When I was a kid, everyone was worried about the “population explosion.” Paul Ehrlich’s book, “The Population Bomb,” was a runaway bestseller.
This led to a lot of dystopian science fiction, like Harry Harrison’s novel, “Make Room, Make Room,” which became the famous movie “Soylent Green.” It also led to a lot of policy changes, from China’s disastrous one-child policy to many policies in industrialized nations aimed at people having fewer children later in life.
The culture also changed. My mother reports that when she was married, even married couples weren’t considered fully adult until they had children. Raising kids was seen as one of the most important things people did. Now, it’s seen as a distraction from the pleasures and opportunities of adult life, things like promotion at work or dating.
The looming population explosion never happened. Instead, we’ve now got something closer to a population implosion, as birth rates fall below replacement levels around the globe. Philip Longman worried about this nearly 20 years ago in a Foreign Affairs article, “The Global Baby Bust,” and now it’s happening for real.
People of the Paul Ehrlich era would no doubt see today’s problems as beneficial: Fewer people means more stuff to go around, right? Not exactly.
Demographer and futurist Joel Kotkin writes: “On the contrary, we need to worry about the potential ill-effects of depopulation, including a declining workforce, torpid economic growth, and brewing generational conflict between a generally prosperous older generation and their more hard-pressed successors.”
Shrinking populations tend to do poorly, economically, socially and militarily. One need only look to China, where the one-child policy is producing a huge overhang of pensioners with not enough people to support them, or to Japan, where the average age keeps climbing while young people seem to lack direction and confidence, to see what lies in our future.
As Kotkin notes, “John Maynard Keynes warned that ‘chaining up of the one devil [of overpopulation] may, if we are careless, only serve to loose another still fiercer and more intractable.’”
Well, that’s where we are now. And it will be hard to change. The baby bust isn’t taking place just in the United States or the industrialized nations, but all over the globe. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, where birth rates are still comparatively high, they’re falling sharply. Having kids involves short-term sacrifice for long-term gain, and people are less and less willing to make short-term sacrifices.
A recent Pew Research poll found “44% of non-parents ages 18 to 49 say it is not too or not at all likely that they will have children someday, an increase of 7 percentage points from the 37% who said the same in a 2018 survey.”
Some nations are already trying to offer incentives to have more children. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been trying that with little effect for some years now. China has ended its one-child policy, but most Chinese no longer seem to want more kids.
Here in America, we haven’t done much of anything, but I suggest we could at least remove some of the disincentives to having kids. One surprising (but not really) disincentive to having more kids is found in car-seat laws. According to a recent study, they only save a few kids’ lives but cause many parents to forego a third kid (which requires a bigger car): “We estimate that these laws prevented only 57 car crash fatalities of children nationwide in 2017. Simultaneously, they led to a permanent reduction of approximately 8,000 births in the same year, and 145,000 fewer births since 1980, with 90% of this decline being since 2000.”
There are all sorts of other ways in which laws, regulations and social attitudes make parenting more expensive and stressful than a couple of generations ago, even as it receives less social approbation. They should vanish if we want more kids.
It may come down to a religious battle. The Bible encourages people to be fruitful and multiply, and more-religious populations, like Orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Muslims, are still having children at a brisk rate. Meanwhile believers in the modern pagan religion of environmentalism are foregoing children, and even getting sterilized because of “climate change.”
The future belongs to the people who show up, as they say. It seems doubtful that will be the greenies.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the InstaPundit.com blog.