- - Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Billionaire iconoclast Elon Musk had it right when he told a Wall Street Journal forum last week: “One of the biggest risks to civilization is the low birth rate and rapidly declining birthrate.”

Between now and the end of the century, declining fertility (or Demographic Winter) will have an impact few can imagine.

What does Russia want with Ukraine? Most would say to keep NATO off its southern border or for the nation’s rich natural resources. That’s true, in part. But there’s a very big something else.

Russia has 144 million people and below-replacement fertility. If it absorbs Ukraine’s 41 million people — who are ethnically identical to Russia’s own — its population would grow by 30%.

Declining fertility will lead to population decline, which in turn will result in international instability. Nations will be tempted to grab neighboring populations similar to their own. And that’s only part of the problem.

The birth dearth is the plague of the 21st century.

Every industrialized nation now has below-replacement fertility — in many cases, well below replacement. All else being equal, sometime in this century, their populations will begin to decline.

America is standing on the sand, and the tide is rushing in. We have a lower fertility rate than Russia (1.78 versus 1.82) and a rapidly aging population.

Washington adds trillions to the national debt each year. (The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Build Back Better alone could add $3 trillion over the next decade.) With a shrinking tax base, this mountain of debt won’t be serviced — let alone repaid.

Our major cities are virtually ungovernable. Liberal crime policies are largely to blame. But you don’t recruit police from a pool of men and women in their 40s and 50s. Each generation produces fewer youth than the last.

Demographic Winter is a simple matter of math. The average woman must have 2.1 children in her lifetime just to maintain population stability. Between 1950 and 2017, worldwide, fertility fell from 4.7 births per woman to 2.4. In the U.S., over the past 70 years, our fertility rate fell by more than half.

Things like this don’t happen in a vacuum. In the U.S., delayed marriage, failure of family formation, and a decision not to have children have all played a part in the catastrophe in the making. Among 130 million U.S. households, only 17.8% are married parents with children — the fewest on record. According to the Pew Research Center, 44% of non-parents say they definitely or probably won’t have children.

In 2018, there were 47.8 million Americans over 65. By 2050, that number is projected to rise to 83.7 million. McDonald’s will be recruiting workers in nursing homes.

Forget vaccine mandates. Imagine what our economy will look like with a labor pool that’s both shrinking and aging. Fields won’t be planted. Factory floors will be silent. Even if there’s a will to guard the borders and police the streets, where will we get the people? 
Why the waning desire to have children? The answers include urbanization, the rising cost of having children, an exaggerated concern over climate change and a decision to make the self the center of the universe.

But, above all else, it’s a loss of faith. The decline of religion parallels declining fertility. Europe has all but abandoned Christianity. Its birth rates are among the lowest on earth. Africa embraces the religion the West has largely abandoned. In consequence, it’s the only continent with a growing population. In America, the states with the highest fertility also have the highest church attendance.

In July, Meghan Markle and her royal husband announced that they would have no more than two children due to concern for “overpopulation.” We’re still trying to defuse the nonexistent population bomb. We live in 2021 with a 1968 mindset.

Mr. Musk, who’s reputed to be the richest man on earth, urges us to “please look at the numbers — if people don’t have more children, civilization is going to crumble.”

The fate of civilization won’t hinge on what happens on the Russia-Ukraine border. On Demographic Winter, it might.

• Don Feder is a former Boston Herald writer and syndicated columnist.

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