For much of the last half-century we have been living, even cowering, under the threat posed by what Paul Ehrlich in 1968 called the “population bomb.” In Ehrlich’s scenario, widely adopted by the environmental movement and its corporate supporters, ever-increasing numbers would overwhelm the resource base and the food supply and would cause dystopian mayhem across the planet.
Yet it turns out that the “explosion” is heading toward an implosion, as data reported by the World Bank indicates. Rather than being doomed by a surfeit of humans we may be experiencing, certainly in the West and in East Asia, dangerously low fertility rates that threaten to slow world economic growth and innovation.
This also reflects a dangerous shift in civilizational values, with more focus on the self and abstractions and less on the basic relations upon which all civilizations have been built. Conversely when fertility rates drop—for example in imperial Rome, renaissance Venice and early modern Amsterdam—it’s a sure signal of societal decline.
As world poverty has eased, the world fertility rate has plummeted. When Ehrlich published his alarm, the average woman had 4.92 births in her life (total fertility rate). By 2018, the fertility rate had dropped by more than one half, to 2.41. Perhaps the best indication of this is fast-growing, poor Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, which has seen its fertility rate drop by more than two-thirds, from 6.94 in the 1960s to a 2018 figure of 2.03, which is below the replacement rate of 2.1. Many of Ehrlich’s other predictions turned out to be at best exaggerations, as resources did not wear out as predicted and mass starvation has been reduced dramatically since his book was published.
This is not to say that lower population numbers, particularly in developing countries, are an unwelcome sight. But the decline could prove troublesome for the world economy. China’s expanding workforce—by 350 million between 1980 and 2012, according to the China Yearbook—drove a world-shattering economic boom. Now, the National Bureau of Statistics indicates that from 2017 to 2018, the birth rate in China dropped more than 10 percent, despite the repeal of the one-child policy. It stands at a historic low, down more than one half since the early 1980s. Over time, we will see the already shrinking workforce accelerate and drop 20 percent by 2050.
The situation is even more dire in two of the world’s most affluent regions: East Asia and Europe. Japan had long been leading this trend, with the oldest population of any major country, and decades of a stagnant economy. Similar challenges are emerging elsewhere in East Asia: Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, which has the lowest birthrate of any society on Earth, one third below that of Japan, according to the World Bank. Europe too has experienced plummeting birthrates. And the United Nations projects population losses of one-third in Southern Europe, one-quarter in Eastern Europe, and just a few percentage points in Western Europe, mostly due to immigration, between now and 2050.
Until recently, North America—the United States and Canada—faced a healthier demographic outlook, posed by both a less dense population (almost everywhere high-density areas have low birthrates) and rising immigration. Migrants accounted for 14 percent of the population in the United States and 22 percent in Canada.
But more recently legal immigration has declined, and prospects for more newcomers has declined with the pandemic-era economy. The latest wave seen at the U.S. southern border is made up largely of poor and destitute people from south of the border. This situation seems rife with instability, as even Latino Democrats have raised alarms about the new influx, particularly in the light of high COVID rates in Central America.
The pandemic has hastened a de-populating trend in some countries. COVID, suggests a recent study by Brookings, marriage and fertility rates in the United States have dropped significantly, to 50- and 35-year lows. Brookings predicts that COVID will result in 300,000 to 500,000 fewer U.S. births in 2021. This means a continued erosion in the family as the central institution in society.
Oddly, many people, particularly on what passes for the progressive left, consider fewer children precisely what this society and the planet needs. The desire to limit the size of families has been the central mantra of the green movement from the time of Paul Ehrlich’s misguided predictions. He suggested, among other proposals, adding sterilant into the water supply. Similar conclusions were drawn four years later in the corporate-sponsored Club of Rome report, which sought to reduce consumption, economic expansion, and population growth to stave off mass starvation and social chaos.
The present-day recipe for reducing family size centers on the widely promoted notion of de-growth—a purposely listless economy that represses consumption and upward mobility. Some even have seen the pandemic as a role model for future action, with lockdowns and draconian powers given to unelected bureaucracies, which have set conditions for slower population growth. Permanent renters, gig workers, and those without assets are not as likely to start families as a young family with bright prospects.
This shift will be felt most by millennials and generation Z successors as well as groups like immigrants, who tend more toward child-bearing and stable families than the native born. Poor economic prospects can already be seen in the growing numbers of young adults who remain outside the labor force and increasingly live with their parents into their thirties. Some may also be persuaded by the radical and feminist agenda espoused by Black Lives Matter which seeks to oppose the nuclear family. The idea that having children might be good for the future of the nation proposed by Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance was too much for ultra-woke Salon, which connected the promotion of fertility to “dog whistles for white nationalism and misogyny.”
Housing policies that encourage high-density renting over homeownership—common in parts of the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand—may prove a particularly effective way to reduce families. Virtually everywhere higher densities and housing costs tend to be associated with substantially lower numbers of children of school age.
Ways of rescuing us from becoming a senior-dominated, fiscally strapped society do exist. We can offer greater support for childcare, an idea gaining currency not only among free-spending Democrats but many conservatives as well. Economic growth, driven by technological innovation, is likely to make support for de-carbonization feasible far more than forcing all but the very affluent to reduce their standards of living, and give up trying to achieve a middle-class lifestyle.
We can also encourage the development of less expensive, family friendly housing; the shift to the periphery accelerated by the pandemic could begin rebuilding the middle class by expanding home ownership and reversing the rapid aging and demographic declines, including a dramatic drop in marriages, that has been accelerated by the pandemic.
Ultimately this is a choice we need to make. We could choose to create a kind of woke utopia, where children and families are rare, upward mobility is constrained, and society ruled by a kind of collective welfare system that rewards inactivity and stagnation. But to those who value the permanence of our society, and the remarkable importance of children, this is something close to a dystopia. To be sure, a smaller, older society may emit fewer greenhouse gasses per capita, but at the end we confront a society that will be less innovative, less dynamic and, in the most profound sense, distinctly less human.