During the post-World War II decades, global leaders and intellectuals were tortured with the prospect of a planet with too many people to feed, but now the industrialized world is challenged by too few babies and graying populations.
China, through draconian enforcement of a one- and now a two-child policy, and Japan, through public information campaigns and better access to birth control, dramatically suppressed fertility to well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman.
Now both have shrinking labor forces and will soon have too many elderly for their working populations to comfortably support. In China, the preference for male children has instigated abortions of female fetuses and too many adult males — “bare branches” who cannot find wives and extend their family trees.
In the West, market forces have driven down birth rates.
Fertility in Europe, the United States and Canada is well below 2.1, and economists worry that an elderly population that outnumbers children will slow growth to the point of bankrupting Social Security and pitting generations against each other for scarce resources.
It’s easy to point a finger at the feminist revolution and women’s entry into the workplace, but that is a false explanation. Women have been working at nondomestic, genuinely economic pursuits for a long time.
When agriculture dominated human endeavor, women stayed closer to the house, but they did more than cook, clean and chase children. On the American family farm, tending the poultry and cows, manufacturing prepared foods like sausage and cheese, and preserving fruits, vegetables and meat were surely economically productive and demanding.
During the factory age between the two Roosevelts, only the wives of professionals and the wealthy — whose numbers were few — were at home in the image of MGM’s idyllic 1930s families. Andy Hardy’s mother and aunt always seem to be baking or running off to women’s clubs, but both my grandmothers worked in factories just like my grandfathers.
Automation, the rise of the service economy and the automobile — which led to productivity growth and the suburbs — along with modern birth control gave rise to a much larger share of men who could support women at home and women stranded in rather sterile communities distant from the vitality of city centers.
Leisure is not the natural healthy state for men or women. Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan were intellectual entrepreneurs more than visionaries when they suggested women get jobs — and deserved fair opportunities for good ones — to liberate them from suburban boredom.
The high cost of rearing children into their 20s and paying for college have done more to limit childbirth than women working. If both partners are working and fatigue discourages procreation as much as is reported these days, how did each of my grandmothers have four pregnancies working tough factory jobs?
China raised its one-child policy to two a few years back, but women are not responding. Japan stopped preaching small families to couples a long time ago, but its birth rate remains perilously low.
The United States and now Germany rely on immigration to boost population growth, but that is not enough. For example, the United States will soon have more elderly than children.
So many immigrants from troubled and impoverished nations pose vexing assimilation and fiscal challenges. Working-class communities feel their cultures challenged while many U.S. immigrants lack a high school education, more than half qualify for means-tested entitlements, and the lack of fluency in English seriously strains public schools.
Democrats have their answers — socializing preschool care, virtually free state college tuition and guaranteed annual incomes — but those won’t move the fertility needle. Nonselective college diplomas hardly guarantee much success these days, and the parental arms race and expenses will continue to climb to place children at highly selective universities.
Technology — robots and the like — can’t be relied on to save the day. A population with a growing share of elderly is simply not going to be very adept at innovation.
What really has to change is that women again find satisfaction in having more than two children — as some will always have fewer owing to premature death, personal issues or infertility — without expecting them all to go to Harvard.
The proposition that three children is the ideal is social dynamite no politician wants to touch, but in the end civilization needs more babies to survive.
• Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.
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