The Declining Birthrate Doesn’t Spell Disaster

A demographer explains how we will adjust to the coming changes in our population

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With the birth rate at its lowest in recorded history, some are afraid that the United States is heading toward a demographic crisis in which too few children will lead to too few workers to build – and pay for – a prosperous future. This view has been popularized most recently by Jonathan Last, the author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. Last paints a picture of fiscal threats – from the growing burden of retirees – and cultural consequences such as the decline of innovation and waning political will to fund schools and invest in children. But these fears are unwarranted. Other indicators show that we do not face a population crisis, and I believe that we have the resources to adapt to the upcoming demographic shift.

To start, our birth rate might be dropping, but our fertility rate—that is, how many children the average woman is expected to bear in her lifetime— is still higher than it was through most of the 1970s and 1980s. The recent decline came after a two-decade period in which fertility rose more than 10 percent. For all the concern about childlessness now, the percentage of 50-year-old women who never bore a child today is actually lower than it was half a century ago (although those who did have children then tended to have more).

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In comparison to other countries, the fertility rate for the United States is remarkably high for our level of development. Only 12 countries are richer than the U.S., and all have lower fertility rates (even after the recession). The countries with more babies all have lower incomes. Not only is the U.S. not being dragged down by low fertility, it seems to be thriving on relatively high fertility. (By the way, Sweden’s low fertility rate hasn’t stopped the Swedes from extending life spans more than three years beyond ours, and maintaining a poverty rate about half as high as ours.)

Meanwhile, in the next few generations, our population will increase, not decrease. From our current 316 million, the Census Bureau projects the U.S. population will grow by 33 percent, to 420 million, by 2060.  Much but not all of that growth results from immigration and the babies born in immigrant families. However, even with a more conservative estimate of immigration levels, the Bureau projects the population will grow 26 percent.

Certainly, we do face some challenges, including the aging of the U.S. population. The percentage of people age 65 and older is projected to increase from 15 to 22 percent. Providing retirement support and medical care for these elders will require additional resources from the working-age population, but that’s a policy and political challenge, not an existential crisis.

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If it turns out that we do need more working-age people to pay into pension and insurance programs and fund schools for American children, millions of potential immigrants from many parts of the world are willing – even eager – to join our ranks. Currently, the 40 million or so immigrants living here now comprise 13 percent of the population – still less than the 15% reached during peak immigration a century ago.

Childlessness, small families, and even the possibility of population decline in the distant future do pose potential problems to U.S. society, but the challenges aren’t insurmountable. Compared with other wealthy countries – even those with lower growth rates – we have a relatively poor record on education and health care. We would do better if we focused our attention on the wellbeing of however many of us there are instead of worrying about the fact that there might not be enough of us in the future.

To read the full TIME cover story “The Childfree Life: When Having It All Means Not Having Children,” subscribe here. Already a subscriber? Click here.