Wall Street Journal: “Where Are the Babies?”

It seems as though the Wall Street Journal has taken notice of the West’s demographic problem, an issue sometimes discussed here.

The paper’s Saturday Essay for this week is titled “America’s Baby Bust,” and it draws many sound conclusions about the structural problems in our society stemming from the low birth rate.

Forget the debt ceiling. Forget the fiscal cliff, the sequestration cliff and the entitlement cliff. Those are all just symptoms. What America really faces is a demographic cliff: The root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate. . . .

The nation’s falling fertility rate underlies many of our most difficult problems. Once a country’s fertility rate falls consistently below replacement, its age profile begins to shift. You get more old people than young people. And eventually, as the bloated cohort of old people dies off, population begins to contract. This dual problem—a population that is disproportionately old and shrinking overall—has enormous economic, political and cultural consequences. . . .

Low-fertility societies don’t innovate because their incentives for consumption tilt overwhelmingly toward health care. They don’t invest aggressively because, with the average age skewing higher, capital shifts to preserving and extending life and then begins drawing down. They cannot sustain social-security programs because they don’t have enough workers to pay for the retirees. They cannot project power because they lack the money to pay for defense and the military-age manpower to serve in their armed forces.

We can quibble over whether readers ought to be concerned about all these possibilities. I, for one, am not much moved by the fear that the U.S. might not be able to “project power” in the way favored by the Wall Street Journal, whose editors never met a war they didn’t like. Nevertheless, the negative economic and social consequences of a nation dominated by oldsters are very real, and they are becoming more and more likely for the U.S. as the Baby Boomers retire in greater numbers each year.

To make matters worse, the near-term outlook is for continuing decline in fertility, which will accelerate these problems. This is true both in the U.S. and worldwide.

In his important 2005 book Fewer, neocon Ben Wattenberg breaks down the United Nations’ projections on global population and notes that the real numbers have consistently tended toward the low end of the projections over the years. The UN builds into their projections the assumption that fertility will eventually return to replacement level in all the societies where it is currently below that level, but Wattenberg notes that the UN offers no compelling rationale for that assumption. If current trends hold, we could very well be looking at a global population less than one-third its present size by the end of the 22nd century, and that’s without any “shock” event like a big war or epidemic. Some ethnicities or racial groups may just disappear completely if their members can’t be bothered to reproduce.

Fertility rates are determined by complex cultural, economic, and religious factors. The author of “America’s Baby Bust” is smart enough to know that the government can’t simply fix this problem by implementing the right policy or set of policies, but he does conclude that “we simply must figure out a way to have more babies.”

Sure, the Wall Street Journal is ten years late to the party, but it’s nice to see it contribute something to the discussion on this issue.

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About Dr. J

I am an Associate Professor and head of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.
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4 Responses to Wall Street Journal: “Where Are the Babies?”

  1. Alethia Clark says:

    I have heard of those issues before but never the perspective that the cause might be our view of what makes a good life–happiness. Parenting is a lot harder than I thought it would be but how much of that is b/c of what I thought it would be rather than it actually being that hard. I know one battle in the Pro-life movement has been to respond to claims of mainstream society that raising children is very economically difficult but I see now that an equally or even more important battle is to show society what a fulfilling life is really about, and that challenges (like in parenting) are not something to be avoided but something to be embraced. Maria Montessori wrote about what makes human beings unique is our ability to adapt ourselves to fit our environment. It seems we have started trying to change our environment in order to avoid the challenges required to adapt ourselves. Now our environment/society is struggling and we have forgotten the satisfaction that comes when we change our own thoughts and expectations to fit the circumstances with which we are presented, such as finding the difficulties of parenting deeply challenging rather than viewing it as an imposition on our “happiness”.

  2. anarchobuddy says:

    Is it entitlement programs that most make this a pressing problem? Is a declining population an inherently negative thing?

    • Dr. J says:

      Entitlement programs are a big part of the problem, but not all of it. As the linked article says, empirical evidence suggests that societies with old populations are less innovative and more capital-consuming.

  3. Preston says:

    Of course WSJ would never point to this, but I’d suspect a substantial part of the problem is that our religion has switched from being focused on the bodily resurrection of the dead (and the inherent goodness of the earth) to being focused on a bodiless afterlife and the underlying assumption that physical life is evil. Agree or disagree with traditional Christianity, it does tend to encourage reproduction.

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