The latest issue of the Weekly Standard explores the ever-shrinking fertility rate in western countries, and asks if the one-child policy is the latest Chinese import sweeping America. The writer, Jonathan V. Last, chronicles the implementation of China’s policy, and the potential economic and social repercussions facing that nation as their fertility rate continues to plummet well below 2.1, the minimum needed to ensure any population growth. Last writes that societies will perish with decades of fertility rates below 2 (though he notes that this has never happened), and highlights the low rates in western nations; America, at 2.06, is third in the developed world, “only Israel (2.75) and New Zealand (2.10) are more fertile.”

Last makes some interesting observations as to why couples may be choosing to have smaller families, and ultimately cites increased education and career opportunities for women as a primary factor, as well as the extraordinarily high cost of raising a child and the ubiquity of contraception. America's growth rate is above 2 because of the influx of immigrants to the country, so among what Last terms "native" individuals, the United States is no different than any other western nation (below the replacement rate). What will this mean come 2050? No one is certain, but Last presents some interesting scenarios (childless women using strollers to push around their puppies or kittens or massive government programs to encourage the creation of more children).

Comments

Gabriel Marcella | 9/27/2010 - 10:17am
Anne C,
You're correct that author Jonathan Last does not examine all the whys and what should be done about the problem, but that doesn't invalidate his points. You might wish to read Fred Pearce, The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet's Surprising Future, Boston, Beacon Press, 2010. It's a thoughtful, well researched, and balanced treatment of the subject. As to why women and men want fewer children, Pearce argues that in some societies self fulfillment is replacing children and having a family, while in others, such as China, gender selection aborts females. In other societies, such as Europe, the nanny state is replacing the family for social security. The trend line is clear: as societies become richer in wealth, they become poorer in children.  Our children and grandchildren will inherit a world that will be grayer and smaller. It will also be a world where immigrants, legal and illegal, from the Third World will be knocking at the doors.  I don't like that prospect.
Tom Maher | 9/27/2010 - 10:42am
Population rate of increases from such things as  family formation is more  impacted by the general economic and political conditions  as the 20th century shows than personal attitudes and individual life style choices such as feminism and careerism. 

During the depression era of the 1930s there was significantly less births and marriages than at any other time.   Immigration was not only slowed but massive numbers of people moved back to their country of origin.  Immeadeately after World War II there was an explosion of marriages and births.  - the baby boom that went on for almost 20 years. 

During the 1970s a time of feminism and questioning of marraige and record number of divorces birth  rates remained steady because there was no war and the  economy was  stagnant,  but not depressed. 
 
Under conditions of realative peace and prosperity,  no governement programs are needed for increases in population to happen quite naturally.?
J B | 9/26/2010 - 1:06pm
The author does a lot of handwringing about the impending doom he sees in a lower world birth rate (although the world's population will continue to grow). But his fears are no more likely to be valid than those of Malthus in another generation.  The sky is not falling.

He needs to get over his fears of gloom and doom and the collapse of civilization - these fears will not be realized anymore than the fears of Malthus were realized.  It is likely that there is a bit of a natural corrective going on - the beginning of a return to a more sustainable population equilibrium, with a lower growth rate. According to Wiki, ''The population of the world reached one billion in 1804, two billion in 1927, three billion in 1960, four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987, and six billion in 1999. It is projected to reach seven billion by late 2011, and around eight billion by 2025.''  After inreasing at an unsustainable rate, it seems that there will be a (welcome) slowdown in world population growth.  It took more than 120 years to double from one to two billion-an increase of one billion-, but only 39 years to double from three billion in 1960 to 6 billion in 1999, with the six billion being hit only 13 years after the world population hit five billion, and adding another billion by 2011, only 12 years after hitting six billion.  Fortunately, after adding another billion to the world's population in only 12 years, there will be at least a slight downward trend-it seems it will take at least 14 or 15 years to add the next billion, and maybe 20-25 years to get to 9 billion.

In the entire article, full of statistics and stories of attempts by governments to manipulate the birth rate (which he seems to blame on ''selfish'' young women, primarily), he never seems to attempt to even try to understand why many of today's young couples, especially young women, do not want a lot of children. He discusses the various dramatic changes in society that have led to young women choosing to have fewer (or no) children-access to higher education and to careers that were mostly barred to them until 50 or so years ago, and better control over their own fertitility due to medical advances-but he does not engage in any reflection at all about why they choose to limit families, nor why they should choose to give up what they have achieved simply in order to satisfy the fears of some (mostly men) that women are not devoting themselves exclusively to motherhood anymore (men have never devoted themselves exclusively to fatherhood, after all) - nor does he offer any ''solutions'' to this perceived ''problem.''  Perhaps he realizes that suggesting going back to finding ways to keep women uneducated and pregnant (if not barefoot) isn't going to be embraced by very many young women.  He does not ask ''why'' so many prefer being a lawyer or firefigher or cop or scientist to being a full-time parent.  He notes that govt policies that are meant to enourage larger families aren't working - yet he still doesn't ask ''why'' - he simply implies that too many young women are crassly materialistic.

 He needs to go a lot deeper if he is to even begin to understand these ''whys.''
Tom Maher | 9/24/2010 - 11:38pm
JR Cosgrove has very interesting observations on the Bush admisnistration's  attemp to solve the Social Security and Medicare meltdown by granting amnesty to illegal immigrants and thereby get more people paying into Social Security and Medicare.    This is a new angle which sounds very creditble .  This is the type of desparate actions admsinsitrations take to shore up vastly underfunded social programs where the programs are likely to become insolvent.  This desparate action demonstrate the real burdens demographic shifts put on a society which does not have any viable plan to resolve the severe problem of revenue shortfall and cost acceleration of these social programs.

Of course the Bush Admistration also tried to reform Social Security by creating individual accounts that could invest funds and thereby grow the way pensions are invested by municidple and private pension funds if a person elected to. This plan was fiercely resisted by the Democrats in Congress and accordingly failed.   The alternative left which may not be acceptable to anyone is to greatly raise social security and medicare taxes.  

This week France is experiencing general strikes in protest of raising the retirrement age from 60 to 62 with full retirement raised to 67 from 65.   So this probelm is very real in the west. But this probelm is still not resolved in the United States and no politically viable plan is even being offered. 
Anonymous | 9/24/2010 - 4:10pm
A fascinating article.  My guess is that Last is writing a book.  No ordinary reporter could come up with that much information in less than a few months of guided digging.  I have a few comments on his article:
 
 
First, he emphasized what the immigration debate was all about for George Bush.  While a sense of fairness was a important part of it, a more significant part was the importing of young blood to postpone the Medicare and Social Security funding meltdowns in the near future.  All those immigrants on the books would be working away to support the baby boom retirement costs.  This was never emphasized but some friends of mine in Washington told me this was a major consideration for amnesty.  George Bush was vilified when the first thing he tried to do after the 2004 elections was to solve the entitlement problem.  We were told by many that there was no problem.
 
 
Second, the cost of education has risen incredibly in recent years as colleges just raise tuition 6-8% even if he CPI is stable.  This is being fueled by the college loan program that make it appear easy to finance a college education.  As the article says, this is causing its own effects on marriage and babies.  One thing I learned in the last 10 years, it is not necessary to go to college to become educated.  Distance learning can be just as effective for a whole host of topics and the cost is a fraction of actual college costs.  There are a whole spectrum of technologies and possibilities to make this happen.  Some topics such as the sciences and engineering need hands on experience with up to date technology and equipment so this would not be a total opportunity for education.
 
 
Some students have adopted the strategy of spending two years at a community college nearby before transferring into a four year college.  Some have used this to get the Ivy League degree without the first two years cost but transferring in as Juniors with proven grades at the college level as well as the test scores that would have gotten them admitted in the first place.
 
 
But the real problem with reducing the cost of a college education is that it is not an education in the traditional meaning of the word but a life experience one must have or be forever left behind.  Young adults look forward, rightly or wrongly, to this passage as an essential for their total life experience.  And certain colleges do not meet the criteria.  I know that the state schools in New York are considered below standard for many, not because of academics, but in terms of the experience one will have there.  While just across the border, Penn State, an education factory as big as any, is ''cool'' because of its traditions, especially football.  A nonsense perception but an accurate one for a large percentage of college aged kids.
 
 
Third, within a culture there are many sub cultures and over time one can overtake the other because of demographic reasons.  If religious families are having larger families they may eventually overcome the materialist culture that says that there is nothing but this life so the ''live it up for here and now'' may eventually be replaced by one with a different orientation.  This may or may not happen but this will only play out over several generations.  A few years ago while teaching at Fordham, an associate of mine who was an orthodox Jew, had a family of six and when I left, he was planning on having more.  There was a belief within this sub culture that it was necessary to have large families in order to replace the large number of Jews that had been killed in the Holocaust.  How this will play out over subsequent generations is hard to predict.  Similarly I know of some Catholic families who believe it is their obligation to have large families.  Whether this will be transmitted to their children, will be seen.  The fight with the materialist culture is a tough one.
 

Stanley Kopacz | 9/23/2010 - 1:47pm
Many of the advances in food production will probably be short lived, if they are based on the availability of cheap oil.  The irrigation of north africa using the sub-saharan aquifers would produce a lot of food and is probably a good idea but when the aquifer runs out, that's it for another 10,00 years or so, when the precession of the earth's axis changes brings rain to the sahara again.  It seems that usually the population will grow to the limits provided by the environment.  One or a series of environmental catastrophes would result in a sharp decrease in the human population.  Even a coronal mass ejection from the sun could result in mass starvation if the electrical systems of the world went down for two years.  We always push it to the edge and sometimes the edge pushes back.  Human beings will probably survive, but will civilization?  Civilizations and human populations have collapsed before, but these were relatively local events.  What will a global collapse do?
Todd Scribner | 9/23/2010 - 12:49pm
What will all this mean come 2050?  I only took a quick scan of the article mentioned, but the Hispanic Pew Forum recently published a report (well, a couple of years ago) titled "US Population Projections, 2005-2050" that examines some of the implications of population and demographic change in the US... for those interested in this sort of thing, it might be worth a read: http://pewhispanic.org/reports/report.php?ReportID=85
Tom Maher | 9/23/2010 - 11:59am
Congradulation to Micheal O'Loughlin for so skillfully presenting such a wonderfully rich and important topic on population growth and the capacity of society and earth's resources to sustain population growth.   The reader's responses show how personally and deeply engaged people are on this topic.  And the article is from, of all unlikely places, the Weekly Standard, a conservative weekly magazine.  How did reference to a conservative publication slip through the liberal filter of America's editors? 

The readers do benefit and learn from the rich diversity of opinions on this complex issue involving the future of the world where noone really has a certain answer.  And bonus: the topic is loaded with religious implications on human destiny.  Tim Reidy will be so proud of us that this fits so nicely into the general theme of "In All Things".  And the author resisted the urge to sound like he was a graduate of the Chris Matthews school of journalism by not interjecting his own preconceptions as eternal truths.   

Just in the last week in a documentary on the effects of climate change (on the Discovery channel maybe?) ,no less than  two PhDs predicted grandly, as climate change predictions usually do, that religion would collapse because the earth's severly changed climate would not allow humankind to increase and multiple anymore.   Amazingly by not being able to increase and multiple they reasoned people would reject the scriptures and they boldy predicted that therefore religlion would collapse.   One of the wilder predictions on climate change by people who are too well educated.

More soberly climate change predict a more reasonalble rasing of teperatures that would make many geographic area unable to raise crops.  Grain exports from Autrailia which already has a sub tropical climate would no longer be able to raise grains becasue its climate would be altered to tropical where grains can not grow.  This same effect would be repeated in other areas of the world, causing hugh food shortages even for the present level of world population.  This type of climate change has in fact occurred frequently in the past causing nations such as China and the Inca Empire to decline or even become extinct.

However there have always been powerful forces at work that have created abundances of needed resources such as food.   Food production has increased explosively worldwide over the centuries more than anyone would have expected beforehand.  All kinds of technology came into play unexpectedly that profoundly increased food production that far outstripped increases in world population.

Also agonomic research has made unproductive land abundantly productive.  Food can be grown even in adverse climate conditions, if required.    The classic example is the Imperial Valley in California which origianlly was a desert.  With irrigation of this relatively small land area and its excellent soil conditions abundantly yields most of the fruits and vegetatble of the United States.  We are talking about vast food abundances from small land areas. 

Worldwide there are numerous other potential Imperial Valleys even with climate change that have great soil, plenty of sunshine but lack irrigation such as the Sudan.  The Sudan by itself if properly developed could yield enough food for the entire world.   There are plenty of economic and political reasons why that that has not happened in Sudan.  The point is that on a closer look the real inventory of earth's resources is far more abundant than anyone knows or even suspects.   These are technical studies that are usually of interest only to expert scientific groups or private resource developers like those that developed the Imperial Valley.   Most highly educated people and governemnts have no idea about the earth vast potential that has already been very successfully demonstrated on a very small scale.  See the September 1976 Scientific America article on the agronomic potential of the Sudan with its story of the Imperial Valley development in California.  Its a classic.    

So there is plenty of reasons to believe that population inceases will not come close to exhausting the resources needed by a much larger population.  And very likely as has powerfully happened repeatedly over the centuries more resources will be available than ever before.
Gabriel Marcella | 9/23/2010 - 11:31am
The article by Last is very provocative in many ways:

1.He calculates that it will cost $1.1 million to raise a single child, figuring in expenses, education, and foregone income. Why not figure in the benefits and joys of having children? How does one quantify those? One suspects that the pursuit of material goods and personal fulfillment has now replaced forming a family, the basis of any civilzed society.
2. The cradle of Western civilization is disappearing. Italy, once the land of bambini, is becoming depopulated, as are other countries of Europe. This has immense national security implications. Is the Islamization of Europe on the horizon?
3. What are the national security implications of aging populations and disappearing countries?
4. The neo-Malthusianists have been on the defensive for years, but public policy (including the current administratio) pushes abortion and other forms of family planning. The American public needs to be educated about demography.
Vince Killoran | 9/23/2010 - 10:06am
Overpopulation?  Take a look at a chart of the growth in the world's population since, say, 1500 and be astonished. 

In a way Brett J. has a point: the problem is  consumerism, materialism, etc.  But this is rooted in our "productionist" ethos & exploitive view of the environment. Those peoples in world history who did not embrace this perspective had relatively stable, small populations. 
Claire Mathieu | 9/23/2010 - 8:34am
This article lays out the dangers of population decrease in detail: a generation in trouble once they reach the age at which they need help and support, and the younger generation is not there to support them. But that's just trouble for one generation, and then things will stabilize. On the other hand once a population exceeds the resources of the land, they may destroy the land just because they are trying to survive, and the consequences are not just for one generation but forever - for example, desert advancing in parts of Africa because people have to cut wood for cooking. The possibility of an analogous event on a worldwide basis is much more scary than one country suffering a painful transition during one generation. We need an article on the evils of population growth, to balance out this article. 

Michael Cremin | 9/23/2010 - 7:45am
My wife and I are blessed with two perfect little girls. We would both like to have another, but we are afraid that the costs-in daycare, since we both have to work-will ruin us. We've also talked about adoption, but it costs about $20k. It is, truly, all about money, and economic security. I wish it were not so, but it is so.
Beth Cioffoletti | 9/23/2010 - 7:30am
After reading the linked article in the Weekly Standard, I understand a little better what the discussion is about, and it seems the most crucial problem is that when fertility rates are low there are a lot of old people who need support, and very few working young people to support them.  Also, we've lost the extended family network that could be helpful in caring for an elderly population.

Now my question is, wouldn't this resolve itself after a couple of generations, when the bloated number of old people died off?  Or would we still not have enough young people to keep the human family thriving?  It reminds me of the saying that more children means more hands to work in the fields.  I guess there really is truth in that.  It's interesting that it's the immigrants who work in the fields now.
Beth Cioffoletti | 9/23/2010 - 7:08am
This really is a question for me - is overpopulation a problem or not?  It seems to me that there is an awful lot of traffic on the roads (do we just have too many cars?) and urban sprawl is a lot worse than when I was a child.

I don't know how families could manage with 10 and 12 children now.  Yet it was not uncommon for many of my classmates in the 1950s to have more than 12 brothers and sisters and they mostly managed quite well.

In theory, I really like the idea of large families.  But when I think of all the children who are abandoned (literally or emotionally), and it seems selfish for a couple to procreate endlessly.  And then there is the financial issue.  Unless one is rich (making more than $100,000 a year on one salary) I don't see how one could responsibly afford to raise more than 3 or 4 children in this country.

But what I really don't understand is what people call the danger of not keeping up the birthrate?  Like that means that we're going to die out or something.  Or does it mean that another race is going to overtake us as a majority?  Or that consumer spending will go down with less people and how will the economy survive? 

Can someone explain?
Anonymous | 9/23/2010 - 12:26am
Good, short video on the subject:  Overpopulation, the making of a myth

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZVOU5bfHrM
Anonymous | 9/23/2010 - 12:21am
Great link!

As for the canard of over-population spread by neo-malthusians, it is simply untrue.

Just look at the example of consumption: the west contains 20% of the total world population, yet consumes 80% of natural resources. 

The problem is not population growth, the real problem is the spread of our liberal, materialistic and utilitarian views of life and reproduction.  With out traditional forms of contentment and connection (faith in God, marriage, family, community) there are no limits to human desire.  When this happens you see the rapacious destruction of consumerism that dominates our secular, contraceptive and "environmentally consciencious" society.

Big, traditional families are not the problem - relativistic consumer culture and sexuality are. 
Claire Mathieu | 9/22/2010 - 10:40pm
Many people around me limit their number of children out of concern for the environment. We feel that our planet is too small to sustain many more billions of people. I have friends who, rather than give birth to numerous offsprings, after the first one or two, have adopted several children. Their reasoning is simple: why make more children, ultimately using more resources and crowding the earth even more than it currently is, when there are many orphans just waiting to be adopted?