Magazine January 27, 2020, Issue

The Global Fertility Crisis

(Hill Street Studios/Getty Images)
America is not immune

South Korea recently denied draft exemptions for members of the K-pop boy band and international sensation BTS. BTS is one of South Korea’s most dynamic economic and cultural exports, worth about $4.65 billion annually to the South Korean economy. But despite the hundreds of millions of dollars of lost economic output involved, the boys of BTS must serve. The South Korean military cites many reasons for the denial of exemptions, but one reason may simply be urgent need. Thanks to the nation’s critically low birth rate, just 0.88 children expected per woman at 2019 levels, the army is expected to shed over 100,000 troops in the next four years. 

Korea’s case is severe, but it may be more common in the future. Birth rates have fallen around the world for decades. The global total fertility rate (a simple metric of how many children a woman entering her reproductive years would have if current age-specific birth rates remained stable over her life) has fallen from 5.04 kids per woman in 1963 to about 2.43 today. 

U.S.A. DATA: LYMAN STONE’S ESTIMATES FROM CDC, CENSUSES, AND STATE VITAL-STATISTICS OFFICES. WORLD DATA: GAPMINDER

The change in the United States in recent years has been particularly rapid: Fertility rates have declined from about 2.12 children per woman in 2006 to just 1.72 today. The figure could head even lower in the near future, especially if another recession hits. In the long run, if fertility remains low, the result will be increasing economic stagnation, greater intergenerational economic and political tension, and, ultimately, strategic insecurity. There is still time to address the problem by proposing pro-natal policies, but not much. Moreover, for pro-natal policymaking to work, it will have to confront numerous disparate issues at the same time. Labor conditions, family income supports, housing policy, and education finance are all involved.

However, the much-discussed decline in global birth rates over the last half century is overstated. Adjusting for children who died before age five, fertility in 1963 was just 4.4 kids per woman, and today birth rates are around 2.3 kids per woman. Human birth rates actually peaked in 1963. Global, mortality-adjusted fertility rates probably rose from 1800 until the 1960s, with fewer than 3.5 children born per woman surviving to age five throughout most of the 19th century. Based on plausible population estimates of historic human populations, it’s likely that three surviving children was the norm for most of human history. Modern hygiene, better birth control, improved education, and better nutrition all worked together to reduce child mortality over time. 

Meanwhile, the shift away from rural agriculture and towards urban wage work changed the economics of childbearing. Pre-modern people would not understand the idea that the cost of living is too high to have kids; they would respond that if your costs are too high, you need more kids, since kids help with farm labor. But today, instead of being investment capital, children are a form of consumption. 

Contraceptive technology hastened that shift, but academic research does not support the idea that it caused it. Economists attribute at most 40 percent of the post-1957 fertility decline to improved contraceptive access. The first country to undergo a fertility transition was France, in the 18th century, long before modern contraceptives, and academic research has pinpointed numerous cases of discrete economic or cultural shocks that triggered fertility transition quite independently of contraceptive access. Tellingly, the United States first reached birth rates around two children per woman during the Roaring Twenties, not during the Great Depression or after contraception became widely available. Today, fertility rates are falling in countries with rapidly expanding contraceptive access, and also in those without. 

Besides those related to contraception, other government policies may matter too, including intergenerational transfers such as Social Security, which reduce fertility by creating a moral hazard. Historically, children were the primary means of old-age support. This support is now state-provided. The state in turn depends on families to produce enough children to finance society-wide retirement programs. An expanding old-age safety net may be a very good thing for many reasons, but one of its adverse consequences has been reduced fertility. 

But again, it’s important not to overstate the case here, because in societies with stingy old-age programs, such as those in much of East Asia, fertility rates have fallen even lower. In such societies, which have long life expectancies and high standards of living, deficient pensions can motivate higher savings rates. This can make the cost of having extra children much higher, because having more kids makes it harder to save. Children born in these societies are often pushed to be extremely competitive so that they have good employment prospects and will be able to support their parents. 

Aside from these material and policy influences, another trend is at work around the developed world: delayed and declining marriage. The share of reproductive-age women in a society who are married, or alternatively the age at first marriage, is one of the best predictors of that society’s birth rate. This holds up across countries but also across individuals, because a woman’s lifetime fertility is well predicted by her marital history during ages 15–50. Within the United States, married women are still two to four times as likely to have a child in a given year than are unmarried women of the same age. 

The decline in marriage is driven by many factors, some of them praiseworthy. For example, longer life expectancies change the incentive to marry young. Isn’t it worthwhile to spend a few extra years looking for the right life partner if life is getting much longer? Relatedly, divorce rates are falling across the developed world as young adults become more deliberate in choosing a spouse.

In most societies marriage is delayed until culturally sanctioned initiation rites into adulthood have been completed, and in virtually all societies the transition to adulthood also signifies an end to education. The initiate is no longer primarily a learner and dependent, but now a teacher and contributor. In pre-modern societies with little formal education, high demands for manual labor, and short life expectancies, the ritual transition to adulthood comes early in life. But in most modern societies, thanks to the intense demands for knowledge and human capital in our economy, “ritual adulthood” is achieved later and later, as years of education continue to rise across virtually all occupational categories. That is to say, the more years of school needed before a person is done being a student, the more other key transitions, including marriage, are likely to be delayed. Young Americans who anticipate “adulting” are not being frivolous; they are correctly recognizing that society has postponed their ritual entrance into adulthood.

Finally, some researchers have identified changed ideas about transcendence as an even more abstract source of fertility decline. In this telling, the economic calculus takes a back seat. People had more kids in the past not because it was necessary, but because it was their duty: to God, to their family, to their people, or simply to the idea of humanity. According to this theory, best supported by research on the United States, fertility rates represent the extent to which individuals conceive of themselves as part of, and beholden to, a transcendent community that reaches across lifespans. To the extent that Christendom or the American experiment or the continuation of the species matters to you, you have kids. But as society has become wealthier, life expectancies longer, and childbearing costlier, the “price tag” on living out a commitment to a transcendent community has risen. Therefore, fewer people hold such values, and in turn fewer children grow up with them. The end result of this cycle is the low-fertility trap, a situation in which intergenerational changes in norms make it nearly impossible to return to replacement-rate fertility, the level needed to keep a society’s population stable.

The aforementioned explanations of low fertility may do a great job explaining why fertility fell from between three and seven children per woman in the 1960s to one to three children per woman today, but they are just about useless for explaining why the birth rate in every developed country has plummeted in the last decade. It is implausible that Finland’s attitude to transcendence or its contraceptive access or its urbanization or the extent of its wage labor has changed enough in the last decade to account for its nearly unprecedented decline in birth rates, from 1.9 children per woman in 2010 to approximately 1.3 today. 

Researchers have posited many shorter-term explanations for the recent global baby bust. Some echo the long-term explanations, holding that long-acting reversible contraceptives are vastly more effective than past technologies and that their use is growing rapidly. Or that the rising generation simply values work more and family less, and so its arrival in peak childbearing years signals an abrupt decline in birth rates. Or that marriage ages have been rising for a long time but have recently hit some kind of tipping point where high-birth-propensity age groups are affected. Or that people just like pets too much. These explanations are all delightfully provocative, and they probably all have some measure of truth to them (except the pets one, which is just wrong; 2018 data from the General Social Survey show that, if we control for age, people with pets actually have more kids than people who don’t).

Another explanation turns out to be even more surprising and difficult to interpret politically: Fertility declines have been comparatively modest among non-Hispanic white, black, and Asian Americans but extremely large among Hispanics. Both native- and foreign-born Hispanic women have seen dramatic declines in birth rates in recent years as illegal immigration has slowed down, Mexico’s fertility decline has spilled over to Mexican Americans, and immigrant families have settled down and begun to adopt American family norms. There is not yet a consensus among researchers about exactly what has caused Hispanic birth rates to fall at twice the rate of other groups in America, but it is notable that the share of Hispanic women of any age who are married has fallen about 50 percent faster than the rate among non-Hispanic women over the last 15 years. As Hispanic marriage becomes more delayed, Hispanic fertility is plummeting.

But the biggest driver of short-run fertility changes is the economy. Though not the much-examined “he-cession”; while some research suggests that the loss of manufacturing jobs may have caused fertility declines, other research shows that areas with bigger increases in automation did not experience bigger fertility declines. While there is research to support the idea that higher male wages and earnings boost fertility, male employment has been rising for some years now, and yet fertility continues to fall. In countries with labor markets in which male employment is much higher than female employment, such as Japan, China, Italy, and Spain, fertility is even lower than in the United States. Since in most developed societies both men and women are expected to have a meaningful role at home, there is no unambiguously positive effect of wages on fertility.

It turns out, parents aren’t stupid. They know that by having a baby they will incur material and emotional costs for decades to come. They won’t choose to do so just because they landed a job or the Christmas bonus was bigger this year, and indeed, rising wages could discourage fertility by encouraging parents to spend more time at work. Lifetime fertility is better predicted by lifetime experience of things such as economic volatility (large swings in boom-and-bust cycles) than by lifetime experience of economic growth — greater economic uncertainty yields lower fertility.

In fact, the key economic determiner of fertility isn’t income at all. Rather, at both the macroeconomic and the individual level, the economic variables most predictive of childbearing are asset value, net worth, and homeownership. When the price of rental housing rises, fertility falls. Reductions in mortgage payments owing to interest-rate shocks boost fertility in indebted households. When the price to buy a new home rises, fertility falls for younger people but rises for older ones. Birth rates have just begun to increase in the second quarter of 2019, which is to say about two years after the homeownership rate for Americans under 35 stopped falling and began rising again. In 2016, according to the Federal Reserve, the net worth of households headed by 20- to 35-year-olds had not risen from its post-recessionary lows at all. The best economic predictor of childbearing in a society where fertility has already fallen to around two kids per woman is permanent income

In short, it’s not just what people earn and how much it costs to live today, but what people expect to earn and spend in the future. Thus, personal experience of economic volatility reduces birth rates by reducing the optimism people feel about their economic futures. Lack of savings, delayed homeownership, or excessive student debt can reduce fertility even if debt-service costs are low, because young people correctly recognize that their long-run disposable income will be lower. The economic problem of childbearing is primarily a problem not of near-term liquidity but of long-run viability. As a result, things that worsen young people’s prospects of lifetime disposable income can be expected to reduce fertility: things including insolvent pensions leading to expectations of higher future taxes, strict land-use rules, occupational-licensing rules, many long years spent accruing debt while in school, delayed promotion as Baby Boomers stay at their desks well past normal retirement age, etc. 

I am 28 years old. My generation, that of the Millennials, will probably never experience the levels of prosperity and opportunity enjoyed by previous generations. This is not overwrought self-pity; it is a simple statement of fact concerning changes in the American economic and policy system. Without access to affordable housing and stable work, young Americans are forgoing the social stability of marriage and, with it, childbearing. They are looking at their prospects and those of potential mates, correctly judging that their futures are extremely uncertain and that they are unlikely to be able to afford the family life they desire, and rationally choosing to postpone marriage and family or even forgo it altogether. 

Instead, they are pouring themselves into work. Stable shares of Americans value hard work, but the share placing a high importance on family is falling. The share of Americans who report finding meaning in their career or in money is about as large as the share who find meaning in family generally, and considerably greater than the share who find meaning in children or their interaction with their spouse. Meanwhile, a growing chorus of voices across the political spectrum has begun to decry what Derek Thompson of The Atlantic calls “workism,” an increasingly obsessive sense that true meaning in life comes from one’s social standing and professional success rather than from, say, a community or family. It’s easy to mock the Millennial desire for “meaningful work” as just so much snowflakery, but it’s actually a natural, endogenous response to a system that is closing other avenues to a satisfying life. And since work is increasingly a prerequisite for marriage for both men and women, many Millennials reason that we might as well make the work itself meaningful.

Modern economies depend on numerous transfers of wealth across generations. The most obvious are explicit transfers such as Social Security and Medicare, whereby younger workers are taxed to pay for older retirees. But there are many others. For example, younger workers tend to buy lots of stocks, which they expect will appreciate over time and hope to sell as they reach retirement. Those returns are then invested in stable, income-generating assets to support retirement. As a result, aging societies have great demand for so-called safe assets, which are generally government bonds or shares of the most staid and solid corporations. As a result, governments in aging societies can borrow money at low, or even negative, interest rates. Even in crisis-struck Greece, savers will pay money (i.e., receive negative interest) to lend the government their savings because the demand for safe assets is so great. Unsurprisingly, Greece is one of the fastest-aging societies in the world. Ultra-low-fertility South Korea is also considering a more stimulative and inflationary permanent monetary stance to offset the negative effects of demographic stagnation.

But this system is unsustainable. The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about Baby Boomers trying to sell their suburban McMansions and finding it difficult to do so. As it turns out, there aren’t enough young, up-and-coming families in America to buy all of those houses, and those that do want to buy are unwilling to pay the zoning-inflated prices or can’t find sufficient credit or simply don’t want to adopt an expensive, car-and-yard-centric suburban lifestyle. As Baby Boomers retire, they need people to buy the assets they’ve held on to for decades: houses, stocks, you name it. They can invest in “safe” government bonds, but the return on that investment is becoming minuscule or even negative. The younger generation that the system depended on to pick up the buck that Boomers are passing simply isn’t there, and the reason is that Baby Boomers and Gen Xers simply didn’t have those babies. They built or bought houses but never filled them with children.

There are ways to address that. One of the reasons for the U.S. trade deficit is simply that we have an enormous number of assets that desperately need buyers. Whether foreigners are buying up U.S. real estate, taking stakes in U.S. companies, or holding “safe” U.S.-government debt, they’re filling a vacuum. There are not enough younger American savers and workers, and those workers aren’t earning enough money, to absorb all of the assets that older Americans have been offloading for the last decade or so and will continue to pass off for the next few decades as gobsmacking numbers of 401(k)s are pivoted into fixed income to support retirees in their twilight years. The opportunity to buy from them lures U.S.-dollar-denominated investment, which means that foreign countries need to acquire dollars (and thereby deflate their own currencies). This creates huge demand to find a way to sell stuff to Americans. Presto, a trade deficit. Attacking the trade deficit through tariffs fundamentally misunderstands that the trade imbalance is a consequence of a deeper financial and demographic imbalance.

Aside from the now widely acknowledged role of declining fertility and population aging in reducing a society’s natural interest rate, economists have identified other effects of lower birth rates, mostly bad ones. A population growing proportionally older will experience faster decline in traditional manufacturing and faster increase in demand for services — accelerating an economic transition that is particularly challenging for working-class males — because older people consume more services and fewer manufactured goods. This may make working-class, male-dominated forms of populism more politically viable.

Older consumers also tend to be brand loyalists. Economists have identified the role of demographically specific “consumer inertia” (i.e., hesitancy to change personal-consumption patterns by trying new brands and products) in boosting corporate profits and slowing down innovation. In the aggregate, curmudgeonly individual consumption choices mean that established firms can charge higher prices for the same products, new firms will face habitual resistance by the consumers they want to serve, and, ultimately, inequality will worsen as corporate profits rise at the expense of real wages.

Furthermore, lower rates of population growth among those of working age have both direct and indirect effects on economic growth. The direct effects are widely understood: Having fewer workers or more non-working retirees places more of an economic burden on the workers. The indirect effects are a more recent finding: Lower birth rates two or three decades ago resulted in less entrepreneurship and less competitive markets today. Necessity truly is the mother of invention, and brisk population growth means that the growing number of workers cannot be fully absorbed by expanding employment in current businesses unless there are implausible wage cuts. As a result, more workers start their own businesses, especially as demand rises with rising society-wide population, education, and capital.

Thus, even aside from worries about Social Security and Medicare, there are problems associated with long-run low fertility. Economy-wide returns on investment and interest rates fall dramatically — even private savings and investment fail to produce the returns that savers expected. Where returns do remain high, they will increasingly be a product of corporate rents and monopoly power exercised in an economy with less and less real competition. Indeed, thanks to the likelihood of durably low or negative interest rates, public programs such as Social Security may be the least of our worries in the future — the effects of demographic decline on the private sector may be even worse.

The case of South Korea reveals another problem with low fertility, namely strategic balance. Wars are not decided by the fanciest new stealth destroyers but by society-level willingness and ability to absorb casualties. Whether in asymmetric wars such as Vietnam, great-power conflicts such as the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, or some future conflict between the U.S. and any number of potential adversaries, victory in a serious-power contest is a function of a certain tolerance for casualties.

It is quite difficult to replace losses in many developed societies. Militaries increasingly depend on individuals with sophisticated training to operate complex processes and equipment, skills that are hard to find among draftees in an emergency. Even if draftees are available, it can take many generations to recover from a high-casualty war. Russian demographic data today still show the scars of World War II in “missing cohorts.” In high-fertility societies, these missing cohorts are quickly replaced, but as the length between generations rises (as measured by median age at birth) and the total number of children falls, it takes longer and longer to replace casualties. The United States may be able to absorb the losses of our first great-power conflict of the 21st century, but if we face a second, as the United Kingdom did soon after World War I in the 20th century, we may be stretched beyond the breaking point.

Of course, a world where every country is facing fertility declines might become more peaceful, as an inability to replace losses may cause countries to become more cautious. The best thing America has going for its long-run strategic position is not its nuclear arsenal or military spending but the fact that the fighting-age male population of China and its allies peaked in 1995 and is now steadily falling, while the same population in the U.S. and among our allies around the northwest Pacific is stable.

But if American fertility remains at its present low levels, that stability could end. We could see ourselves facing a shrinking population of potential war-fighters and holding a weakened position for the defense of democracy and order around the globe, and especially in the Asia-Pacific region. This problem has already become urgent in Korea and Japan; it may soon hammer the United States as well.

Here a common objection from the left must be noted: the claim that low population growth can be rectified through fertility or immigration. Why not just let in more immigrants? Immigrants can prop up working-age population growth, and they also have higher fertility, so they should be able to solve this whole problem.

It’s a facile response and easy to rebut. First, immigrants are not immortal — they also age. The problem of an aging society is postponed only as long as the rate of immigration is rising. Once the immigration rate stabilizes and the earliest immigrant cohorts reach retirement age, the same problem rears its head, but at an even larger scale thanks to the people we’ve added. Purely in mathematical terms, immigration delays the problem of population aging and decline, but it does not prevent that problem. 

Second, immigrant fertility is declining. As noted above, Hispanic fertility in the United States has plummeted in recent years. Meanwhile, as recently as 2010, the average fertility rate in countries of origin for immigrant women was above replacement levels. But as of 2017, the typical immigrant woman is coming from a place with fertility just near the replacement rate or even a bit below. That is, the fertility gap between immigrants and natives is shrinking as declining fertility spreads to more immigrant-sending countries.

Third, migration is a networking problem. Immigrants come from somewhere and go to somewhere. The typical immigrant is economically motivated, and while he may have some preference for the United States, if offered a job in Japan or Sweden, he would go there readily enough. The typical immigrant is also coming from a country that has high birth rates and not enough jobs, and thus a labor surplus.

But the number of countries with such a labor surplus is in decline as fertility rates fall around the world and more countries achieve higher income levels. The supply of immigrants will increasingly run dry over the next century as more and more countries have aging populations that desperately need workers and so retain their populations. And all of those countries that desperately need workers will also pivot to receiving immigrants. Western Europe, Japan, and Korea have already made this jump, and others will follow. With fewer countries having surplus labor to send as emigrants, and more countries having low labor-force growth and thus needing to receive immigrants, there will be more global competition for the migrants who do exist, and especially for the most skilled ones.

In other words, immigration can’t delay population-aging forever. The long-run effects on population will be muted thanks to falling immigrant fertility, and the viability of an immigrant-oriented population strategy will be time-limited as the international market for migrants becomes increasingly competitive and zero-sum. 

As fascinating as the twin perils of economic stagnation and strategic decline may be to policymakers, they are terribly uninspiring for families. Telling a couple to have a baby so that their child can fight in a war against China does not tend to be effective; nor does telling them to have a baby to increase society-wide demand and thus make space for entrepreneurs.

Quite frankly, given the enormous personal costs associated with child-rearing, it’s not clear that the state has an appropriate role in encouraging people to have kids they don’t already want to have. Trying to nudge extremely burdensome and emotionally significant personal and family decisions that are integral to people’s sense of their identity and meaning in the world, in order to make the national GDP marginally higher in 30 years, is absurd and, if we’re being honest, kind of gross. New human life is not an economic math problem or a question of national defense. It is fundamentally a profession of faith, or even of hope, in the future. Not only do parents not have kids simply because of a transitory income shock, their childbearing decisions also are linked to what they find excellent, true, and praiseworthy in life.

But while the negative aggregated effects of low fertility may be poor selling points for childbearing, there is a simpler kind of cost associated with low birth rates: disappointment.

Numerous surveys have been conducted asking Americans about their family desires. The nearby graph shows the number of children women in those surveys said they desired, wanted, intended, expected, or considered ideal to have, and it also shows the average number of children actually had by women who would have been around 25 at the time the survey was taken.

FERTILITY-PREFERENCE ESTIMATES: THE WORLD FERTILITY PREFERENCES DATABASE, LYMAN STONE, INSTITUTE FOR FAMILY STUDIES. CHILDREN EVER BORN: HISTORIC CENSUSES AND CURRENT POPULATION SURVEY FERTILITY SUPPLEMENTS

American women reliably want two or three children and yet are having just 1.7. Women who have fewer children than they said was ideal also report being less happy. (Women who overshoot their ideal report being less happy.) As anyone who has suffered from infertility can attest, the aching disappointment of not having the kids you want to have is a quite real form of suffering. It is also a kind that is increasingly common across the country.

So there’s no need for policymakers to talk about draft levies and the natural interest rate. If American women were having as many children as they themselves say they want to have, the population would grow steadily, simply through normal fertility. The persuasive task of pro-natalism is not to pressure people to have more kids they don’t want but to convince corporate, cultural, and governmental policymakers, and opinion-shapers at many levels, to remove barriers between potential parents and the kids they do want. 

This also helps explain why immigration isn’t a viable solution on its own. Adding more immigrants may solve the aggregate problem for the economy, but it doesn’t solve the individual problem of disappointed aspirations for family. 

Any serious effort to change demographic decline into demographic renaissance will have to both tackle the large-scale social challenges and address the individual aspirations. 

On the societal scale, higher levels of immigration are a necessity. Immigration rates in the United States have been gradually declining for 30 years, driven by the twin forces of falling fertility in migrant-sending countries and a growing number of potential destinations. Without a shot of adrenaline, the demographic heart of the body politic will face serious problems in the very near future. A better and more open immigration policy can buy us valuable time. This needn’t mean throwing open the floodgates to all comers; it’s entirely possible to have a system like Canada’s or Australia’s, in which more immigrants are admitted and greater efforts are made to recruit skilled immigrants.

Having bought ourselves some demographic time by increasing immigration, we should then adopt a range of policies to ease family formation. No one policy will do the trick, but we’re long overdue for a broad-based push at many levels of government to remove obstacles to parenting and offset the intergenerational moral hazard inherent in modern economies is long overdue. 

Such an agenda could include a huge range of different policies. For starters, it’s vital that policymakers remove the discriminatory treatment of working-class married couples by equalizing the treatment of married households under the earned-income tax credit and the federal welfare and housing programs. Beyond this, benefits for childbearing and -rearing, such as a larger and more refundable child tax credit, paid parental-leave time, expanded school-voucher programs and early-childhood-care allowances, and even an explicit “baby bonus” can all help give families financial space and choices about their lives together. A certain kind of naïve libertarianism raises an eyebrow at such generous support programs, but even if we assume very high benefit levels, the government would still be offsetting only about a quarter to a third of the cost of raising a child. Given that in pre-modern societies parents could appropriate their children’s productivity up to and beyond the entire cost of raising those children, such programs still wouldn’t even come close to offsetting the moral hazard associated with the economic transition to modern individually based markets. Yes, it’s the government making an intervention — to guarantee that a robust society continues to exist and to offset downsides to child-rearing that the government itself created.

There are also other, less direct policy changes worth making. The housing crunch is real and disastrous for families, with housing-related financial stress rising rapidly in households with children. Something must be done about zoning and land-use rules. These policies are set locally in most cases, which limits federal action. Nonetheless, the federal government could deny grants and aid to states where municipalities are too tightly zoned, or deny federal fire protection to communities with high minimum lot sizes (a policy that greatly increases the cost of federally funded firefighting). Federal lending programs could require that zoning codes not exhibit certain restrictive features, or simply require that permitting processes be completed within a certain window of time. 

The federal government’s antitrust power should also be deployed to protect free labor markets from anticompetitive exploitation by government-backed cartels. Licensing boards should be treated as monopolies unless they can demonstrate a valid public-safety purpose. Workers should be able to pursue class-action suits against licensing boards and receive punitive damages if those boards are found to have formed a monopoly in restraint of trade without a valid public-safety purpose. Beyond this, measures should be taken to restrict the use and extent of corporate non-compete agreements and other restrictive contracts that deny workers their God-given right to sell their labor in a free market. The removal of licensure-related barriers to early career advancement will accelerate the transition into economic independence and thus into marriage and child-rearing. 

There are other, even more unusual ways to make marriage and family life easier in America. We could make Social Security more generous for people who have more children, strip Pell-grant and subsidized-student-loan eligibility from schools with low percentages of students working in jobs within eight years of enrollment, increase the number of federal holidays, repeal Blaine amendments that deny government funds to schools affiliated with religious denominations, implement a carbon tax to address a major form of long-run uncertainty as people think about whether to have children, transition federal welfare programs to a simpler cash benefit to give families flexibility, and enact other policies. Some of the policies I have mentioned are congenial to conservatives and some are not. Addressing the decline in fertility will depend on policymakers’ taking ideologically flexible and politically bold actions, moving numerous different and unrelated obstacles out of the way of families.

If we fail, the consequences will be imperceptible at first. More funerals than baptisms, a bit more financial strain on the public fisc, not quite as many new businesses, some young people who seem disappointed in where their life has ended up. But in the long run, the story ends in deep strategic insecurity, extraordinary dependence on immigration, lasting economic stagnation, ever-increasing monopoly power, deep political fissures between generations, and, eventually, perhaps even political instability. We are already sampling the first fruits of this harvest; we must take care not to reap the rest of it.

This article appears as “Our Global Birth Dearth” in the January 27, 2020, print edition of National Review.

Lyman StoneMr. Stone is an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, the chief information officer of the population-forecasting firm Demographic Intelligence, and a former international economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He, his wife Ruth, and their daughter Suzannah live in Hong Kong.

In This Issue

Articles

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

Most Popular

Culture

No One Is Ever Woke Enough

Closing out the week: The Harper’s letter calling for freedom of expression demonstrates that no one is ever “woke” enough, and that any institution that tries to make peace with the perpetually aggrieved eventually becomes dysfunctional; the value of Hamilton as a litmus test of the limits of cancel ... Read More
Culture

No One Is Ever Woke Enough

Closing out the week: The Harper’s letter calling for freedom of expression demonstrates that no one is ever “woke” enough, and that any institution that tries to make peace with the perpetually aggrieved eventually becomes dysfunctional; the value of Hamilton as a litmus test of the limits of cancel ... Read More

Mel Gibson’s Beastmode

Late-period Mel Gibson is probably the best Mel Gibson; in film after film after film he plays ornery old bastards with such conviction that each successive outing feels like a personal trip to the confessional. He doesn’t need the money anymore, and most of these roles are in indie movies that pay very little ... Read More

Mel Gibson’s Beastmode

Late-period Mel Gibson is probably the best Mel Gibson; in film after film after film he plays ornery old bastards with such conviction that each successive outing feels like a personal trip to the confessional. He doesn’t need the money anymore, and most of these roles are in indie movies that pay very little ... Read More
Culture

In Defense of Terry Crews

There are many worthy nominees for the craziest moment in the current cultural turmoil, but the controversy over tweets by actor Terry Crews deserves to be high on the list. In one of his offending tweets, Crews said on July 4th: https://twitter.com/terrycrews/status/1279493774679261185?s=21 It wasn’t ... Read More
Culture

In Defense of Terry Crews

There are many worthy nominees for the craziest moment in the current cultural turmoil, but the controversy over tweets by actor Terry Crews deserves to be high on the list. In one of his offending tweets, Crews said on July 4th: https://twitter.com/terrycrews/status/1279493774679261185?s=21 It wasn’t ... Read More
Culture

Mark Zuckerberg Is Right

Mark Zuckerberg clearly hasn’t gotten the memo. The founder of Facebook persists in defending free expression, even though free speech has fallen decidedly out of fashion. His reward for adhering to what once would have been a commonsensical, if not banal, view of the value of the free exchange of ideas ... Read More
Culture

Mark Zuckerberg Is Right

Mark Zuckerberg clearly hasn’t gotten the memo. The founder of Facebook persists in defending free expression, even though free speech has fallen decidedly out of fashion. His reward for adhering to what once would have been a commonsensical, if not banal, view of the value of the free exchange of ideas ... Read More