and Demographics in the Mountain West.