Where Have All The Children Gone?

Published May 2, 2005

The Public Interest, Number 159, Spring 2005, pp. 170-174.

Fewer, Ben J. Wattenberg
(Ivan R. Dee, 256 pp. $24.95)

The Empty Cradle, Phillip Longman
(Basic Books, 288 pp. $26.00)

PROGRESSIVES HAVE LONG WORRIED that world population is rising too much and too fast, and that poor nations will never modernize if they continue to procreate without limits. But in reality, concerns about overpopulation are wholly misplaced, and the real danger ahead may result from “depopulation”: a world of fewer babies, aging populations, and pension systems in crisis.

To sort out the consequences of the “new demography,” we have the benefit of two valuable new books: Fewer by American Enterprise Institute scholar Ben J. Wattenberg, and The Empty Cradle by New America Foundation fellow Phillip Longman. Both books cover similar territory and tell the same basic story. But they are written for different reasons. Wattenberg writes as an “optimistic realist” and “American exceptionalist.” He believes that Europe and Japan are in demographic trouble, that developing countries may largely benefit from falling birth rates, and that America alone may have the civic resources to avoid the pitfalls of an aging society. Longman writes as a progressive worried that only “fundamentalists” will have children in the future. He wants liberals to have larger families, and he believes that public policies that reward parenthood are the best chance for averting the economic crisis of an aging world and the cultural crisis of religious fanaticism.


The new demography is best understood in three parts: the less developed countries (LDCs), the more developed countries (especially Europe and Japan), and the United States. Contrary to public perception, the most dramatic fertility declines in recent decades have occurred in the LDCs. From 1965 to 1970, the “total fertility rate” (or TFR, the number of children per woman) for all LDCs was 6.0; from 1985 to 1990, it was 3.8; from 2000 to 2005, it will be below 2.9 and falling. In 20 LDCs, fertility rates are already below replacement levels or soon will be— including Iran, Mexico, and Brazil. Central to this story is China, the world’s most populous nation, whose TFR fell from 6.06 between 1960 and 1965 to around 1..8 today. This drop is due largely to China’s coercive one-child policy. But it is also clear that the fertility free-fall in the developing world is not predominantly coercive; it is, rather, a spontaneous change in human behavior. And given that many of these nations are still poor, it suggests that modern wealth is not a prerequisite for fertility decline.

Wattenberg and Longman disagree somewhat about the economic and social significance of these changes for the LDCs. Wattenberg believes the decline in fertility rates could have mostly positive benefits, at least for several decades. The high rates of fertility in earlier decades and declining rates of infant mortality have created a large cohort of workers, better educated and more skilled than any previous native generation. This generational cohort is having fewer children and sending more women into the paid workforce. With fewer dependents and more producers, Wattenberg argues, GDP per capita in many LDCs is poised to increase dramatically. And as the local economy expands, the best and the brightest will stay home instead of heading overseas in search of economic opportunity. Wattenberg calls this the “demographic dividend.”

But, as Longman points out, there are also reasons to worry. The demographic dividend must eventually be repaid. Today’s generation of producers will age, and there will be fewer children (and thus fewer future workers) to support them. The LDCs, Longman says, may get old before they get rich. And so, where Wattenberg sees nations like India and China as prime examples of how the new demography might turn out well in the near future, Longman sees a potential long-term disaster: the coming of “4-2-1 societies,” in which “one child must support two parents and four grand-parents,” even as the economy drives workers away from the farms where their dependent elders still live.

On the question of Europe, Japan, and other modern democracies, both authors are in agreement: Depopulation is coming, and the economic and social consequences will likely be disastrous. The data are indeed staggering: Since the late 1950s, the TFR in Europe has fallen from 2.7 to 1.38—an astounding 34 percent below the replacement level of 2.1. Japan’s fertility rate is 1.32. A large number of nations have TFRs between 1.0 and 1.2, including Russia, Spain, Italy, South Korea, and the Czech Republic. Generations of modern children are growing up without brothers and sisters, and roughly 20 percent of women in the leading nations of Europe have no children at all at the end of their child-bearing years.


Both Wattenberg and Longman describe the tragic consequences of these demographic changes: The declining number of workers and increasing number of retirees will leave the European and Japanese welfare states in fiscal crisis; the culture of early retirement will make it hard to extend the retirement age; the cultural opposition to immigration will make it difficult to import and assimilate new workers; the shrinking population will reduce consumer demand and diminish economic innovation; the imposition of new taxes on workers to support programs for the elderly will make it even more difficult for the rising generation to afford children of their own. And while many developed nations have recently enacted “pro-natalist” policies, fertility is still in sharp decline.

The irony is that these nations’ economic problems are partly the result of individuals and families pursuing their own economic self-interest. As Wattenberg describes it:

If things proceed as expected, this postwar Euro-Japanese generation will live longer lives, in healthier circumstances, than any previous cohort of humanity. By any historical collective standard, the postwar generation has it all, or almost all. It has made individual decisions with its own best interests in mind. It wanted cars and vacations abroad. Women wanted education and career choices. It wanted its children to be well cared for and to attend good schools. And it decided to have fewer children than any cohort in human history. Individually, it apparently made sense.

But socially, it may prove disastrous, as whole civilizations shrink in the decades ahead, seeking a paradise of personal freedom in the present but unable to perpetuate themselves into the future.

LOOKING AT AMERICA, THE FUTURE is more complicated. The United States has virtually the highest fertility rate of any advanced nation at 2.01, with Israel as the most notable exception. Yet there are dramatic differences between different regions (low fertility in the northeast high fertility in the west) and between native-born whites and Hispanic immigrants. Unlike Europe and Japan the American fertility rate has risen (if slightly) over the last two decades. But whether America is truly “exceptional” is unclear: Wattenberg says yes, because we continue to have children near the replacement rate, and we continue to welcome and assimilate working-age immigrants Longman is skeptical, and worries that American over-spending on health care could erase any demographic advantages we might have.

Still, both authors agree that America will confront many of the same problems as Europe and Japan—with fewer workers supporting more dependents, with few economic incentives for having children, with private pensions that threaten to bankrupt large companies, with a growing population of elders in need of long-term care, and an economy dominated by risk-averse retirees. While the Bush administration may overstate the urgency of the Social Security crisis, both Democrats and Republicans understate the urgency of the Medicare and long-term care crisis. How will we care for our ever increasing population of (increasingly disabled) senior citizens?

But if there are reasons to worry, there are also reasons for optimism. America is genuinely different from most other modern countries: It is a more religious nation, and this means that large parts of the population see ‘both procreation and caring for the elderly as moral duties. It is a harder working nation, with a labor force that produces more wealth by working more hours and seeking useful employment even in retirement. It is a more self-reliant nation, with individuals more open to funding their own retirements rather than demanding expansions of the welfare state. And it is a more idealistic nation: Americans believe in the future, and the future requires having children.

AND THIS BRINGS US TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER, an issue not adequately considered by either author: Why have children at all (or more than just one or two), especially when there are so many reasons not to do so? Children are, after all, technologically avoidable (thanks in large part to the pill), economically expensive (and more so in cities), and culturally optional (particularly in the West).

In a chapter entitled “The Cost of Children,” Longman explains why raising a child in America will cost middle-class families over $1 million, due mostly to the “opportunity cost of motherhood”—that is, the lost wages entailed in raising the young. He describes how our tax system punishes parents, who produce the “human capital” (the future citizens) who make national prosperity possible, but who as parents gain little economic reward for doing so. He also describes how dependent the nation’s nonparents have become on other people’s children, and how we consume more human capital (future workers) than we produce. As a response, Longman recommends a pro-child reform of the pension system, so that parents would get a one-third reduction in their payroll tax for each child under 18, but receive maximum retirement benefits only if their children graduate from high school.

Longman’s analysis is both brilliant and perverse. In the end, he seems to forget the central role of culture in shaping procreation, which was (ironically) the reason he seems to have written the book in the first place—fearing that only the wrong kind of people (religious fundamentalists) will have children while the right kind of people (tolerant secularists) will not. But economic incentives will probably not move many secularists to be more fruitful than they other-wise would be. And while many individuals and couples believe they are having fewer children (or none at all) because of the expense of raising children responsibly, their behavior has much deeper roots: It is not fundamentally an economic issue, but a cultural one. For those who see children primarily as sources of personal fulfillment, other routes to happiness may seem more trouble-free. Children will often lose out in this utilitarian calculus, even if the state makes raising them less expensive.

In the end, neither Longman nor Wattenberg probes very deeply into the larger cultural question of the demographics of implosion. But they have gathered the data and usefully corrected certain widespread and longstanding misrepresentations: There will be no population explosion (neither in the developed West nor in the Third World), only a slow and steady decline in the human population. The economic and social effects of these trends will be enormous, but the deeper question is why so many modern people are choosing to live for themselves and for today, with so little thought for the human future.

Eric Cohen is the editor of The New Atlantis and director of the program on Bioethics and American Democracy at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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