There have been a number of articles appearing lately that highlight a serious and growing problem for our nation, and we are not alone. Nearly every other nation in the world is facing it, too, and to a much greater degree than the United States.
There are too few babies. And that means far more than a shortage of bundles of joy to cuddle and coo over. Babies serve a very pragmatic purpose. (See “Where Have All the Babies Gone?” and “America’s Baby Bust.”)
Recently, the birthrate has fallen just below replacement level in the United States, meaning that each woman bears 2.1 children, enough to replace herself, her husband and the curious .1 baby just to grow the population a tad. From Europe to East Asia, from Canada to Chile, birth rates around the world have fallen below what is needed to avoid population and economic decline. So how does the number of babies affect economic well-being for a nation?
The next generation of teachers, business owners, community leaders, doctors, health-care providers, inventors, farmers, tax-payers and consumers always come to us in the form of babies. And it is required that the previous generation be very intentional about birthing and raising them.
Psalm 127:3-5 is not just a spiritual truth, but also an economic and demographic reality:
Children are a heritage from the LORD, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.
In more than 75 countries around the world (and all developed countries), fertility is well below replacement level which is needed to maintain a nation’s workforce at current levels. The average woman living in a developed nation will give birth to only 1.66 children in her lifetime. That’s 21 percent below the fertility level needed to sustain a current population over time. The number of children ages 0-14 is 60.6 million less in the developed world today than it was in 1965.
And the people born in the ’50s and ’60s are living longer than the generations before them. We have fewer of the younger, more of the older. And fear of overpopulation has no foundation. At the earth’s present capacity of 7 billion people, each of them could stand within the boundaries of the United States’ smallest state — Rhode Island — with just enough room to swing their arms around and only occasionally hit someone else. These seven billion could live within the borders of Texas with the same population density tolerated by the inhabitants of New York City today! Too many people is not cause for fear. Too few are.
Over the next 40 years, the United Nations predicts that 53 percent of the world’s population growth will come from increases in people over 60, while only 7 percent will come from people under 30. These data are assisted by two recent technological developments: widely used and affordable birth control, and medical treatments decreasing death and illness such as penicillin. This decline of the young populations and the expansion of the old is a deeply unhealthy economic trajectory. And of course, the answer for a compassionate society is not to hasten the departure of the aged as a government leader in Japan recently declared. It is to increase, encourage and welcome the birth of young.
The Economic Implications of Fewer Babies
Powerhouses like Japan and China are poised to see their workers shrink by 20 percent from now until 2050, because of persistently low fertility and an ever aging population. This has been happening in Japan for some time, and has significantly curbed their economic growth behind China. China’s days as an economic powerhouse are limited for this very reason.
In terms of economic viability of a nation based on fertility, a 2011 RAND report explains, “China’s prospects may be hindered by its aging population, while India will have more favorable demographics than China” because India is anticipated to surpass China in population by 2025. In fact, India is likely to capitalize on their demographic advantage more powerfully than China did.
The lesson here is that nations wishing to enjoy economic growth and a viable welfare state over the long-term must maintain fertility rates high enough to avoid shrinking workforces and rapidly aging populations. It is a critical balance.
In fact, a recent report by Morgan Stanley explains that a country’s larger proportion of older citizens relative to its shrinking proportion of younger citizens may now be a more important indicator of its likelihood to default on its debt payments than the actual size of the debt itself. Consider this in terms of a household budget. A home has $25,000 of credit card debt and only one employed person who earns $40,000 annually. Not a good debt risk. But consider if that home carrying that much debt had six people each earning only $30K annually. A very different, manageable debt situation. Apply that same dynamic to a nation’s debt. New people matter.
Global economics are largely driven by national demographics — the growth and age distribution of its people — finding the proper balance between those just starting their lives and those approaching their twilight.
This is a deeply human and Christian reality. And its converse is tragically seen in the growing secularization of too many nations. The greatest way a generation can serve its nation is by giving birth to and raising the next generation, and raising it well. Each nation ignores this demographic truth to their own peril.