America Dodges the Global Demographic Bullet

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America Dodges the Global Demographic Bullet

More than two centuries ago, the English scholar Thomas Malthus did some calculations and decided that the population was growing so fast that people would soon be starving en masse.  He wrote, "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man."  He was right about the growing population. 

What he failed to see was that people were clever enough to invent new technologies that would feed the world.  Another trend that he could not see at that time — and probably no one could — was that as the standard of living rose, fertility rates would decline

In 1775, when Malthus was a teenager, women in England had nearly 6 children, on average.  But in 1875, when Malthus was already dead, the birth rate had fallen to 3.35.  Today, it is less than 2.1 

Germany followed a similar pattern.  In 1850, the birth rate was 5 children per woman.  Today, it's a scant 1.4.  In Italy, the rate went from 5 children in 1850 to 1.3 today.

For a time, the fact that the average lifespan was increasing in developed countries masked the true effects of declining fertility.  The population kept expanding.  But as the trends converged and leveled off, it became obvious by the 1970s that numerous nations were seeing their birth rates fall below the level where a population could grow or even remain stable. 

Today, women in Japan, Singapore, Austria, Canada, Poland, South Korea, and 53 other countries do not bear enough children to keep those nations populated.  In some countries, the rate has fallen to one child per woman per lifetime.  Of course, since every child is actually replacing two parents in the next generation, it's easy to see how quickly a country's population can plummet.

One of the big changes that set this trend in motion was the Industrial Revolution, a switch from an agrarian economy to an urban, mechanized economy.  On rural farms, the family benefited from having lots of children, who grew up to help produce more crops, needed no schooling, and could take care of the parents as they got old.  With the Industrial Revolution, people moved to cities and worked in factories.  Children were costly and became a burden rather than a benefit. 

For people living in the developed world during the Information Age, this equation has become overwhelming.  In the United States and Europe, for example, it costs up to $300,000 to raise a child and get him or her through high school — and then comes college, which can cost even more.  So, with half the population of the world living in cities far from the realities of the farm, birth rates are in freefall...

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