America and much of the industrialized world are suffering from a baby drought with terrible consequences for long-term economic growth and social insurance systems that support the elderly.
Much of the problem emerges from post-World War II concerns about overpopulation, food shortages, pollution and the like, and resulting regulatory, social and economic pressures on women to have few children.
China, through draconian enforcement of a one- and now a two-child policy, and Japan, through public information campaigns and better access to birth control, dramatically suppressed fertility to well below the replacement rate of 2.1. Both already have shrinking labor forces and eventually will have too many elderly for their working populations to comfortably support.
In the West, market forces have driven down birth rates — for example, the rising cost of raising children as decent careers more often require a university education.
Fertility in Europe, the United States and Canadais now well below 2.1 too, and in the United States, for example, the elderly dependency ratio — the number of folks over 65 for every 100 persons 18 to 64 — rose from 19 in 1980 to 25 in 2017 and is projected to be 35 in 2030.
It's easy to point a finger at the feminist revolution and the surge in the female labor force participation rate, but that is a false explanation. Women have been working at non-domestic, genuinely economic pursuits for a long time.
When agriculture dominated human endeavor, women stayed closer to the house but they did more than cook, clean and chase children. On the American family farm, tending the poultry and cows, manufacturing prepared foods like sausage and cheese, and preserving fruits, vegetables and meat often fell to women.
During the factory age between the two Roosevelts, generally only the wives of university educated, professional men and the wealthy — whose numbers were few — were at home in the image of MGM's idyllic 1930s families — Andy Hardy's mother and maiden aunt always seem to be baking or running off to women's clubs. Factory hands' wives often worked in factories, service establishments or as domestics.
Automation, a more highly educated population and the automobile — productivity growth, greater emphasis on intellectual pursuits and the suburbs — gave rise to a much larger share of men who could support women at home and women stranded in rather sterile communities distant from the vitality of city centers.
Leisure is not the natural healthy state for men or women. Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan were intellectual entrepreneurs more than visionaries when they suggested women get jobs — and deserved fair opportunities for good ones — to liberate them from suburban boredom.
The high cost of rearing children into their 20s and college has done more to limit child birth than women working. If both partners were working andfatigue discourages procreationas much as is reported these days, how did each of my grandmothers have four pregnancies working tough factory jobs?
China raised its one-child policy to two a few years back, but women are not responding. Japan stopped preaching to couples a long time ago, but its birth rate remains perilously low.
So many immigrants from troubled and impoverished nations pose vexing assimilation and fiscal challenges. Working-class communities feel their cultures challenged, and many U.S. immigrants lack a high-school education, more than half qualify for means-tested entitlements, and the lack of fluency in English seriously strains public schools.
Technology — artificial intelligence, robots and the like — can help, but those cannot be relied upon to save the day. A population with a growing share of elderly is simply not going to be very adept at innovation.
What really has to change is that women again see purpose in having more than two children, but the proposition that three children is the ideal is social dynamite no politician wants to touch.