The U.S. economy is growing too slowly for the taste of many commentators, and some have decided that childfree people are the reason. Claims abound that the childfree are dragging population numbers down and that their growing ranks will devastate the economy, because more people are the key to economic growth.
The issue is way more complicated than that. This post lays out some of the arguments of what I’ll call the “pronatalists,” who are in favor of Americans having more children, and the counter-arguments of their opponents.
Will the American Population Continue Shrinking?
Pronatalists: Birth Rates are Plummeting
The American fertility rate, which measures the average number of births per woman, has fallen to 1.9. That is below the replacement rate of 2.1, which is the number needed to maintain the current size of the population.
Our birthrate, or number of births per one thousand women, is correspondingly heading downward. In 1990 it was 71, while today it is 63.2.
Many expect these trends to continue, “with the census estimate for 2050 down almost 10 percent from the mark predicted in 2008.”
Counter-Argument: The Population Will Grow
These numbers and projections could very well be wrong. “These kinds of forecasts have turned out to be wrong generation after generation,” according to a senior economist quoted in the BBC News Magazine.
The BBC article goes on to list a number of reasons that the numbers may be off, including that women may be holding off on having babies until the economy improves. Low birthrates today don’t mean low birthrates tomorrow — “the women who are not having children this year will probably have them a few years from now.”
“The main reason for the fall in both fertility and immigration is the economy… This means that when the economy recovers, so should fertility,” The Economist claims.
Professor Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins agrees: “I think our fertility rate will rebound as the economy gets better.”
As more people choose not to have children, Professor Cherlin may be proven wrong. Perhaps people are not putting off reproduction until they are financially stable — perhaps they are deciding to forego breeding altogether, regardless of the economy’s antics. Are the pronatalists right about the reason for the slowing in our population growth?
In any case, fertility is not the only way to increase our numbers: we also have immigration. The Economist makes the fairly obvious observation that allowing more immigration would increase our population. The U.S. “is in an enviable position” in that regard. It “is still a top destination for those looking to have a better life.”
With the option of allowing more immigration available, there is no reason to demand that childfree people give up their lives to have children they don’t want. Instead, we can welcome people who do want to move here.
On the other hand, maybe we don’t need more people. It is difficult to understand how low population growth could be bad given that we have more workers than we have jobs. There is still plenty of room for economic growth with the population we have, and fewer bodies might even improve the situation. With fewer children born today, “there may be fewer Americans 16 years from now joining the droves of the jobless,” according to Claire Gordon at Aol Jobs.
Americans Can’t Count on Never-Ending Economic Growth
Then again, maybe the debate over population is irrelevant. Maybe we need to stop obsessing over economic growth and reimagine the characteristics of a healthy economy.
Pronatalists: The Only Strong Economy is A Growing Economy
Right now, the economy’s growth is among the primary metrics used to measure the country’s financial health. Growth in the economy “depends upon…an expanding population… Taken to extremes, very low birth rates cause declining economic growth,” writes Sydney Williams at Breitbart. Therefore, the argument goes, people who choose not to have children are more or less directly responsible for weakening the economy.
Counter-Argument: The Economy, and Our Population, Can’t Grow Forever
As a USA Today letter writer pointed out, we cannot indefinitely follow “an economic model of unlimited growth. Nothing can grow forever, and anything built on this model will self-destruct.”
Setting aside the disastrous environmental implications of an even larger American population, it would be apparent to a school child that the population can’t keep growing indefinitely. The U.S. has finite land, and the world has finite resources. Inevitably population growth must stop. So how will we stop the economy from imploding when that happens?
Economists, please start figuring that out right now.
For me, the take-away from this debate is that people who choose not to have children are not the villains hurting the American economy: there are other ways to increase the number of people in our country, and it may not even be necessary to have more people. So please stop accusing the childfree of not caring about our country or about other people’s economic stability.
P.S. I left out the population’s effect on Social Security and Medicare because that is a thicket too dense to enter in this article. Suffice it to say that those systems need some reimagining too.