The cover of our current magazine issue notes that lower birth rates alarm economists. As Washington Post economics columnist Robert J. Samuelson wrote last December, “No one can say we weren’t warned. For years, scholars of all shapes and sizes — demographers, economists, political scientists — have cautioned that the populations of most advanced countries are gradually getting older, with dramatic consequences for economics and politics.”
It’s worth pointing out that almost everything tends to alarm economists. The economy is always growing too quickly — or too slowly. Unemployment may be too high or, alternatively, businesses may struggle to find qualified workers. Economists seem to believe that everything is a problem, one way or another.
We strongly disagree with many practitioners of the “dismal science” when it comes to the impact of lower birth rates. As we point out in our book, The Good Crisis, no one need worry about slower (or better yet, zero) population growth. In a world plagued with all manner of shortages (clean air, fresh water, food, common sense), we face no people shortage.
The fact is that today — and tomorrow and the day after that — world population will grow about 200 times as quickly as it did during the several millennia before the Industrial Era. In terms of speed, that’s akin to the difference between taking a quiet stroll and flying in a jet airplane.
Despite recent declines in family size, the United States population continues to grow by about 3 million a year, due in large part to the fact that nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned. But what about those few places with slow or no population growth, or even (as with Japan) actual decline? Not to be simplistic, but there is a clear answer that works everywhere: Invest in people. That means providing great schools along with top-notch health care facilities. It also means removing barriers both physical and attitudinal that often prevent gainful employment on the part of older workers or those facing physical or mental challenges or those who are trying to fulfill family responsibilities as caregivers.
These approaches increase per capita productivity, which can be even more important as population growth slows. While there is no magic wand that will solve all the world’s problems, reducing population growth by smashing barriers to all reproductive health services is a great place to start.
Even if we could somehow persuade economists to stop furrowing their brows whenever people choose smaller families, there are plenty of real problems to keep even the most hyperkinetic number-crunchers fully occupied.