Introduction: Between Two Worlds
In José Saramago’s acclaimed novel Intermitências da Morte, or “Death with Interruptions,” a strange curse is laid upon the citizens of a fictional country: one day, inexplicably, they stop dying. Initially, this change is met with elation, as a wave of euphoria crests across the land. Men and women cry out with tears of bliss that they have lived to witness “humanity’s greatest dream since the beginning of time…become a gift within the grasp of everyone.” Yet as the common people are initially enraptured at the sight of a vanquished reaper, more perceptive minds foresee a coming calamity. Men at pulpits and in political office, economists and insurers and even funeral home directors are the first to realize the horrifying truth that the end of death is not a dream, but a disaster – an eternal nightmare. Soon the population, now shouldered with physical atrophy along with immortality, begins to swell into hospitals; the demographic and financial changes are so ruinous that the prime minister anxiously observes, towards the end of the story, that “if we don’t start dying again, we have no future.”
The force of Saramango’s novel is bound in that one unnerving, paradoxical sentence. If we don’t die, we have no future: it is a concept so viscerally foreign to the thanatophobic human heart, yet so undeniably true. We all intuit that society and civilization depend, in both the long and short term, on the delicate interplay of generational replacement. When this cycle of birth and death stops — or begins to go sluggish or run too quickly — the entire project of human civilization is imperiled. This fact is illustrated – though from the opposite perspective – in P.D. James’s dystopian novel Children of Men. In this narrative, a civilization collapses into chaos after the sperm count of all its males drops to zero. Twenty-eight years after this sterility has set in, the childless society has abandoned art and politics, devolving into a singular, frenetic quest to discover a way to produce a child – and thus, simply, to perpetuate itself. Without the promise of offspring and the prospect of death, we have no future.
The broad purpose of this paper is to explore the political and economic consequences of that concept. Today in the United States, birthrates have declined, and are continuing to fall, while a comparatively large elderly population is living longer – is staving off the reaper’s scythe – in numbers never before seen. America is now drifting somewhere between the fantastic worlds of Saramango and James; we have neither defeated death nor found ourselves infertile, yet cradles and coffins are being filled more slowly than ever before. And this paper is an exploration of what that shift means for us as well as coming generations. The aim here is not to provide a comprehensive diagnosis of how all of our political and financial issues relate to this new demography, but rather to explain exactly what that demographic shift is, why it has occurred, and how it will impact our entitlement programs in the coming decades. “The Baby Boomerang”: what happens when an immense demographic “boom” is followed by a succession of “busts”; what happens when entitlement programs founded on the promise of steady or rising fertility must support more and more through the work of fewer and fewer.
Wholesale Returns: The Science and Significance of Demography
In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. This is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upward of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long… There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
Mark Twain, Life of the Mississippi (1883)
It is often said that demography is destiny. Scholars and scientists alike are fond of claiming that the fate of a civilization is largely reducible to its patterns of aging and producing children. Such bold assertions bear the mark of reductionist thinking – not to mention intellectual hubris – yet they are not altogether false. Certainly, demographic trends are fundamental to the workings of a society; without a steady supply of new bodies, there is a necessary scarcity of workers to fill factories and soldiers to file into armies. Yet the impact of such a shift may be manifest in more subtle ways. A diminishing birthrate can also unleash its share of intangible externalities. Low-fertility societies often become increasingly slow to innovate, as incentives for consumption fall largely into the category of health care. Investment may decline as well, given that “capital shifts to preserving and extending life and then begins drawing down.” Most importantly perhaps, pensions and entitlement programs are endangered; with fewer and fewer workers there to pay more and more retirees, the business of government becomes that of transferring earned and excess wealth from the young to the old. Or government may simply impose austerity measures to draw back those programs. Either way, in low fertility societies, there is a zero-sum paradigm that takes shape. Entitlement programs – like armies and factories – are either limited, or their burdens are placed on the shoulders of a diminishing and increasingly strained younger demographic cohort.
As a result, we must not take the fatalistic position that equates demography with destiny. Demographic shifts are not nebulous forces that fate us to a predetermined end. In contrast, they are a tangible, measurable way of gauging how a specific population may look in the future, and accordingly, what opportunities and challenges it will face. In this way, even if fertility rates are not subject to change through government policy (a position I will contest in this paper), a people may nevertheless discern and plan for what the impact of those rates will be. It may therefore be said that demography “defines the realm of the possible”: it carves out a discernable space for what a society, economy, and political system may look like in a specific future timeframe. Governments and populations are not helpless in the face of these demographic forces, yet they do remain subject to and constrained by them. In this way, population changes are like “the shifting of the tectonic plates of human societies,” given that they are slow moving and oft ignored in the short term, yet extremely consequential over the course of decades and centuries. It is not an accident that the retirement of the baby boomers is colloquially called the “Silver Tsunami”. There is a reason why Diane J. Macunovich’s book on the fertility decline is titled Birth Quake. In each case, the demographic forces at work are like forces of nature: we may not be able to directly alter them, but we can still employ various scales and indicators to measure their respective impacts. Like the Mississippi River’s forthcoming erosion, which Twain extrapolated through a single conjecture, America’s future demographics may be determined at present through the application of several simple metrics.
This paper is essentially divided into three sections, beginning with an exploration of those population metrics. To establish the extent of our current demographic crisis, I will first examine just what our population numbers are and what they could mean one, two, and three generations into the future. This discussion will be supplemented by a study of why these shifts have happened. I will attempt to identify the causal roots of our demographic transformation, and in doing so, establish a foundation for mitigating or reversing this change. Finally, I will discuss just how demography is impacting our democracy, and formulate several sensible steps that our government may take to assure that the adverse effects of the United States’ current demographic changes are as minor as possible.
These are the two introductory sections of my thesis, The Baby Boomerang: How American Democracy and Demography Will Collide in the 21st Century, and What We Can Do about It.
I’ve submitted a draft of the paper, but won’t be finished with the entire document until this Friday. Last night, I “defended” my draft to some professors and fellow M.A. students, and the reactions were interesting. One professor at Georgetown’s school of government called it “a depressing critique of our selfish and doomed society,” and we had a heated debate over whether he was right; another called it “solid.” (I didn’t argue with that.)
I guess once I publish it, if I do, that you can be the judge of which, if either, is right.
I originally copied here a list of the many figures that show just how pronounced the American (and global) fertility decline is, but instead I’ll simply leave you with three of the facts I found to be most shattering:
1. In order to sustain a population, the average woman must — for more or less obvious reasons — have ~2.1 children throughout the course of her life. Right now in the United States, college-educated, white women have an average of 1.6 children, and that number is falling steadily. To put this in context: in China, where the government imposes a forced abortion and sterilization policy, and aggressively fines women who have more than one child, the average total fertility rate is 1.54. (Not to be too alarmed, the U.S. fertility rate, which is 1.93, is the highest of any first-world country.)
2. 97% of the world lives in a country where the fertility is declining. The numbers illustrating the severity of this are astounding. A favorite example: in Iran in 1980, the average woman had 7.0 children. Today the average woman has 1.77.
3. I discuss in my paper the fact that some of the social trends that have emerged since 1960 and lowered our total fertility are themselves positive. Contraception and the empowerment of women strike me as as some such examples. Yet others are truly lamentable. Witness the breakdown of the American family:
In 1960, 5% of U.S. children were born to unwed mothers. In 1980, 18% of U.S. children were born to unwed mothers.
Today, 40.6% of U.S. children are born to unwed mothers.