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Decline and Fall

Welcome to the population crunch, demographic challenge of the 21st century.

By 6.14.04

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The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It
by Phillip Longman
(Basic Books, 288 pages, $26)

A quick search for the term "population decline" in an articles database turns up 248 English-language results for the past two months. Of those entries, the majority are about the wild Atlantic salmon, migrating shorebirds, the California amphibian population, the eastern lowland gorilla and the northern spotted owl. Only about a dozen of the articles mention shrinking human birthrates worldwide and the ultimate result of that decline that many demographers are now predicting: a diminishing human population before the end of this century.

Absent plagues, famines or massive wars, for the first time in history human population is expected to begin contracting. The general consensus among demographers now is that the numbers will peak at about 9 billion people in 2070. And then they will begin to fall.

In much of the developed world we are seeing the foreshadowing of that ultimate decline. Russia is already losing population, and only immigration is keeping Italy from following suit. Japan is expected to begin its downward slide next year, and over the next 50 years to lose as much as one-third of its population -- a drop equivalent, the Japanese demographer Hideo Ibe has noted, to the one caused by the plague in medieval Europe. And Britain is among those countries primed for a decline next. Europe as a whole is expected to lose 4 percent of its population by 2025, and the United States may not be far behind. Most surprising of all, many demographers are predicting that even the developing world, with places like Mexico and Bangladesh long the home of teeming masses, is likely to begin shrinking soon after the West does.

In his new book, The Empty Cradle, Phillip Longman argues that shrinking birthrates will affect both domestic politics and U.S. power and influence in the world. He also takes a look back at the conventional wisdom of the past few decades that a human "population bomb" was ticking and would be a weapon of mass destruction set off against all life on earth.

During the 1970s, doomsday scientists were predicting mass famine, natural resource shortages, and various environmental catastrophes as the result of what they saw as human overpopulation. Ecologist Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, predicted that by the year 2000 Japan would run out of food and mobs of starving Chinese would overrun Russia. Of course, by 1990 the discredited Ehrlich had tweaked his thesis slightly, saying that, "Actually, the problem in the world is that there are much too many rich people..."

And as Longman shows in The Empty Cradle, the prescriptions of people like Ehrlich for reducing fertility over the past few decades have poised the world to collect massive negative dividends. For one example, Longman cites a London School of Economics study of entrepreneurialism worldwide. According to the economists, there exists an almost perfect correlation between countries that have large numbers of retirees to their work base and low rates of entrepreneurship. Japan and France are currently among the least entrepreneurial countries in the world, the study finds -- and simultaneously the grayest.

BUT FIRST, IT IS USEFUL to take a look at how we got here. Population growth was slow for most of human history because, although families were considerably larger before the forces of modernization took hold, there was a significant death toll from disease and starvation. When food shortages, disease and unsanitary conditions were diminished, population began to soar. The Danish scientist Bjorn Lomberg in his 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist, noted that human numbers grew quickly with modernization "not because people started breeding like rabbits, but because they stopped dying like flies."

United Nations forecasts show that by 2070 world population growth is likely to peak. And then, demographers believe, there will be a decline, perhaps even a rapid one. And many are certain that this contraction, not overpopulation, is the real population crisis facing man. Human beings have been living with an expanding population throughout their time on earth. A permanently contracting population is part of a brave new world no one has ever seen.

Although many factors have led us to this stage, Longman notes that a complex economic dynamic is the prime factor in lowering fertility rates. In all countries, as people move to urban areas in which children offer no economic reward to the family, and as women acquire access to education, economic opportunities and contraception, the opportunity costs of childbearing continue to rise.

Indeed the absolute costs of raising children in Western countries have grown astronomically as well. For example, Longman notes that in the United States, the cost of raising a middle-class child born this year through age 18, according to the Department of Agriculture, exceeds $200,000 -- not factoring in the cost of higher education. And the cost in forgone wages, even for those families in the middle of the middle class, can easily run in excess of $1 million.

Longman shows that these costs stem from the tendency of economic development toward a more education-intensive economy. Nowadays children often remain economically dependent on their parents well into their own childbearing years because it takes longer to develop a worker -- such development includes not only skills, credentials and education, but also the social understanding and personal maturity necessary for success in a complex, networked economy. Therefore by the time many couples can afford children, they must settle for fewer than they otherwise would have had.

AND THEN THE AGING begins. The initial difficulties are obvious ones. Once a society begins turning out more retirees than workers, there is a severe strain on both private and public pension funds. In Germany, for example, public spending on pensions is expected to increase from an already overwhelming 10.3 percent of GDP to 15.4 percent by 2040.

Some have touted the "longevity revolution" as one of the answers to the modern population dilemma, with workers expected to live longer, healthier and therefore more productive lives. But Longman notes that, due to lifestyle factors, life expectancy among aging Americans is actually decreasing in many categories. We may be at or near the end of the line on the longevity revolution, as diseases related to Western lifestyle -- such as cancers and heart attacks induced by smoking and obesity -- seem at this point likely to all but wipe out any future gains made by modern medicine. And as Western lifestyles spread throughout the developing world, we can expect more of the same on a global scale.

Many argue that immigration is the cure to population ills and that, by allowing immigrants from poorer regions of the world access to the opportunities of the West, everyone's problems could be solved. Throughout much of American history, immigrants have indeed renewed the nation with their vitality. However, with population contractions on the horizon for developing countries like Mexico, and because the United States is already competing with Europe for immigrants from other parts of the world such as north Africa, this seems at best a tenuous solution to the problem close at hand.

According to Longman, some biologists now speculate that human beings have engineered a self-destructive environment in which the "fittest" members of the species have an incentive to produce few or no children. He notes one primary exception to this rule -- studies have found that there is a strong correlation between religious conviction and fertility. In the United States, 47 percent of people who consider themselves religious say that the ideal family size is three or more children, as compared to only 27 percent of those who are not religious.

But secular societies have also recognized the dangers of the decline and are attempting to head it off. Last month in Australia -- which currently averages a record low for that country of 1.75 births per woman -- various officials urged couples to begin having larger families. Head of the national treasury Peter Costello dangled a $3,000 maternity bonus in front of potential parents and told them, "You should have one for the father, one for the mother and one for the country." He added for good measure, "Go home tonight and do it for your country."

Longman recommends that secular societies come up with better ways of educating young adults and integrating them into the work force, thereby reducing tensions between work and procreation. He advocates education as a lifetime pursuit, more opportunities for part-time employment, and full health and pension benefits for such work.

He also makes the bold recommendation that governments offer a reprieve to parents on paying into social security systems. He argues that, in raising children, parents already contribute to these systems in the form of human capital.

All these suggestions are worthy of consideration from policy makers. But ultimately, only a culture that values families and encourages childbearing, and only individuals who believe these are not only worthwhile but essential pursuits, can correct the demographic decline we are about to enter.

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