Rest easy. I have not taken the digital soldier’s oath to QAnon. My focus is on hypothetical American babies never born, rather than actual ones who have gone missing.
For those wanting to make double sure of my sanity, rumours of deep state witchcraft in Washington DC are unfounded. America faces a very different kind of baby problem — the country’s fertility rate has dropped below the population’s natural replacement rate.
We used to think the problem of population decline was confined to Japan and some parts of Europe, notably Italy and Spain, which are getting older with alarming speed. Many Americans attributed Europe’s absence of babies to a sapping of its spirit, as the continent acclimatised to genteel decline. There may be something to that. In which case, the US now confronts a similar moment of truth.
If it were not for immigration, the number of people living in America would have actually fallen in several years between 2010 and 2020, according to the US census bureau (for separate, and obvious, pandemic reasons, America’s population did in fact shrink in 2020 and is likely to do so again in 2021).
The logical response to a potentially shrinking America would be to make it easier for foreigners to become American, which is what Joe Biden wants to do. But it is barely conceivable in today’s political climate that he can persuade Congress to go along with it. Immigration to the US — both legal and illegal — has also been falling for years, especially since the 2008 financial crisis. It is just not dropping quite as rapidly as America’s birth rate.
Are young Americans going through a crisis of morale? Yes and no. Millennials suffer from a lot of unfair stereotyping. Occasionally I have been guilty of that. Their generation is supposedly work shy, excessively woke, and disinclined to settle down. I have no idea how you would prove the first two propositions, which are anecdotal (for the record I know plenty of hard-working millennials).
The third is measurable. America’s population growth over the past decade was the second slowest since the country started counting these things in 1790. The slowest was the 1930s, which ought to give you a clue as to why it’s happening now.
For very sound reasons, millennials, and potentially Generation Z-ers too, are less optimistic about their economic prospects than their parents or older siblings were at the same age. Fewer of them are starting families, and those that do so are starting them later. That does not mean they don’t want to have children. According to Bloomberg’s impressive Noah Smith, the generation’s expressed procreational wishes actually exceed the 2.1 fertility rate that keeps a population constant (compared to America’s actual rate of 1.6 in the year before the pandemic).
That means the problem could be dented by improving America’s woefully inadequate child care and pre-kindergarten educational system. Biden is trying to do that. We shall see if he gets his American Families Plan through Congress, which would make it considerably easier for women to have children without sacrificing their careers. I would give the bill considerably higher odds than immigration reform. Even then, however, it would be unlikely to banish the quandary entirely. Europe, after all, has had such benefits for decades, and population growth there has halted. Ditto for Japan, where it is falling.
It could be that we all must just get used to stagnant populations as the way things are going to be. Having kids in today’s pressure-cooker US is a tremendously stressful and expensive undertaking. I can fully understand any prevaricating young people taking one look at the cost of education — and observing their angst-ridden parental peers — and giving procreation a miss. That is one way of sidestepping the most toxic effects of a meritocracy that can no longer live up to its name.
We might also look at on the bright side of falling population growth. When Elizabeth took the British throne in 1953, only a few people a year made the centenarian threshold that won them a congratulatory telegram from the Queen. Now almost one Briton every hour crosses the age of 100. She still sends a note to each one of them. Today’s America has 53,000 centenarians. To be sure, people over 100 are too old to work. But I know several octogenarians and one or two nonagenarians who are happily still keeping their oar in the labour market. Last month I did a Zoom interview with Henry Kissinger, who will turn 98 later this month. He is currently writing two books. Yes, two. Maybe we don’t need so many young people?
Rana, as a fellow Generation X-er, are you as annoyed as I am when one of your kids says “OK Boomer”. I keep trying to explain to my daughter that I’m not a boomer but that just makes her laugh even louder. As they say in politics, “when you’re explaining, you’re losing”. More seriously, do you think declining population is a problem or an opportunity?
Ed, great minds. I just filed my Monday column on this very topic and won’t scoop myself by telling you my own analysis. What I will say is that while economics has clearly made it tougher for young people to start households of their own as quickly as their parents did (the Federal Reserve looked at the topic, it’s also true that when surveyed, millennials put their desired number of children higher than their actual fertility rate. This leads me to believe that the birth rate could go back up if economic optimism does too.
It’s a question of headwinds versus tailwinds. The capital/labour balance is shifting in favour of workers for the first time in half a century, and work from home means that young people can move away from expensive coastal areas to cheaper second cities. Greenville, South Carolina is one of those that’s popping, along with Austin, Texas (again), and a number of others in the west and south. On the other hand, lacklustre jobs numbers mean that the Wall Street-Main Street divide is still alive and well. And longer-term, I can’t believe automation and the globalisation of white-collar work won’t continue to depress wages.
As for our children annoying us, when my kids give me a hard time about anything these days, I simply remind them that I’m paying their tuition, and they may want that basement apartment in our house some day.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to ‘Covid and the need for intellectual humility’:
“Thank you for the frank confession of having missed some calls on the pandemic. I think it was Aristotle who said ‘Wisdom is knowing what you do not know.’ I find it adds a lot to my wisdom to sit and think about all the things I analysed incorrectly. But as to the pandemic, my greatest fear these days is all the people shouting that it is over will delay enough vaccinations and encourage enough superspreader events to give the virus time to mutate around the vaccines. Two sayings, both from Yogi Berra, come to mind. ‘It ain’t over till it’s over,’ and ‘It’s déjà vu all over again,’ Who would have imagined that Yogi would have become the sage of the pandemic? — Keith Hennessee, San Antonio, Texas