Two recent news stories have made me think about the future with fear and trepidation.
One is the report by the trustees of Social Security that said the nation’s premiere retirement account is bringing in less than it needs for the first time since 1982, and that Medicare isn’t doing well, either.
The second is that the fertility rate in the U.S. has dropped to a record low, a rate of less than 1.8 children per woman. Demographers define the replacement rate — the rate at which the current generation can replace itself without declining — at 2.1. We haven’t been there in a while.
The two are related. It shouldn’t be too difficult to see that.
Under current conditions, fixing Social Security and Medicare would be possible with some relatively painless reforms, if Congress and the president act
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quickly. However, neither program can long survive in a nation where the people with grey hair are growing in number, but the workers needed to care for them are shrinking.
While we’re at it, that growing national debt ought to be thrown into the conversation, as well. Can’t pay that off as easy with a dwindling population of workers, as if anyone in Washington is seriously worrying about paying it off, anyway.
I know what you’re thinking. The population of the U.S. isn’t shrinking. That’s true, but demographers I’ve spoken with have explanations for that. Populations continue to grow as long as the last generation to reproduce at the replacement rate or higher remains alive. After that, the decline begins.
And in the United States, immigration has tended to make up for natives who don’t reproduce, but we appear to be getting stingy about letting people in, as well.
To make this more ominous, the U.N. now estimates more than half the world’s population lives in countries with fertility rates below replacement levels, and the trend is for more to join them.
People used to joke that Utah had a fertility rate higher than that of Bangladesh. It’s still true. Utah’s rate in 2017 was 2.29, but the rate in Bangladesh has fallen from 6.7 in 1960 to 2.1 today.
Ever since Thomas Malthus wrote “An essay on the principles of population” in 1798, the world has been obsessed with the alleged harmful and unsustainable dangers of overpopulation. But Malthus obviously miscalculated the future, discounting the human ability to innovate and develop technologies.
Back then, the world’s population was about 1 billion. Today it is 7.6 billion, and where famines exist, they tend to result from political failures, not overpopulation.
No one knows for sure what happens when the entire world begins to lose people, but we do know some of the things that happen when nations depopulate. The website guff.com outlined some of these three years ago.
For one thing, a labor shortage leads to declines in economic production. Businesses close. Supply chains are disrupted. Buildings become vacant. On a national level, this can disrupt trade and lead to competitive disadvantages. As demand drops, so does innovation.
People would begin moving from rural areas to cities, where jobs are perceived to be more available. That could lead to an increase in poverty and substandard housing, and a strain on governments that already would be struggling with dwindling revenues. Roads and other infrastructure, including water, sewer systems and electrical grids, would be harder to maintain. The website speculates this could result in political unrest as people become even more distrustful of a government that can’t provide for the general welfare. In addition, nations that lose population also lose military strength.
As author Jonathan Last wrote for the Weekly Standard several years ago, the world lost population between A.D. 200 and 600, and again between 1340 and 1400. Neither is remembered as a pleasant period.
“It is impossible to predict with certainty the side effects of population decline,” Last wrote. “But there is good reason to believe it will be bad for us. Innovation will suffer as the demand for nearly everything (save health care) slackens. The welfare state is unsustainable in a contracting, top-heavy population. And instead of producing windfalls of excess supply, economies will probably contract.”
The good news is the world reversed those earlier declining trends. Some modern nations, such as Denmark and Hungary, already have initiated public campaigns that have succeeded in bumping fertility rates a bit.
The United States needs to consider policies not only to encourage births, but to encourage them within the context of families committed to raising those children responsibly.
Despite conventional wisdom, a lot is at stake.