Demographics Are Destiny
So just as America’s fertility rate is tanking, China is waking up to the damage of its one-child policy. In mid-May, the Centers for Disease Control reported that “The birthrate fell for nearly every group of women of reproductive age in the U.S. in 2017.” A drop that led to “the fewest newborns since 1987.” Even more, it was the single biggest one-year decline—three percent—since 2010, which was in the depths of the great recession, and which lower birth rates were expected. The fertility rate is an estimate of how many babies a hypothetical group of 1,000 women would likely have over their lifetime. In 2017, America’s was just a paltry 1.76 births per woman. We’ve talked before on BreakPoint about the economic and cultural consequences of declining birthrates. As Jonathan Last, author of the book “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting,” has written, “There is no economy that has managed to knock out gangbuster growth with a declining population.” This truth has not been lost on, of all people, the People’s Republic of China. The same day the CDC announced its findings, a story in the UK’s Telegraph reported that the Communist Party “is considering scrapping the limits it places on how many children families can have.” As the Telegraph told its readers, the move is in reaction to the “consequences of four decades of strict family planning controls,” most notably, the infamous “one-child policy.” Consequences include “a dwindling workforce and a huge increase in elderly citizens.” In a dramatic turnaround, China is using its formidable propaganda machine to urge “prospective mothers to ‘seize the time and conceive.’” The irony in all of this is that China’s total fertility rate isn’t that much lower than ours: 1.57 births as compared to 1.76 births per woman here. While China’s leaders are scrambling to reverse demographic trends, our intelligentsia is, to the extent they notice the issue at all, in denial. One common form of denial we hear is that any shortfall in childbirths will be made up for by immigration. While this has been true in the past, it’s foolish to count on this being true in the future. For starters, in case you haven’t noticed, Americans aren’t wildly enthusiastic about those high levels of immigration. Anxiety about immigration is at least one of the factors behind the 2016 election outcome. What’s more, the traditional sources of those high levels of immigration, especially Mexico and Latin America, may be drying up. Since 2008, more Mexicans have left the United States than entered it. As for the rest of Latin America, only a handful have fertility rates above replacement level themselves, and these aren’t big enough to supply the immigrants to take the place of the children American women aren’t having. Another form of denial is seeing in the new low demographic numbers some good news, like the decline in teenage pregnancies. While that is good news, it hardly compensates for the possibility of irreversible demographic decline. And yes, I used the word “irreversible”. Governments in Europe and Asia have tried all sorts of incentives to jump start fertility, and few, if any, have made a lasting difference. Here’s why—this problem is a cultural one. As one liberal commentator put it, instead of taking the role of parents in our society seriously, many Americans, especially the affluent, treat having children as a discretionary activity, like collecting classic cars or visiting every parrot sanctuary in the world. This attitude is the stuff of which western demographic decline is made. Denying the inherent connection between sex, marriage, and babies is like denying gravity. We may choose to step off the roof, but we can’t choose not to hit the ground. China seems to be learning this at last. Will we?