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How Fertility Drives the Health of Nations

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The sustainability of humankind's oldest institution, the family & the fount of fertility, nurturance, and human capital & is now an open question.

A Summary and Commentary On:

The Empty Cradle
How Contemporary Family Trends Undermine the Global Economy
Phillip Longman, et al. The Sustainable Demographic Dividend: What Do Marriage & Fertility Have to Do With the Economy, a report of the National Marriage Project, University of Virginia, 2012. p. 5.

Phillip Longman’s essay is a part of the World Family Map Project’s 2012 report, which explains how fertility and marriage rates impact a nation’s economic stability and growth. Written by noted demographer Phillip Longman, Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation, this report begins with a disturbing and overarching observation:

A turning point has occurred in the life of the human race. The sustainability of humankind’s oldest institution, the family – the fount of fertility, nurturance, and human capital – is now an open question. On current trends, we face a world of rapidly aging and declining populations, of few children – many of them without the benefit of siblings and a stable two-parent home – of lonely seniors living on meager public support, of cultural and economic stagnation. Longman, et al. , 2012, p.5.

From Europe to East Asia, from Canada to Chile, birth rates around the world have fallen below what is needed to avoid population and economic decline and have done so for quite some time. The next generation of teachers, business owners, community leaders, health-care providers, inventors, farmers, tax-payers and consumers are not being born. They don’t just pop up like spring flowers. It is required that the previous generation be very intentional about birthing and raising them.

As Dr. Longman has humorously stated as a demographic truism: “We find that people who don’t have children tend not to have children who have children.”

Psalm 127:3-5 is not just a spiritual truth, but also an economic and demographic reality:

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth.

Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! God’s very first command to the first two humans was not start a church, a business or a school, but a family. It was to have babies, and He commanded this for many reasons. Children are not just sweet bundles of joy – they are that – but they are also the next generation who will care and provide for the previous generation. And they are the ones that will produce, raise, teach, protect and provide for the following generation. People are a blessing and not a curse. Babies are essential.

The Hard Numbers

In more than 75 countries around the world, fertility is well below replacement level (2.1 children per woman) which is needed to maintain a nation’s workforce at current levels. The average woman living in a developed nation will give birth to only 1.66 children in her lifetime. (See Appendix, Figure 1) That is 21 percent below the fertility level needed to sustain a current population over time.

There are 60.6 million fewer children in the developed world today than there were in 1965!

And the people born in the 1950s and 1960s are living longer than the generations before them. We have fewer of the younger, more of the older. And fear of overpopulation has no foundation. At the earth’s present capacity of 7 billion people, each of them could stand within the boundaries of the United States’ smallest state – Rhode Island – with just enough room to swing their arms and only occasionally hit their neighbor. These seven billion could also live within the borders of Texas with the same population density tolerated by the inhabitants of New York City today, leaving the rest of God’s green earth for resource development. The problem of “too many people” is not a cause for fear. But rather too few.

Over the next 40 years, the United Nations predicts that 53 percent of the world’s population growth will come from increases in people over 60, while only 7 percent will come from people under 30. These data are assisted by two recent technological developments affecting the demographic trends at each end of the life spectrum: widely used and affordable birth control and medical treatments decreasing death and illness, such as penicillin. This decline of the young populations and the expansion of the old is a deeply unhealthy economic trajectory. And of course, the answer for a compassionate society is not what Japanese finance minister Taro Aso recently recommended for the elderly of their nation—that they “let them hurry up and die”—but to increase, encourage and welcome the birth of the young who will balance this demographic problem.

The Economic Implications of Fewer Babies

In fact, economic powerhouses like Japan and China are poised to see their workers shrink by 20 percent from now until 2050, because of persistently low fertility and an ever aging population. This has been happening in Japan for some time, stifling their economic growth behind China. It is in China’s near future.

The lesson here is that nations wishing to enjoy economic growth and a viable welfare system over the long-term must maintain fertility rates high enough to avoid shrinking workforces and rapidly aging populations. It is a critical and necessary balance. The only other answer for a nation is massive immigration, which in turn changes the shape and nature of that nation.

In terms of economic viability of a nation based on fertility, a 2011 RAND report explains, “China’s prospects may be hindered by its aging population, while India will have more favorable demographics than China” because India is anticipated to surpass China in population by 2025. Julie Davanzo, Hurun Dogo, and Clifford Grammich, “Demographic Trends, Policy Influences and Economic Effects on China and India Through 2025,” RAND Working Paper WR-849 (2011): iv. In fact, India is likely to capitalize on their emerging demographic advantage more powerfully than China did.

An April 2012 article in The Atlantic entitled “Europe’s Real Crisis” explains that the “Continent’s problems are as much demographic as they are financial,” noting that this crisis is serious and “won’t go away soon.” They creatively explain that the economic growth of a nation cannot be ordered pronto like a pizza. It requires a long time in the making, dependent on two essential ingredients: a growing population of workers and higher worker productivity.

To understand how important this is and how it works, the article’s author, Megan McArdle, asks us to imagine two neighboring towns with identical infrastructures, education levels, natural resources and economies. The only difference between the two towns is age of its citizens. The average age in Morningburg is 28, while the average age in Twilight City is 58, both ages possessing plenty of vitality. But McArdle points out the difference is much more than “one of their grocery stores does a booming business in diapers while the other has a whole aisle devoted to Centrum Silver.”

The workers in Morningburg are rapid, quick learners, eager to invent and try new ways of doing things, and even creating new things. They have the energy and drive to make their mark on the world, not to mention, money. They are young, both willing and able to take risks, given that they have more time to rebound from losses. They are interested in expanding to new opportunistic markets as well as developing new products. And in order to achieve, they are happy and willing to put in long hours.

Morningburg’s older peers over in Twilight City have a different view on things. First, they are surely wiser and more experienced, but they are not aggressively looking at economic and market-share success 20 years down the road. They are more economically conservative and status-quo, and it is in their interest to be so. They do have more know-how, but they have less energy, endurance and drive. They are also more risk-averse due to decreasing recovery time from failures. The hours spent working decline, as they should.  But their wages remain high.  They are also naturally more inclined to block younger workers’ advancement to protect their own positions.

McArdle warns that most nations are not Morningburgs, but headed the way of Twilight City:

“The United Nations estimates that by 2030, the number of people older than 60 will be growing more than three times as fast as the general population.  By 2050, one in every five people will be over 60. In the developed world, the proportion will be more like one in three. Europe (along with Japan) is at the forefront of an unprecedented shift.”Megan McArdle, “Europe’s Real Crisis” The Atlantic, April 2012, p. 35.

Economic growth, debt retirement, and support of an increasing population of elderly, requires young workers, and these young creators, providers, inventors, consumers, not to mention tax-payers only come in one original size: babies.

In fact, a recent report by Morgan Stanley explains that a country’s larger proportion of older citizens relative to its shrinking proportion of younger citizens may now be a more important indicator of its likelihood to default on its debt payments than the actual size of the debt itself.  Consider this in terms of a household budget. A home has $25,000 of credit card debt and only one employed person earning $40,000 annually. Not a good debt risk. But consider if this home carrying that much debt had six people to share the load, each earning only $20-25K annually. A very different, more manageable debt situation. Apply that same dynamic to a nation’s debt. New people matter.

Families Create Both Quantity and Quality

And it is not just the quantity of the workforce that a nation has, but the quality as well. Top workers are not primarily created in the best of liberal arts and trade schools. For these institutions to do their jobs, parents must first do theirs.

Phillip Longman explains that “accompanying the global megatrend of falling birth rates is a radical change in the circumstances in which many children are raised, as country after country has seen a surge of divorce and/or out-of-wedlock births and a sharp decline in the percentage of children living with both of their married parents.”The Sustainable Demographic Dividend, p. 6. (See Appendix, Figure 2) In many countries, more than one third of children are born outside marriage and most of these remain in unmarried households throughout their childhood.

This puts millions of children across the globe at markedly greater risk of experiencing a broad host of harmful life experiences: poverty, missing essential educational opportunities, sexual and physical abuse, family instability as well as substance abuse and declining physical and mental health. Children in the United States who are not raised by their own married mother and father are:

  • More than three times more likely to live in poverty.
  • Two to three times more likely to suffer from social and psychological problems like delinquency, depression, drug use and dropping out of school.
  • Dramatically less likely to attend or graduate from college or remain gainfully employed.

In Sweden, adjusting for various confounding factors, children not being raised by their mother and father are at least 50 percent more likely to suffer from addiction to drugs and alcohol, attempt or commit suicide and struggle with psychological problems than their peers who are raised by their mother and father under one roof.The Sustainable Demographic Dividend, p. 7-8. Family form is far from neutral regarding child well-being and what they grow up to become.

Additionally, leading scholars find that married men tend to work harder, longer and smarter, earning between 20 and 24 percent more money than their unmarried peers. This is true in countries as varied as Israel, Italy, Mexico, and the United States.

So it is not just that most countries are not producing enough new workers, but we are doing a poorer job of raising and preparing the children we do have to be successful contributors to our societies. And this is a result of the kinds of family forms in which we are choosing to raise our children. These family formation realities result far more from our personal decision-making and values than it does from life events beyond our control. And a nation can build world-class communities, schools and recreational facilities for their children, thinking it give them a leg up, but if they do not provide their children with a loving, caring, attentive married mother and father, these other resources will fail to accomplish much. There is no way around this fundamental human and global truth.


Global economics are largely driven by national demographics – the growth and age distribution of its people – finding the proper balance between those just starting their lives and those approaching their twilight. You must have more of the young to care for the number of elderly you have. This is a social reality.

Every citizen of every nation is a human being who bears the divine image of God in a new and unique way. They are valuable, more than just spiritually, but also in vital social ways as well. Unlike the communist and socialist ideals, where an individual’s primary worth is as a worker for the state, Christianity teaches that every human gains a large measure of his or her dignity from doing meaningful work for God, their family and the larger community. A person who does not have meaningful work to do week by week cannot remain happy. We all need a sense of internal and outward significance and this comes from our relationships with others and from our work. This is a fundamental human universal.

This report shows us how every nation depends upon and requires each new generation of productive, creative and sacrificing young people who inherit the custodianship of their nation from the previous generations. This previous generation is first a mother and father, joined together in a durable and life-long bond. This is marriage. And this previous generation becomes the extended family around them and the families of their friends and peers. It also comes from their community leaders of all stripes who have also been raised well from strong families, taught to serve and help others. No society worth living in can exist without this essential and basic dynamic.

This is a deeply human and divine reality. And its converse is tragically seen in the growing secularization of too many nations. The greatest way a generation can serve its nation is by raising the next generation, and raising it well. Each nation ignores this to its own peril.

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