Part two of two
The seats on an empty swing set drift in the breeze. A young woman attempts to play on a seesaw — by herself.
These scenes illustrate the message of “Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family,” an independent 2008 film that says we are moving toward a world in which children will be rare and economic distress will be plentiful.
Already, 90 countries or localities have subpar fertility rates (i.e., below the 2.1 children per woman replacement level), according to the CIA’s World Factbook. Thirty-six have rates less than 1.5.
• WETZSTEIN: Population burden remains on youth
Faltering birthrates are “at the core of our economic difficulties,” says “Demographic Winter” producer Barry McLerran.
A population with lots of old people — but few young people — means economic stagnation, loss of innovation and social upheaval, scholars explain in the documentary.
In one 2007 interview, for instance, economist Harry Dent showed how baby boomers’ demand for (big, new) housing would peak around 2008 and then start dropping. This is because people have predictable spending patterns based on their age and other characteristics, Mr. Dent said.
His point is that America prospered as the 76 million baby boomers went through their high-consumption years. Now they’re moving into the empty-nest, retirement years, when people typically spend less and move into smaller quarters.
The next generation is much smaller — 58 million — thanks in part to widespread use of birth control and 10 million legal abortions. This means 60-something baby boomers trying to sell their McMansions will find a limited supply of prime-of-life Generation Xers with the funds to buy them.
The mighty 78-million-strong Generation Y is in the pipeline, but their days of buying $700,000 homes are decades away. Thus, the nation’s housing problems and economic woes could be with us longer than expected.
America, with an enviable 2.1 fertility rate (thanks to immigration), has an excellent chance to recover and prosper.
However, the Obama administration is being urged to expand domestic and international access to birth control (and abortion) as if those things are economic stimulants. Family-planning services “reduce cost” to governments, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, told ABC-TV talk show host George Stephanopoulos in January, when he asked her why millions of dollars for family planning were included in the economic stimulus package. The contraception money later was stripped from the bill.
It’s true babies are expensive. It’s true single mothers often can’t support themselves very well. (“Throughout human history, a single woman with a small child has not been a viable economic unit,” political scientist Charles Murray famously has written.) So it’s true our country pays billions of dollars to support these “fragile families,” and there’s some economic sense in government helping women avoid unwanted pregnancies. (See the RH Reality Check blog — www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog — for details.)
But it’s also true that most babies eventually move from the “expense” side of the ledger to the “asset” side.
Children, especially those raised in healthy families and communities, often grow up to repay their families and society many times over by being productive citizens. To me, this means we should invest heavily in social capital — i.e., helping people form stable, healthy love relationships so they create good families and communities.
David Ellwood, former Clinton administration official, now dean of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, warned in 2004 of an imminent shortage of well-educated U.S. workers aged 25 to 54. Lower productivity, less competitive companies and greater inequality between rich and poor are just a few of the undesirable outcomes.
People’s choices about family life — namely, when to marry and when or whether to have children — are reshaping the contours of American society, Mr. Ellwood said. “Demography is destiny.”
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.