Here’s Who Will Lament — and Celebrate — the Plummeting U.S. Birth Rate
There’s nothing like a good population crisis to stir up civilizational angst.
The birth rate among women in the United States just hit a historic low, leading some demographers to worry that population decline may lie in our future.
New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that in 2016, there were just 62 live births per 1,000 women of childbearing age. That’s a one percent decrease from 2015, and the lowest rate on record. Blame the millennials, say demographers — they’re not having kids. Some commentators have worried this may become a “national emergency” if the rate were to drop below population replacement levels.
What’s so bad about fewer babies? That depends on who you ask — and, often, their political leanings.
A population that fails to replace itself means a growing elderly population sustained by a shrinking workforce, creating social anxiety, economic troubles, and a general sense of cultural malaise.
William Frey, a population expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, suspects that a still-recovering U.S. economy is to blame for the dip, rather than more permanent factors. “Every year I say when the economy is getting better then we’ll start having more children,” Frey told the Washington Post, “and I’m still expecting that to happen.”
Solutions to population woes are where partisan views begin to diverge. Conservatives are more likely to emphasize religious and traditional values as the best way to encourage families to have more children.
A May 2015 article in Breitbart, the alt-right news site, called falling fertility rates among millennial women “disturbing.” It connected lower birth rates to abortion, noting that 5.6 million pregnancies had been terminated between 2007 and 2011 — a common view in the pro-life movement but less widely accepted outside of it.
In some European countries, many of which have lower fertility rates than the United States, governments have launched public initiatives, such as Denmark’s “Do it for mom” campaign in 2015, which encouraged couples to have kids to please their parents.
Another way to ensure population replacement is through robust immigration. But that is another point where partisan concerns about fertility diverge — and where some of the real civilizational angst can set in.
Japan presents an extreme case. The nation’s population is already in net decline, with whole villages aging away. There’s one village where elderly residents make life-size dolls and place them in classrooms and playgrounds to remind them of what children are like, since there are no more children there anymore.
As the working population in Japan shrinks, there won’t be enough nurses to take care of the people who will soon be filling up nursing homes. Taiwan and Hong Kong also have some of the lowest fertility rates in the world, but they’ve implemented visa programs that allow foreign workers.
But Japan has kept its immigration laws watertight, preferring instead to pour billions of dollars into creating service robots for the country’s burgeoning nursing home industry. The Japanese government would literally rather have robots take care of its aging population than open the country to non-Japanese workers.
Tinges of a similar ethnocentrism can be found, with increasing fervor in the past few years, in more distant corners of the American and European right. Concerns about declining birth rates, rising immigration from non-Western countries, and the fall of the Judeo-Christian West resonate on both sides of the Atlantic.
Britain’s former chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, has warned that the secularization of Europe was leading to its demographic, moral, and ultimately civilizational downfall. Sacks claimed in an interview with the Daily Telegraph in 2016 that there was no “historical example of a society that became secularised and maintained its birth rate over subsequent centuries.”
“That’s how great civilizations decline and fall,” he said.
These fears help explain why Trump’s base can support policies that would reduce overall immigration while simultaneously fearing a shrinking population. In May 2016 White House chief strategist and former Breitbart chief Stephen Bannon invited Italian conservative Benjamin Harnwell to his radio show to share a similar message.
“There’s not a single country, a single EU member state, that has a fertility rate at replacement level,” Harnwell claimed. Yet Muslim immigration threatened the continent as well, he said, since Europeans, who have lost touch with their Christian values, were unable to see the “innately aggressive” aspects of Islam.
News of the low birth rate is likely to delight at least one U.S. group — the small Virginia-based nonprofit Negative Population Growth. The group believes that endless population growth will destroy the environment and strain resources; it supports policies to lower the birthrate and reduce immigration to “traditional levels.”
Theirs isn’t a view that is currently widely held in the United States, but it harks back to fears of a “population bomb” that gripped the Western world in the 1970s, when the group was founded. In 1969, Paul Ehrlich, a popular public intellectual and biologist who frequently appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, declared at a conference, “Our first move must be to convince all those we can that the planet Earth must be viewed as a spaceship of limited carrying capacity.” The United Nations declared 1974 “Population Year,” and more than a hundred countries gathered to discuss global population control measures. China’s draconian one-child policy was borne in part from this strain of thought.
“We must not simply stop population growth,” Negative Population Growth proclaims on its website. “We must turn it around.”
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Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr