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Editorial: What the pandemic's baby bust means
Changing demographics

Editorial: What the pandemic's baby bust means

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In May, fifth graders observed social distancing during a music class at the Milton Elementary School in Rye, N.Y.

The problem with some companies is they can’t think past the next quarterly report.

The problem with some politicians is they can’t think past the next election.

And that brings us to the recent report that said the birth rate in the United States last year fell by its sharpest rate since 1973. So much for all of those predictions that said the pandemic lockdowns inevitably would lead to a baby boom.

Instead, it led to just the opposite. Nor is this is an isolated event, skewed by the pandemic. The precise numbers indeed are skewed by the pandemic, but the larger fact is that the birth rate in the United States generally has been falling for a long time.

Here’s another statistic keyed to 1973: That was the last year the fertility rate in the U.S. was above what demographics call the “replacement rate” by which one generation fully can replace another. (Demographers are kind of morbid.)

That replacement rate is 2.1 births per woman (2.1 and not 2.0 because, well, some kids die. Again, demographers are morbid but so is reality sometimes).

There have been some years where that fertility rate topped 2.0 but fell short of the magic 2.1. The last year that happened was 2009. Ever since then, it’s been less than 2.0. Now it’s pegged at 1.78.

To some extent these numbers are good things, or at least the byproduct of good things: Women are more educated, more represented in the workforce and have more access to contraception.

“In many ways,” writes BBC health correspondent James Gallagher, “falling fertility rates are a success story.” These current numbers are a choice, something women of previous generations didn’t always have.

All choices have consequences, and here are the consequences of this ongoing “baby bust” — our economy is based on having a large (and younger) workforce supporting a smaller number of retirees.

Put more bluntly, we count on young people to pay for old people. If we have fewer of the former (because fewer people are being born) and more of the latter (because people are living longer), that changes, well, everything.

Just think about how Social Security works. Contrary to popular opinion, that’s not a bank account you pay into; each generation pays for the one ahead of it. That worked great when our demographics were different.

In 1950, there were 16.5 workers paying into Social Security to support one beneficiary. Now it’s about 2.8 workers paying to support one beneficiary. That’s why your Social Security taxes are so high — and why many workers worry they’ll never get any benefits, because each year that worker-to-beneficiary ratio gets smaller. And that’s just one entitlement program — think about Medicare, Medicaid and all of the rest.

Now think more broadly about other implications of a smaller number of young adults and a larger number of older adults: As we have more people living longer, we’ll need more health care workers. Will we have enough? And with fewer working adults to fill jobs that older adults have retired from, what will that do to the job market? We already are seeing a push to automate some jobs — this will accelerate that drive.

These are questions that some communities already are wrestling with — including our own.

One recent study found that in Martinsville and Henry County, the current pipeline of health sciences students account for only 10% of what the region actually needs.

To help fix that, Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, has secured state funding for a pilot program to encourage more students to go into health-related fields.

CBS News quotes demographer Dowell Myers: “Nobody in the history of the globe has had so many older people to deal with.”

Right now, births still exceed deaths in the United States (because people are living longer), but not by much. In 2019, five states saw more people die than be born — and that was a record. In 2020, that figure shot up to 25 states.

The cynics among us might say, “Welcome to the club.” In many localities in rural Virginia, deaths routinely outnumber births. We see exactly where that leads: Populations decline, so do economies. It’s a literal death spiral: Fewer customers for local businesses ultimately means fewer businesses.

We don’t mean to paint too grim a picture here but that is the reality of much of rural Virginia — and rural America.

If the United States doesn’t want to look to Southwest and Southside Virginia as models for what happens when populations shrink, then it only needs to look to Japan. That country has seen its fertility rate fall to 1.42.

As a result, Japan’s population has been declining every year since 2007 — and that trend inevitably will continue because, as people who study population trends like to say, demography is destiny.

Here’s what demographers see coming: “By 2065 Japan’s population will plummet from 127 million to 88 million — but the low fertility variant indicates an even lower possibility of 82 million,” writes The Diplomat, a publication that covers Asia.

What happens when population starts to fall like that? So does economic growth. The Asia Times writes that “over time, Japan will have fewer people making goods and performing services and fewer people buying them.

“In the last year, there were nearly 68,000 fewer high schools around the nation than 12 months earlier. Fewer houses are being built as demand drops.”

Japan’s not the only country facing a population decline; China is, too. Once it tried to control population growth through its “one-child policy.” Now its population is expect to fall by half by 2100. All those politicians warning about China’s economic dominance are right — for now. What about then?

There’s one thing that sets the United States apart from some of these other countries: We are a magnet for immigrants.

Right now, the main reason the United States’ population has been growing is because of immigration. Once deaths started exceeding births nationwide, the only way we’ll gain population is through immigration.

To the extent that economic growth and population growth are interwined — show us a place losing population that still has a robust economy; we’ll wait — this means our economic prosperity is tied to immigration.

That’s why former President Donald Trump’s distaste for immigration was such a bad policy. No, we can’t just have people walking across the southern border anytime they want to. But ultimately, if we want to maintain our standard of living, we need more immigration, not less. Either that, or a baby boom that’s clearly not happening.

— The Roanoke Times


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