The Population Implosion


There are simply too many human beings — at least that is the view of the antinatal activists, who cry alarm from various American foundations, United Nations programs, foreign-aid agencies and activist organizations.

They preach an apocalyptic secular gospel, warning a wayward world of the dangers of unchecked population growth and foretelling of the terrible judgment that the all-powerful "population explosion" will visit on an unchastened planet if their two-child-family message is not heeded. Though still treated respectfully at CNN and other media outlets, such doomsayers are ever more glaringly out of touch with the facts on the ground.

Both Europe and Japan, for example, entered into "subreplacement" childbearing patterns over a generation ago and are poised for prolonged depopulation. In most developing countries, birthrates are plummeting. China's fertility is now at subreplacement levels, partly because of Beijing's antibirth programs. Other Third World countries without coercive population policies are veering toward subreplacement, too — Brazil and Iran, for example.

Elsewhere, "population explosion" stereotypes are fading. Among Arab societies — supposed "holdouts" for high-birth norms — Tunisia and Lebanon have already fallen to replacement fertility, or below. And while Paul Ehrlich may have used a taxi ride through teeming Delhi to illustrate his theme in "The Population Bomb" (1968), today's New Delhi, like most other big cities in India, no longer generates enough local births to sustain its current population numbers over the long term.

With world fertility levels down by nearly half since the early 1950s — and no end to the drop in sight — the 21st century may turn out to be an era of population decline. Curiously enough, few scholars or writers have contemplated the prospect. Now, however, Phillip Longman offers us a view of the depopulationist future — and he is alarmed by what he sees.

"The global fall in fertility," he warns in The Empty Cradle, "is creating a world for which few individuals, and no nations, are prepared. Simply stated, this is because population growth and the human capital it creates are part of the foundation upon which modern economies, as well as modern welfare states, are built." It is true, he notes, that "the engine that created today's affluent societies" might work without population growth. But making that happen "will require thorough reengineering, and not just of the formal economy, but of the family as well."

Mr. Longman begins with a detailed review of international population trends — in Europe, Japan, Russia, China, Latin America and the Mideast. In each region, he finds, demographics are undermining the social and economic arrangements that conduce to prosperity. But it is to the situation in America that he devotes most of his attention — and for which he reserves most of his exasperation. In his telling, the American populace — aging, self-indulgent and ever less disposed to produce and raise offspring — has set itself on a dangerous and unsustainable course.

Core changes in the American way of life — "falling wages, high divorce rates, rising expectations of what it means to be a 'responsible' parent, rising educational standards, rising taxes, and the loss of grandparents as a significant source of childcare" — are making children ever less affordable for prospective parents, Mr. Longman contends. But with fewer children today, there will be fewer taxpayers tomorrow, even though the costs (public and private) of maintaining a graying population are set to skyrocket.

Most Americans, Mr. Longman suspects, will expect some combination of productivity breakthroughs and medical miracles to solve their looming demographic problems. Unfortunately, he argues, technological fixes are unlikely to do the trick. We need to concentrate instead on the human factor — "adequate fertility rates, strong families, lifelong education, and more productive aging."

The Empty Cradle offers a plethora of proposals for rescuing America from a grim future. His boldest (in his view) is an exemption from Social Security taxes for married parents of three or more children. (The tax resumes when the youngest kid turns 18, and the exemption holds only if they all complete high school.) Other ideas range from the sensible ("portable" health insurance policies for workers who change jobs) to the eccentric ($200-a-month bonuses for welfare recipients who lose enough weight) to the cranky ("pay cyclists for the number of miles they've pedaled").

Despite its idiosyncracies, The Empty Cradle is an intelligent, well-researched and compelling read, if not always a persuasive one. Like the late Christopher Lasch and his communitarian devotees, Mr. Longman seeks to revitalize the family in America without recourse to patriotism or religious values. A challenging task indeed — and one that timid, temporary tax credits and nanny scolds about the benefits of eating less and walking more are unlikely to pull off.

At the end of the day, there are some promising answers to the economic questions posed by population decline and population aging: an extension of working life, a dismantling of regulations and other barriers to economic efficiency, and a shrinking of the state's financial obligations from generation to generation — not to mention medically abetted "healthy aging." For the most part, as tomorrow's American taxpayers might say, these are "places" where Mr. Longman "just doesn't want to go." But he has started an important conversation — it's now up to others to continue it.




Nicholas Eberstadt. "The Population Implosion." The Wall Street Journal (April 28, 2004).

This article reprinted with permission from Opinion Journal of The Wall Street Journal editorial page.


Nicholas Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. He researches demographics, foreign aid, poverty, infant mortality, health disparities, and economic development. Eberstadt has written extensively on Korea, East Asia, and countries of the former Soviet Union. His books include The End of North Korea and the forthcoming North Korean Economy. Eberstadt's most recent book is Health and the Income Inequality Hypothesis: A Doctrine in Search of Data, with Sally Satel (AEI Press).

Phillip Longman, author of The Empty Cradle, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of numerous articles and books on demographics and public policy. Formerly a senior writer and editor at US News & World Report, he has written for The Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2004 Wall Street Journal

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