The Fertility Rate Is Way Down, and Yes, That’s a Huge Problem
Millennials are having far fewer kids than prior generations. Healthy civilizations replace themselves. So is there something rotten at the core of ours?
Is Donald Trump causing us to have fewer babies?
If so, we might have proof that the sense of chaos and impending doom that has afflicted much of America since 2016 is taking a toll. The first year of the Donald Trump administration might have given us a soaring stock market, but it has also given us a declining population. Talk about betting against the market.
As agricultural economist Lyman Stone writes, “Fertility has fallen sharply over the last six months or so, even as the economy has picked up steam. The most plausible forecast for 2017 calendar-year total fertility is 1.77; which, by the way, I’m not the only person who thinks that; professional demographic consultancy firms independently arrive at the same conclusions.”
In fairness, although 2017 seems especially bad, like most of our nation’s negative trends, the long-term problem predates Trump’s presidency.
For most of my life, so-called experts have been warning us to have fewer (not more) kids. This was sometimes even couched in subtly racist terms. Historically, there has been a tendency for environmentalists to support abortion (having fewer children is seen as good for the environment) and to oppose immigration. I’m not suggesting this was anything close to a majority opinion, but there are certainly examples of people making these arguments.
In many ways, though, it’s insane for a nation to aspire to a smaller population. First, there is the symbolic point that having children is a sign of optimism about the future. Healthy civilizations replace themselves; depressed or demoralized societies do not.
There are all sorts of other repercussions associated with having fewer children. For one thing, it helps to be able to field a standing army for conventional battle. But also consider the math. A larger population expands the pool of potential inventors and entrepreneurs (maybe the kid who would have cured cancer was never even born). There’s also the fact that our welfare state needs young workers to support an aging population. I could go on.
The bottom line is that the doomsayers were wrong. Since World War II, our population has dramatically increased, yet we have actually become more efficient, prosperous, and even more environmentally friendly.
This happy result was predicted by economists like Julian Simon and Ester Boserup, but despite the fact that Malthusian fears of overpopulation were largely debunked, modernity has led us inexorably toward this population bust.
All sorts of trends—from higher education rates to a greater dependence on Social Security (as opposed to the old model where kids were expected to take care of aging parents)—have been blamed for this. There’s also the fact that millennials are simply having less sex.
But our declining population isn’t merely based on humans responding to rational incentives based on changing technology and cultural norms. There seems to be something mysterious at play that is driving down fertility rates. As Time recently noted, “A new report reveals that sperm counts among men in Western countries, including men in North America, Australia, New Zealand and Europe, have dropped substantially over the years.” Nobody knows why this is happening.
A nation that wants to survive must grapple with this problem. But what’s the solution? To some, it’s as simple as policies like paid parental leave and subsidized daycare. Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is meanwhile scratching his head over why populist conservatives aren’t advocating for policies to address this problem. He wonders, for example, “while Mike Lee and Marco Rubio fight a lonely battle for a pittance of a refundable tax credit for American families IN THE MIDST OF A BABY BUST, why nobody in professional Populist Conservatism seems interested in making this a cause celebre.”
To me, though, this isn’t a problem that can be addressed by the tax code. This has more to do with psychology than public policy. This is crisis of confidence. This is about a lack of hope. This is about a possibly irrational feeling that things are getting worse, not better. It’s about the decline of the American Dream. We desperately need a leader who will inspire us and restore our confidence. Donald Trump is sadly not up to that task.