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Family, fertility decline impacts economy

Published: Sunday, April 24 2011 4:26 p.m. MDT

An image from "The New Economic Reality: Demographic Winter"

Rick Stout

Fears about overpopulation are common in modern society, but what will happen to a world where fewer and fewer babies are being born?

A new documentary looks at whether the pendulum has swung too far in one direction.

"The New Economic Reality: Demographic Winter," a two-part television documentary that aired on BYUtv on April 14 and has been scheduled for future showings on the network, examines the effects of family and fertility decline.

According to the experts interviewed in this sobering piece, it won't be pretty.

The only real hope, they say, lies in strengthening the family. With fewer babies being born everywhere, there soon won't be enough younger workers to support the elderly. There won't be enough people interested in marriage, children and home purchases, which keep the economy healthy.

And it's even possible that humankind and current cultures could die out.

"What we thought would happen isn't happening," said Harry S. Dent, a financial expert and author of "The Great Depression Ahead." "Everyone has assumed the human population growth would be steady."

Benjamin Franklin predicted it would double every 20 years. It isn't doing that anymore.

According to the documentary, 77.3 million babies were born in the United States in 1946 and 450 million babies were born worldwide. For the past several decades, however, the birth rate in 90 world countries has been falling.

"The Population Bomb," written by Paul R. Ehrlich in 1968, became society's bible and convinced many people that "babies were destroying the planet," the documentary asserts.

At about the same time, health vaccines were introduced and health care improved. Thus, life spans increased.

The fertility rate — or the number of babies born to a woman — dropped from an average of four children per woman to a number experts say is a critical measure, 2.13 per woman. That is classified as a sub-replacement fertility rate.

Latvia already has more deaths than births, and even the United States would shortly be in decline if not for the immigrant population. By 2050, the majority of people in America will be Hispanic. Meanwhile, Mexico which is experiencing a "birth dearth."

Experts quoted in the documentary say people seriously underestimate the repercussions of a birth-rate decline. Most assume it's a good thing, with less traffic and less congestion being the main result.

Gary Becker, a 1992 Nobel Prize winner in economics from the University of Chicago, says a steady population growth goes along with a thriving economy while a population decline accompanies economic depression.

A species not replacing itself is maladapted, says one expert. The world's modern economy requires a steady flow of human capital, people who are educated and able to be productive.

Jennifer R. Morse, president and founder of the Ruth Institute, said that without enough human capital the remaining workers will have to work harder and longer to keep up, especially as educated, experienced Baby Boomers retire and leave the workplace.

"We're putting all of our eggs in one basket, which is to count on getting more from fewer people," she said.

Government programs for the elderly, like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, will become more stressed without enough younger, productive workers to pay into them.

Demographers quoted in the documentary say cutting family size will create more loneliness and isolation in the world as fewer people have siblings and aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.

According to the documentary, five megatrends are contributing to the Demographic Winter scenario, including the women's revolution, prosperity, the sexual revolution, the divorce revolution (particularly the introduction of no-fault divorce laws) and an emphasis on individualism rather than a focus on others.

"Love of self is not consistent with a love of children," says Bruce C. Hafen, former dean of the J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU and an emeritus LDS general authority.

Phillip Longman, an American demographer and Schwartz Senior Fellow with the New American Foundation, says men need an incentive to marry and have children. Families generate human capital and provide the basic units of a healthy economy: credibility and trust.

Baby bounties, offered in countries likes Japan, Italy and Russia, are not working to encourage people to have children, but family-friendly policies can and do. Religious beliefs seem to have the most impact on people's decisions regarding children.

"Society needs to turn around and value family more," Becker says. "There is hope so long as we can see families as the foundation."

Sharon Haddock is a professional freelance writer with 30 years experience, 17 of those at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.

Email: haddoc@desnews.c

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