Magazine | March 11, 2013, Issue

The Empty Cradle?

What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster, by Jonathan V. Last (Encounter, 240 pp., $23.99)

Jonathan Last has just added one more cloud to the darkening sky that many conservatives see on America’s horizon. To growing conservative concerns about an entitlements crisis, fiscal ruin, soft despotism, and Democratic dominance, he would add an equally fundamental problem: a fertility implosion.

In this provocative and engaging book, Last begins by acknowledging that, in recent years, the United States has enjoyed an exceptionally high fertility rate for a developed nation. Indeed, over the past 30 years, the U.S. fertility rate has generally tracked close to the replacement-level total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1 children per woman, which is the rate required to keep a society’s population size stable.

But Last is worried that American exceptionalism may be coming to an end in this domain, as elsewhere; in fact, he thinks the American “fertility rate will take a nosedive” in the near future. Hispanics will cut back on childbearing and thereby stop propping up the U.S. fertility rate. The nation’s percentage of religious “nones,” who have fewer kids than their pious peers, will keep rising among today’s young adults. And the government will continue to subsidize retirement and tax parents too much, thereby undercutting the economic incentives for having children. More fundamentally, too few Americans will be able to resist the “trap of modernity, which pushes people to eschew children in favor of more pleasurable pursuits.”

Indeed, Last thinks the current cultural and policy regime amounts to a kind of American One-Child Policy, albeit a softer and unintentional version of the one put in place by China in 1979. And he sees the nation headed in China’s demographic direction, in which fertility has been driven — in large part, by state policy — to a TFR of less than 1.55 children per woman.

In an age when many of us grew up worried about overpopulation, what’s the big deal? Won’t smaller families lead to a healthier environment, better-educated children, and happier adults?

Maybe. In the short term. But if Japan is any indication, the long-term prognosis for a highly developed country with a low fertility rate is bleak. Japan has been dealing with below-replacement fertility since the 1970s, when its fertility rate fell well below 2.0. The result? Deaths now outnumber births in Japan, and the government is projecting population declines of about 1 million people every year in the near future. Japanese demographic decline is connected to record-high levels of public debt and an entitlements crisis; it also may have had a hand in Japan’s nearly two decades of economic stagnation. And in all these areas, the worst seems yet to come.

As the case of Japan illustrates, the problem with sustained long-term low fertility is that it does not seem to be economically sustainable. Over time, falling fertility rates mean that a relatively smaller share of workers have to support a relatively larger share of retirees. Falling fertility also means that the economy eventually has to rely upon a smaller pool of workers: a fate now facing not only Japan but also China, which in 2012 saw its work force shrink for the first time, because of the One-Child Policy. Studies also suggest that younger workers — aged 25 to 34 — tend to engage in the most entrepreneurial activity, another reason shrinking numbers of young workers can hurt a nation’s prospect for growth. As Mark Steyn has put it: “There is no precedent in human history for economic growth on declining human capital.”

#page# So, is Last’s scenario of a looming “demographic disaster” for the U.S. — and all that it would entail, fiscally, politically, and economically — on the mark? Most scholars would argue otherwise. The contemporary academic wisdom is that the U.S. fertility rate — which has fallen to a TFR of 1.89 in the wake of the Great Recession — will rebound to close to replacement level once the economy recovers. Among other things, such demographers as S. Philip Morgan would point to the fact that preferences for family size have not fallen in recent years; most Americans of childbearing age continue to express an interest in having two or more children.

The political scientist Leonard Schoppa argues that the U.S., like many Northern European countries, has done a comparatively good job of making it easy for women to move in and out of the work force. Engaged husbands and flexible labor laws (along with generous family leave and publicly provided child care) ease tensions between work and family, in ways that make a Japan-like scenario unlikely. Indeed, Schoppa points out that Japanese fertility is so low in part because Japanese men do comparatively little child care and housework, and Japanese employers make few accommodations to mothers, with the result that it’s nearly impossible for women to combine work and family. So, in response, growing numbers of Japanese women are postponing or forgoing marriage and motherhood. Hence, Japan’s TFR has remained below 1.5 for almost two decades.

Given the flexibility of the U.S. labor market, the engaged style of American fathers, and the high regard that Americans still have for parenthood, I doubt that the U.S. is headed to a disastrous fertility rate of, say, 1.5, a rate that would lead to a severe population contraction over this century and a major population crisis.

But trends in the economy (e.g., the percentage of young men working in the U.S. remains extraordinarily low by historical standards), the culture (e.g., the ranks of religious nones rose to 32 percent of young adults in 2012), and immigration (e.g., there are nearly 1 million fewer illegal immigrants living in the U.S. now than there were in 2007) suggest that a robust American exceptionalism when it comes to the nation’s fertility rate is indeed nearing its end. Gone are the days when U.S. fertility will regularly crest above a TFR of 2.0. Indeed, as with so much in American life today, the U.S. fertility rate is moving in line with the slightly-below-replacement levels of fertility found in Northern Europe.

This does not amount to a demographic disaster, but it’s not good news either. A fertility rate that sits slightly below replacement is not likely to help America’s long-term prospects for fiscal solvency, economic growth, or national greatness. So perhaps it is indeed fair to view the American fertility rate as one more cloud looming on the nation’s horizon.

– Mr. Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, is the co-author of Whither the Child? Causes and Consequences of Low Fertility.

W. Bradford Wilcox — W. Bradford Wilcox is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Isabel Sawhill is a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and a former co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings.

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