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Analysis: Decline in birthrates and its effect on the world - Interview with Phillip Longman - Author of The Empty Cradle -
Talk of the Nation (NPR); 6/1/2004; NEAL CONAN
Talk of the Nation (NPR)
Analysis: Decline in birthrates and its effect on the world
Host: NEAL CONAN
Time: 3:00-4:00 PM
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
For many years, social scientists warned us of the dire consequences of overpopulation. `Too many humans,' they said, `would suck the Earth dry in a matter of decades.' Well, there's good news and bad news. Though resources are still being strained to cope with our billions, birthrates are dropping around the world and the global population is now expected to peak late this century and then start falling. The bad news is that some countries' economies are already struggling to cope with the consequences of fewer babies--Germany, Russia, Italy and Japan, for example. The rest of the world, including the United States, may not be far behind.
In a new book called "The Empty Cradle," Phillip Longman argues that Americans generally want more kids but can't afford them; that shrinking birthrates will affect both national politics, the fastest growing portion of the population is the most religious, and US power and influence around the world.
Later in the program, jazz, film scores and Broadway become eligible for the Pulitzer Prize in music. But first, "The Empty Cradle." How much have economic or social pressures shaped your decision about how many kids to have? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Phillip Longman is with us here in Studio 3A and welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. PHILLIP LONGMAN (Author, "The Empty Cradle"): Good to be here, Neal.
CONAN: You say you're not surprised that Americans perceive overpopulation as the big problem. Why not?
Mr. LONGMAN: Well, we all grew up with the great predictions of a population bomb. I suppose that may be in part because many of us believed those predictions. They didn't come true. Not that that's the only reason why fertility rates are falling around the world. And they are falling around the world. It's not just a Western phenomenon. In all forms of government, in Christian countries, in Confusion countries and especially in Islamic countries, birthrates are falling very dramatically. They're falling in the Third World faster than they're falling here to the point that many Third World countries are going to wind up having an older age population structure than the United States does within the next 50 years.
CONAN: And where is population still growing at this point?
Mr. LONGMAN: Well, world population is still growing by 75 million a year. That's a lot. Most of it is in Subsaharan Africa and in the Middle East. You know, there's this phenomenon of population momentum. When you have an era of very high fertility, which we did have through much of the 20th century, even when birthrates go down, that still leaves a large number of people of child-bearing age. And so population has a certain momentum. It continues to grow, but albeit at a slower and slower rate.
Bear in mind, though, that that same mathematics works on the other side; that after a point, population begins to decrease at a compound rate and we're already seeing that starting to happen in countries like Italy and Japan where they are facing the prospect of losing as much as a third of their population in the next 50 years, simply because there's not enough women of child-bearing age.
CONAN: There was some concern that this would happen rapidly in the United States as well; though, recent statistics seem to be more sunny on this point, at least from the population growth point of view that immigration and greater population--a greater birthrate than expected were boosting the US population at a steady rate.
Mr. LONGMAN: Yeah. Although, similar statistics are a little deceiving. I mean, there has been a modest increase in the birthrate of Native Americans--native-born Americans since the '70s, but it's very modest. Black Americans are having considerably fewer children than before to the point that there's really no difference between the black and white birthrate. Hispanics are the only major ethnic group in the United States that's still producing at above replacement rates and Hispanic fertility is declining quickly.
More to the point is what's happening in the Third World, because the way we've managed to maintain our fertility as high as we have is through high immigration. The recent immigrants have large numbers of children; many serve as nannies which enables other people to have children. But when we look at a place like Mexico, for example, the very dramatic decline of fertility that's happened there is such that whereas the United States will see its median age increase by about five years from 35 to 40 by mid-century, Mexico in that period is going to be aging by 20 years, in other words, four times the rate of the United States, and ending up with an older population than the US has.
What does that mean for Mexican immigration to the United States? Well, we can't be sure. But if you look at the example of Puerto Rico, for example, there is no net immigration from Puerto Rico to the mainland anymore and presumably that's because Puerto Rican fertility has declined to the point that the island produces enough jobs and there's no particular demand to come here.
CONAN: What is the mechanism that leads to lower rates of birth in this country?
Mr. LONGMAN: In this country, well, historically it's been urbanization. When people move from farms to cities, you know, children go from being an economic asset to an economic liability. The opportunity cost of children is perpetually rising.
CONAN: What's the opportunity cost?
Mr. LONGMAN: That means what you have to give up in order to be a good parent.
CONAN: The amount of time one or the other parent--usually the mother stays home?
Mr. LONGMAN: Right. You know, in a cultural regime, like the 1950s, many women didn't have many opportunities besides staying home and having children, so the opportunity cost of having children was low.
CONAN: Low for June Cleaver.
Mr. LONGMAN: Yeah. But for June Cleaver's daughter, she could be president of Harvard, or whatever, and she has to give up a lot to have kids. And even if you have a job in a sweatshop, there is some opportunity cost to having children that didn't exist before when you worked side-by-side with your children in the village.
CONAN: So the economic incentive to have children has vanished?
Mr. LONGMAN: Yeah. That's another part of it, is that the--so you have this opportunity cost, but also historically parents have realized all kinds of dividends for having kids, not the least of which was the prospect for support in old age. We have gradually through Social Security, Medicare and the private pension system generally harvested all the returns that parents create by investing in their kids and divvied them up across the population so parents basically get no return above what they otherwise get for having kids. And other people get to free-ride on their investment in children. That investment, meanwhile, gets higher and higher because the economy requires more and more education. That means many people aren't even done with their education before their own fertility begins to decline. It means that when they do have kids, they have to raise ...(unintelligible) sums to get them through college. All in all, it's just a very bad financial deal at the moment.
CONAN: Our number if you'd like to join our conversation with Phillip Longman, the author of "The Empty Cradle," is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address: email@example.com.
Cynthia joins us from San Antonio, Texas.
CYNTHIA (Caller): Yes. Hello. Thank you for taking my call.
CYNTHIA: I just wanted to let you know that I'm an educated Hispanic woman. I've never been married and because of this issue, I have decided to adopt two children. I have a 15-year-old and a 19-month-old and one of them is Mexican and the other one is Chinese. And it's something that I've always thought that I would do in my life to adopt children because I never had a biological urge to have one, but I also felt it was the responsible thing to do.
CONAN: Responsible in--which side of the issue are you concerned about?
CYNTHIA: The overpopulation issue.
CONAN: The overpopulation issue.
CYNTHIA: Of course.
CONAN: And so you thought it was your responsibility--one way to address it was to adopt these children, which is a wonderful thing to do, Cynthia.
CONAN: Phillip, many Americans are adopting children from all walks of life, people like Cynthia.
Mr. LONGMAN: Well, I'm an adoptive parent myself, so, you know, I feel some solidarity there. But I think--again, to what is driving down fertility rates, I think a lot of us who have adopted children have adopted children because for one reason or another we waited around too long to have biological children. That is certainly what happened to me. And there's many reasons for that, some of them might be characterized as selfishness, some of them might be characterized as the real daunting economic circumstances that young people in our society face as they try and get their careers on track just at the time when nature wants them to have kids. It's very hard to reconcile.
CYNTHIA: It's very hard to reconcile. I'm a professor and at the time that my tenure clock was ticking down, my biological clock was doing the same. And so it just made it impossible for me to even consider it. But in addition to this, I also didn't ever really have this need.
CONAN: Cynthia, thanks very much for the call and good luck to you.
CYNTHIA: Thank you very much.
Let's get another caller on the line. This is Bill from Kansas City.
BILL (Caller): Yes. I'm wondering where you can show me evidence of--in this country of less population growth. You go to all the suburbs, you know, they're still putting up houses. They're still putting up apartments. You go out West, you go back East, the suburbs are just growing like mad. The inner cities aren't exactly blowing away. When is it going to show up? You know, for instance, what part of the countries are showing a negative growth or a zero growth, for that matter?
Mr. LONGMAN: Well, actually, quite near to you, Bill. You say you're in Kansas?
Mr. LONGMAN: Well, the Great Plains, you know, Nebraska, that whole area has fewer people in it today than in the 1920s.
BILL: Yes. And...
Mr. LONGMAN: And that's a good kind of natural experiment in what happens to economies or what can happen to them when their populations begin to shrink. I mean, I'm sure you know the territory. It's shuttered storefronts and empty schools and overfilled nursing homes. It's not a very pretty picture.
BILL: You don't see that much. You see that a little bit in the small towns, but that's a small percentage of the total when you go to the bigger areas where there are jobs, where there are health services and so forth.
Mr. LONGMAN: Well, you're right. We are still a growing country for now on the whole and we will be for quite some time. But with that growth also comes aging because we're not having enough kids and so what you'll see is fewer and fewer kids, more and more old people, more and more strain on budgets, less resources available for new energy technologies and environmental mitigation. So it's a good thing, I think that population is modulating, but with this good thing comes this other thing called population aging that creates a lot of new challenges.
BILL: Uh-huh. Also, one other thing in some of those areas you mentioned, like through the middle part of Nebraska and Kansas, a lot of that degrowth or smaller growth is due to large industrial farms coming in. You don't have the--every person on a square mile that can come into town, into the small town and shop.
Mr. LONGMAN: Right. Well, but for whatever the reason, then drought would have to be among them, too. You see the effects. Yeah.
CONAN: Bill, thanks very much for the call.
BILL: Thank you.
CONAN: And let's--one of the things you argue in the book, though, is that some of the economic impacts of this are going to get more and more pronounced as time goes on and there are fewer young consumers and also you argue an aging population, and a lot of people have written about that, is a less entrepreneurial, a less risky--risk-taking population.
Mr. LONGMAN: Right. Well, Lennon School of Economics and other folks have done surveys of entrepreneurialism around the world, levels of people in different countries who are starting new businesses and it turns out there's almost a perfect correlation between countries that have large numbers of retirees to their work base and low rates of entrepreneurship.
So, for example, Japan and France are among the least entrepreneurial countries in the world and also the most aged. You know, it makes sense when you think about it. When people get older, they can't take as many risks with their careers or with their savings and so they have to become more risk adverse.
CONAN: And another aspect of this is declining birthrates would be, well, a decline in US global power, what you call the `Private Ryan syndrome.'
Mr. LONGMAN: Well, yeah. I mean, we're at the stage now, certainly most Western European countries or families, if they have a child, it's an only child most of the time, and certainly an only son. And so there's necessarily more aversion to putting that son in harm's way and more reluctance to ship kids off to the military. You know, this may be a great thing in the end if aging societies become so risk adverse with their children, we just don't fight wars anymore. I don't think that's necessarily part of the downside of this. And certainly the United States is not aging more rapidly than countries like China which is actually--you know, it has an even worse population problem. So maybe population will bring us peace, I don't know.
CONAN: We'll have more with Phillip Longman and with one of his critics when we come back from a short break. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We're discussing the effects of a slower population growth which could, if projections are accurate, eventually mean a decline in population. Not just in this country but around the world. Phillip Longman is with us. He's the author of "The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It." He's with us here in Studio 3A. Of course, you're invited to join us.
Did economics play any role in your decision about having kids or not? Did you make different decisions than your parents did or your grandparents because of finances? Our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And let's bring Representative Peter Kostmayer into the conversation--a former congressman from Bucks County, Pennsylvania; currently, the president of the Population Connection. He's also with us here in Studio 3A.
Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. PETER KOSTMAYER (President, Population Connection): Thank you.
CONAN: And you argue in response to Phillip Longman's theories that there doesn't have to be bad economic results as a result of a lower birthrate.
Mr. KOSTMAYER: Well, I think the two central points, which Phillip Longman makes in this book, are absolutely indisputable and that is that people are having fewer kids and at least partially as a result of that, the population's getting grayer or getting older. Where we disagree, and it's a very fundamental disagreement, is whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. He thinks it's a bad thing; I think it's a very good thing. And as he said a moment ago, the world is growing by about 75 million people a year. I live in New York City and the world grows by another New York City every six weeks. So I think the population stabilization, people being able to control their own population, is a very good thing. I think it's good from the standpoint of reproductive rights. I think it's good from the standpoint of the economy. I think it's good from the standpoint of the environment. So I don't disagree with his facts. I think his facts are right. I disagree very strongly with his conclusion. We ought to be celebrating what he's bemoaning.
CONAN: Well, Phillip, you do celebrate some of it, but you also say that there could be some serious economic consequences.
Mr. LONGMAN: Well, that's true. I mean, when populations first begin to age, it is definitely good for the population. I think Japan illustrates this nicely. It's birthrates began to decline in the 1950s and if there's fewer children to support, it frees up women from child-care responsibilities and around the world we see this phenomenon they call the demographic dividend that generally falling fertility, when it first starts, it's associated with economic prosperity. But then there's another turn of the screw if the population trend continues. In the next generation, you're seeing a shrinking work base and more retirees depending on that work base. And I think you'd be hard put to find any country in the world today that is experiencing rapid population aging, much less decline, and having any kind of economic prosperity at all.
We were talking about the Great Plains before in the United States. That's an experiment within our own borders of what can happen, at least, when populations fall. Population growth gives capitalists more demand for the products that they sell and more supply of the labor that they buy. And it's no surprise that throughout history, capitalism has only flourished in the context of population growth.
CONAN: Peter Kostmayer.
Mr. KOSTMAYER: Well, I think the opposite is true. Those countries which are experiencing rapid population growth are countries which are really in trouble. As Phillip said, they're primarily in Subsaharan Africa. Those countries which have begun to stabilize their population, this country for example, countries of Western Europe, are enjoying very strong economic success. So I think the opposite is true. And what we're really in danger of is beginning to think that the problem we face in the world today is declining fertility and not overpopulation. We still face a very serious problem, as Phillip has pointed out in Subsaharan Africa, for example, where most of the women in their child-bearing years have no access to family planning at all. These are societies which are growing. They're not stable. They're not strong. They're not producing strong economies. Those societies which have begun to stabilize and even reduce population growth are countries which are really growing.
We have about 283 million people in the United States today. If we were to reach population stabilization and stabilize our population say to 200 million, I don't think most Americans would think that's a bad thing. I think they think it's probably a good thing.
Mr. LONGMAN: Well, they'd think it was a good thing until they realized that their Social Security checks were bouncing and that their Medicare program was under even more strain than it is today. It's very appealing to think, `Oh, couldn't we just go back to the world we knew in the early 1960s? There would be just that many fewer people, it'd be that much easier for me to get my beach-front house.'
Mr. KOSTMAYER: But it wouldn't.
Mr. LONGMAN: But that's not really the alternative we face. Because to go from here to there is to change the population dynamic entirely. The growth of population that we're facing in the world today is almost entirely growth of old people. The number of children in the world starts to decline in absolute terms within 10 years. By 2050, according to the United Nations, there's 35 million fewer children and 1.2 billion more elderly. So that's the world we have to envision. Not a world of 1960s population.
CONAN: I know you want to come back--let's make--well, let's get--I wanted to get some more listeners involved in the conversation. Gary's with us on the line from St. Louis.
GARY (Caller): Yes. This is--what Mr. Longman has just said at the beginning of the program I think is totally inaccurate. He said, `We've not experienced the devastation of overpopulation.' And that seems to be a very incorrect view given the immense habitant loss and the extinction of species that is going on now that's greater than any time in historical times. The oceans have been laid barren. They're contaminated. We have water and resource issues. We don't see it much in this country, but when you follow news around the world, these are devastating things that are happening. And to have this--what I view as an irresponsible and tunneled view of population that emphasizes financial concerns over these massive environmental issues seems to be terribly off the mark. I think it would be extremely dangerous for us to carry--I mean, let me put it this way.
If a scientist were to propose, `Let's do an experiment and see what the maximum carrying capacity of Earth is. What's the maximum population of human beings we can put on this planet?' They would probably be shouted down or thrown in an insane asylum. And yet we've been carrying on that experiment for decades now and it's devastating.
CONAN: Yeah. Phillip Longman, Gary makes a point. Economic impacts of our growing--still growing, billions, has had economic as well as many other effects.
Mr. LONGMAN: Well, I would invite you to just contemplate what exactly is the relationship between population growth and environmental destruction. Consider the example of Japan that has about 10 times the population density of the United States and uses half as much energy per person. Why is that? Is that a coincidence? No, it's not a coincidence. The very population density that Japan has allows it to have a much less auto-dependent economy, one in which people running around in high-speed rail and subways and it's producing per person much less global warming than sprawled-out America with its automobiles. It's the growth of automobiles--the population growth of automobiles that's the problem in the United States, not the population growth of people.
I'm not denying that we have to do a lot to mitigate the strain we're putting on this environment. It's awful and I stand to no-win on standing up for environmental rights. But just be careful when you think concretely about what population is contributing to those problems and what technology is.
CONAN: Congressman, is there a direct relationship between growing population and increased environmental impact?
Mr. KOSTMAYER: Oh, absolutely. I live in New York City now but I come from a place in Pennsylvania called Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where the population is growing. We're losing a hundred acres of farmland in Bucks County every seven days. I don't think you can separate growing population from the growing numbers of automobiles in the country. That's difficult to do. But just talk a second about this issue of the quantity of the population vs. the quality. Let me give an example. There are 57 million people in Italy. There are 147 million people in Pakistan. But Italy has 13 times the purchasing power of Pakistan because people are earning a good living. They're educated. They're middle class. They are in control over the number of kids they're having. That's a situation we want to reach.
Phillip is right about what's happening. The fact is, people are having fewer kids but there's a reason they're having fewer kids: It's because they want fewer kids. Everybody in this country--not everybody but most people in this country are having fewer kids. Most people in the world are having fewer kids. There's a very good reason. He may try to turn that around to economic incentives. People are having fewer kids because they're making more money, because they're better educated; that's a good thing, not a bad thing.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Jeff is with us from South Bend, Indiana.
JEFF (Caller): Hi. I would just like to first of all thank you guys for addressing this issue. It's something that's been on my mind a lot lately.
CONAN: We're having a little trouble with your phone, Jeff.
JEFF: Oh, OK. Can you hear me now?
CONAN: Better, yes.
JEFF: OK. I just wanted to thank you for addressing this issue today. It's been something that's been on my mind a lot recently. My wife and I started to have children a couple of years ago. We were both in our early 30s. I'm a journalist; she's a social worker. And for years, we always envisioned ourselves having a large family, say, three, four, maybe even five children just because we both love kids so much. But we've realized that it's just not economically feasible. You know, we don't want to work the kind of hours that our parents worked and we want to have more time with our kids. And so we are going to stop at just having these two children. And so I just wanted to, I guess, say that I sort of agree with Mr. Longman's approach here in that it's--and I think whether this is a good or a bad thing for society at large, I know it's a bad thing for me and my wife because we're really disappointed.
CONAN: There's a lot of people like Jeff, aren't there, Phillip?
Mr. LONGMAN: Well, surveys show that American women now coming to the end of their reproductive age do, as a group, wish they had had more children than they wound up having. It's even more dramatic in Europe where if the average woman in her 40s today had been able to have as many children as she says she wants to make, there would be no prospect of population aging and decline. Sweden wouldn't be cutting its pension benefits. There wouldn't be rioting in the streets of France over how to roll back their welfare state. And people would have had the number of children that they wanted, which turns out, by the way, to be about 2.1, which is just about what's needed for steady population. So people kind of instinctively want to have the right number of kids. It's just that they're not getting to do it.
CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much for the call and good luck to you.
JEFF: Thank you.
Doesn't this balance out over time, though? After you go through the graying of the population, you come out the other side, don't you?
Mr. LONGMAN: We don't know, because we've never done this before. One of the things that's very different now is the developing world is aging so rapidly; countries like the United States got rich before they got old. Places like India and Iran and Mexico are getting old before they get rich. We don't--we've never seen the kind of hyperaging that's going to happen in Mexico, for example. And so it's just impossible to say how it all works out. It may turn out, though, to be a boon to fundamentalism, because if people who are motivated by economic incentives aren't having children, it'll be people who are indifferent to economic incentives who will have what children are born. And I think there is a sort of built-in tendency around the world for people who are motivated by religious authority to be creating--or filling this empty cradle.
CONAN: E-mail question from Alex in Berkeley. `While population decline in the US would be a problem, couldn't that be mitigated by allowing more immigration from regions that are truly overpopulated?' That's one of the things you suggested, Congressman.
Mr. KOSTMAYER: Well, sure, and I think that's a good thing. I think immigration has long been the heart and soul of this country, and it's very worthwhile. It's strictly controlled, but I think that's part of the answer. But, of course, I would disagree with your correspondent who suggests that we're in a dangerous situation because our population is declining. The absolute numbers of people are going down. If, on average, a couple has 2.1 kids, you reach something called replacement level if you maintain that for 70 years, and then you reach something called ZPG, zero population growth, where you continue to rejuvenate your population, but you don't increase the pure numbers of people. That's what we're after. Our name used to be ZPG; now it's Population Connection. That's what we're after. And I think you're right. I think it will balance out. It always balances out.
And the issue of Social Security is not going to be answered by people having more kids. It's a political issue. It's a difficult one. It needs to be resolved, but the answer is not skyrocketing birth rates.
CONAN: We're speaking with--that was former Representative Peter Kostmayer. He's the president of what he now calls the Population Connection. He's with us here in Studio 3A. Phillip Longman is also with us. His new book is "The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It." He's also with us in the studio. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get a caller on the line. This is Robert, who's with us from Regensburg in Bavaria.
ROBERT (Caller): Hi. I'd just like to point out that, you know, we have six children and we're over in Germany, and it's very interesting to be in a country where they don't--you know, they're not even replacing themselves, and it's quite interesting the comments we get. People count us quite often wherever we go. But I also think it's interesting that four white men are, you know, surmising what women in Africa--how many children they should be having. I think that's very arrogant. And there's an absolute value that many people place on a human life, and that value outranks anything else, and you haven't really discussed that.
CONAN: I think, Robert, to be fair, we're discussing what women in Africa are doing about their child rates, and it may be arrogant or not...