Baby Boom or Baby Bust?

July 20, 2008 at 5:40 pm | Posted in Economics | 3 Comments

I stumbled across this and was mildly amused and annoyed.  (Sorry about the commercial at the beginning.)  The telling part comes in the middle: 

In the Fifties, the average woman was having close to four children.   Now she’s having close to two.

If you think about it for a bit, you can see that this is the most significant part of the video clip.  The numbers that the expert so blithely tosses out are the fertility rates.  In simple terms, these are the number of children the average woman in a population would expect to have over her lifetime.  If each woman on average has one child before she dies, then essentially she will have replaced herself.  Since there is about one woman for every man, if she bears one more child, then she will have done her part to keep the population stable, replacing herself and one lucky male.  Actually, since there is a slight imbalance in the male to female ratio and mortality rate, she would actually need to have, on average, 2.1 children in her lifetime.  A fertility rate of 2.1 will keep the average healthy human population stable over the long term, neither growing or shrinking.  A higher fertility rate will have a population grow over time, and a lower one will see it shrink in the long run.

So, let’s take a look at the US fertility rate.  As hinted at by our video expert, the US fertility rate is at the 2.1 replacement mark.  This means that in the long run, we should see the size of the
US population neither expand or contract.  (Yes, there are a lot of implicit assumptions, but this is the most likely scenario.) 

Now, take a look at Ivory Coast.  This site gives a fertility rate of 4.5 births per woman.  This population should be growing at a sizable clip, although the high mortality rate is going to cut into the population growth.

Lastly, consider the fertility rate of Italy.  Although it’s on a slight upward trend, the fertility rate is a rather concerning 1.3 births per woman.  At this rate, each generation will be slightly more that half the size of the preceding one.

Why is this concerning?  After all, the fewer people, the more resources there are to go around, right?  Not if there aren’t enough workers to produce the resources.  A society needs a healthy contingent of young people to work the farms, run the factories, and serve in the military and emergency services.  Without a sizeable group to perform all these essential activities, the society will suffer wage inflation, rationing, immigration issues, and a raft of challenges.

Think of it this way.  In a society with a 50% decline in successive generations, a middle aged worker could very well end up supporting (either directly or indirectly through taxes) himself, two retired parents, and four grandparents, given the modern advance in longevity.  The ratios of able-bodied to retired won’t allow otherwise.  This is simply unsustainable.

And, before you think I’m picking on the Italians for not having enough kids, almost all the European countries have this problem, as do most of the Southeast Asian countries.  In my opinion, this is the biggest problem facing the modern world.  Forget global warming, religious extremism, or whatever is on the cover of Time magazine.  We are a generation or two away from the biggest social upheaval of all history, and nobody is addressing it.  And when it occurs, there will be very little anyone can do — it takes years to grow a person the old-fashioned way, which the only way we have.  I’ll be sure to come back to this topic.



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  1. Lots of red flags there for me – besides the population problems. How about the statement about the number of unmarried women and babies being conceived with the use of technology?! That news report is loaded with sociological concerns no one seem to be addressing….

  2. […] I’ve said before, all this population instability cannot bode well for the future.  A decreasing share of the […]

  3. […] As the few long-term readers of this blog know, I continue to be fascinated by the effect of demographics on a nations economy.  I find this topic especially interesting, because, unlike other factors, […]

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