Recent reports of America’s sagging birthrate ‑ the lowest since the 1920s, by some measures ‑ have sparked a much-needed debate about the future of the American family. Unfortunately, this discussion, like so much else in our society, is devolving into yet another political squabble between conservatives and progressives.
Conservatives, including the Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Last, regularly cite declining birth and marriage rates as one result of expanding government ‑ and a threat to the right’s political survival. Progressives, meanwhile, have labeled attempts to commend a committed couple with children as inherently prejudicial and needlessly judgmental.
Yet family size is far more than just another political wedge issue. It is an existential one – essentially determining whether a society wants to replace itself or fall into oblivion, as my colleagues and I recently demonstrated in a report done in conjunction with Singapore’s Civil Service College. No nation has thrived when its birthrate falls below replacement level and stays there – the very level the United States are at now. Examples from history extend from the late Roman Empire to Venice and the Netherlands in the last millennium.
Falling birthrates and declining family formation clearly effect national economies. One major United States’ advantage has long been high birthrates, akin to a developing nation’s, as well as a vibrant family-oriented culture. This was largely because of immigrants and their children, striving first- and second-generation Americans. The United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is expected to have a roughly 40 percent growth in its workforce in the first half of this century, largely thanks to immigration.
In contrast, the Census Bureau predicts that leading U.S. competitors, notably Japan, Europe and South Korea, will likely suffer a decline of 25 percent or more over that time. Even China, whose birthrate has dropped precipitously under its one-child policy and rapid urbanization, is expected to see a sharp drop in its labor force over the next decade.