Demography as destiny: The vital American family

December 31, 2012

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.

Perhaps the greatest threat from collapsing fertility is the aging of society. Consider “the dependency ratio,” which measures the number of people in the workforce compared to retirees ‑ in effect, how many working people are needed to support those over age 65. In 1960, before the decline in birthrates, that ratio was 9 percent in the 23 most developed countries. Today, it is 16 percent across these advanced countries. By 2030 it could reach as high as 25 percent.

Countries with the longest history of declines in fertility face the biggest fiscal crises. By 2050, for example, Germany and Singapore  are predicted to have roughly 57 people above age 65 for every 100 workers. In the United States, this ratio will rise by 50 percent, to roughly 35 per 100 workers, even if the current decline is eventually reversed.

If birthrates continue to decline, Western nations may devolve into impoverished and enervated nursing homes. And without strong families, children are likely to be more troubled and less productive as adults.

You don’t need a crystal ball to see what this future could look like. Consider Japan. By 2050, there are expected to be three people above age 65 for every person in Japan under 15. In fact, more people are expected to be over 80 than under 15.

This demographic shift signals a kind of death sentence for that once thriving, but now declining, nation. Not only are Japanese couples having far fewer children, sociologist Mike Toyota notes, roughly one-third of Japanese women in their 30s are not getting married ‑ which, in that conservative society, essentially means they are unlikely to have children. Even teenagers, according to a recent government-commissioned study by the Family Planning Association, seem oddly indifferent to dating and sex.

Given the stakes, Americans must forgo political squabbles and focus on practical ways to remove barriers to marriage and child-rearing. One crucial component for strong birthrates is steady economic growth. Before the 2008 economic collapse, the U.S. fertility rate  was 2.12, the highest in 40 years. But the tumultuous economic problems since then have helped drive the fertility rate to 1.9 per woman, the lowest since the economic malaise era under President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.

Even amid increasing awareness of the country’s demographic problems, however, political extremes focus on their own ideological spin. Conservatives set their arguments in neo-traditionalist terms, embracing right-wing tropes against gay marriage and abortion while blaming expansive government and rampant individualism. Others on the extreme right link declining fertility rates, particularly among Caucasians, to what Pat Buchanan calls “the end of white America.”

Yet conservatives must recognize that fertility is not just a white or high-income Asian issue. Fertility and even marriage rates are, for example, declining throughout much of the Muslim Middle East, in some cases below our own levels, as my colleague Ali Modarres has shown.

Nor is “white America” likely to be demographically overwhelmed by the current dramatic influx of Latino immigrants, particularly Mexicans, as many on the far right insist. Within a generation, Mexican-Americans immigrants’ fertility rates decline to that of native-born U.S. citizens. In fact, as Mexico modernizes, its fertility rates are falling to U.S. levels.

Conservatives also seem to have a hard time admitting that one major culprit ‑ particularly in the United States and East Asian countries such as Singapore ‑ is modern capitalism. Young workers building their careers can face consuming demands for long work hours and substantial amounts of travel. Many confront a choice between a career and family.

“In Singapore,” Austrian demographer Wolfgang Lutz observes, “women work an average of 53 hours a week. Of course they are not going to have children. They don’t have time.”

For hard-pressed low-wage workers, raising children can be even harder. Indeed, much of the decline in child-rearing in the U.S. can be traced to a fall-off among immigrants, particularly Latinos, who fared particularly poorly in the long recession.

On the other side, many Democrats praise the rise of “singlism” ‑ demonstrated by  the women in their 40s who never had offspring. This cohort has more than doubled since 1976. Pollsters like Stan Greenberg hail single women as “the largest progressive voting bloc in the country,” and Ruy Texeira, a leading political scientist, asserts that singletons are critical to the “emerging Democratic majority.”

Progressives also embrace urban density ‑ a residential pattern that discourages child-rearing. Unlike the wave of immigrants or rural migrants who flooded the American metropolises of the early 20th century, urbanites today are not raising large families in cramped spaces. Instead, in virtually all high-income societies, high density today almost always translates into low marriage rates and fertility rates.

The causes of this radical change are diverse. But crucial reasons include decline of extended family support networks; erosion of traditional, often religiously based values; and a culture that celebrates individualism.

We no longer see family-centered urban neighborhoods like those depicted in the Chicago of Saul Bellow’s novel The Adventures of Augie March. Instead, many urban centers today are among the most “child free” ‑ whether in Manhattan, San Francisco, inner London or Paris, Singapore, Hong Kong or Tokyo.

In contrast, America’s nurseries are in the suburbs, exurbs and lower-density greater-metropolitan areas. The metropolitan regions of Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Salt Lake City have above-average numbers of children. The percentage of children, according to the census, under age 15 in these cities is almost twice that of Manhattan or San Francisco.

Many progressives don’t seem to care much if the birthrate falls. Some green activists seem to actually prefer it –  perhaps viewing offspring, particularly in wealthy countries, as unwanted carbon emitters. They seem to have taken up the century-old Malthusian concerns about overpopulation and environmental ruin. “A whole lot of people don’t have kids BECAUSE they’re worried about the future,” explains one critic of our report, suggesting that concern for the environment may justify the decision not to have children.

Before signing on to a low-fertility agenda, American progressives as well as conservatives might want to consider the long-term consequences. The long fertility-rate declines in Europe and Japan occurred as economic growth flagged. Diminishing expectations of the future, painfully evident in countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, are now further depressing marriage and childbirth.

As to the culture wars between religious social conservatives and progressives, let’s declare a truce. Spiritual values and traditional families are precious resources to be nurtured. Mormons, evangelicals, practicing Catholics and highly self-identified Jews, all of whom largely favor big families, help make up for the almost certain continued expansion of single, and often childless, people.

Social conservatives also need to champion more than the narrowly defined “natural family.” Many children, whether because of divorce or diverse family circumstances, must look to someone other than their birth parents for nurturing. Adoptive parents, grandmothers, uncles or aunts or other sorts of extended-family units also need to be cherished as committed caregivers.

Popular TV shows like Modern Family show the wide range of family types today. The crucial element is that family obligation often extends well beyond “likes” and ties exist over generations. This can be true for gay couples or “blended families” in a way that can rarely be said of people who are dating, or friends, both of the real and Facebook variety.

Fortunately, the long-term prognosis is not all bad. Pew Research Center reports that the emerging millennial generation rank being good parents, owning a home and having a good marriage as their top three priorities. Generational chroniclers Morley Winograd and Mike Hais, in their book Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America, suggest that the younger generation is as family-oriented as their elders, albeit with a greater emphasis on shared responsibilities and more flexible gender roles.

“No matter how many communes people invent,” the anthropologist Margaret Mead once remarked, “the family always creeps back.” Let’s hope she’s right ‑ not only about the past but the future as well.

PHOTO: The 3rd grade class from the W.R. O’Dell Elementary School of Concord, North Carolina, recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the Democractic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 4, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed

PHOTO (1st Insert): Cardinal Hayes Memorial High School, Grand Concourse, Bronx, New York. 1941. Library of Congress.

PHOTO (2nd Insert): An elderly shopper chooses goods at an Aeon chain store in Tokyo, July 6, 2011. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

PHOTO (3rd Insert): Immigrants leaving Ellis Island. Library of Congress.


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Yeah, whatever. Only hardcore republicans and Bible thumpers believe that the family is a valid and important social structure.

Posted by JohnRogers12 | Report as abusive

With a world population of SEVEN BILLION PLUS and still exploding Mr. Kotkin is beating the drum for more and more people as the solution for the world’s problems? What is he and others like him smoking?

Man no longer faces imminent nuclear destruction that could arrive in a heartbeat. Instead America’s financial resources are being increasingly demanded and devoured by it’s unproductive, it’s fastest growing “class”. The crumbs left are insufficient to properly and timely support the research and programs that will allow man to leave this big blue marble and expand into the solar system (and eventually the stars) before he manages to turn it into a big brown marble.

Make no mistake. This contest will decide whether mankind commits suicide or survives the next fifty or one hundred years and beyond.

And the world’s economists had best get on with coming up with some method of economic sustainability and social progress that is not totally dependent upon more and more humans in a time when fewer and fewer are needed to keep our society fed and functioning.

We have no more time for useless navel gazing. Change in the form of an “information age” is upon us. If we cannot harness it for our benefit, we will be crushed by it. Our choice.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

“No nation has thrived when its birthrate falls below replacement level and stays there”

Why does Kotkin assume that low birth rate is the cause and national decline the effect. Couldn’t it just as well be the opposite?

Posted by Shamizar | Report as abusive

Could not have said it better myself OOTS.
Sizes of individual societies will vary in fits and spurts. In the bigger picture of the world we need far more family planning, or we will end up needing DNA & Gene manipulation.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

The “Vital American Family” represents around what, 175 million people? Not all Americans fit the classic vision. What will the number be in 40 years? Trying to save a way of life that has passed by is futile. We really need to prepare for the future that is staring us in the face.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Extending the arguments used in the article, the best scenario for humankind would be keep increasing population till there is only standing room available for everyone.

Posted by kp12 | Report as abusive

The world is crowded enough. Sterilize the Mormons.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Birth rates in Europe are not uniform. France has twice the population growth of its neighbours. And most French mothers work. The reason : a lot of expensive state subsidised pre-school facilities to keep the children while the mother is at work. So that what Wolfgang Lutz says for Singapore does not apply to France.

Posted by Jacques777 | Report as abusive

Wage inequality is most likely the main cause. As how can two parents who have low wages afford children.
The cause of wage inequality is advances in technology and outsourcing(less decent paying jobs for people with high school diplomas). Ironicly the solution is technology and time. With coming of 3d publishing I expect to see the end of outsourcing. In time old people will retire or die thus giving their jobs to a younger people and evenually they will need some one to take care of them thus creating jobs.

Posted by Lothiel | Report as abusive

I am a young and single male American just out of college. I never plan to have children or enter into any form of committed romantic relationship.

In my view the baby boomer generation was created under the mistaken premise of American hyper-prosperity after WWII had destroyed much of the manufacturing base in the rest of the world, leaving the U.S. at a distinct and unnatural business advantage for several decades. Now that the forces of globalization have reasserted the natural order of economic power in an incredibly obvious manner (and America has borrowed its way into severe debt in a desperate and needless ongoing attempt to maintain its former momentum), it is no longer appropriate for Americans (barring another fortuitous global cataclysm) to create humans for which there are no funds or means to support.

Worldwide, for many people, the internet now fills the role of companion better than other humans do, for the first time in Earth’s history we as a society no longer have to rely on others in our direct vicinity for constant intellectual (or “non-intellectual”) stimulation or exchange, and the complex and expensive social baggage that this has always previously entailed: 7/net-us-japan-love-game-idUSBRE8BG03120 121217

Simultaneously medical advances constantly push back human life expectancies.

Lowering our population levels in the light of these developments is wise and justified, I fear with this essay that Mr. Kotkin is merely proposing a non-sustainable pyramid scheme of human flesh where more people are brought forward exponentially with diminishing returns until the point civil unrest and pollution implodes our civilization completely.

Posted by Lute | Report as abusive

No one should confuse a “people” with a Government. In the USA, the Government cares nothing for the various peoples who make up its population. Make no mistake! And very few outsiders, individuals who are not members of a particular “people”, care about the fate of that people, other than to mostly wish them ill for being different or being competitors or some other reason.

The USA will survive. It will just not look like it has up to now. The collapsing birth rate, and feminist “singlists”, largely belong to a “people” almost everyone would prefer to vanish from the planet. So be it! Let other, more sensible peoples take over this land. The sooner the better. Reform is beyond the comprehension of whites and the world will be a better place without them.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive


Words are important when you debate. “Government” is an amalgamation of heartless bureaucracies with no loyalty and no meaningful accountability to those citizens who fund it.

“Societies” may or may not exhibit the compassion you so desperately look for. It depends on the philosophy of those “in charge” as a given time, and there is still no consistent, collective “soul” to appeal to.

You have made it absolutely clear you don’t like or respect the progress all races except the currently expanding immigrant ones have brought to America and the world. But, as 2013 begins, even you have shown “progress”.

Instead of preaching and calling for a domestic revolution YOU will not live to see, today you call for “reform”, “The sooner the better.” Maybe “we” won’t have to lock you up after all!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Let’s see now. Take Germany as an example. Clearly Germany’s below replacement fertility has put their economy in the dumps, right? Demonstrably not. The assumption that below replacement fertility is a problem is false. Apologists for ever increasing population growth, like the author and many others, take as an article of faith that more people equates to a larger pool of creative individuals that will lead to more innovation to accommodate the ever increasing population. They are optimists that technology will address the stresses caused by the ever larger population. But they are pessimists in the other direction. What they fail to recognize is that innovative technology has, can and will address the dependency ratio implicit in aging populations through the well documented increased productivity of people in the working age bracket, as well as increased productivity of older persons beyond the conventional age bracket. It is an undeniable fact that, eventually, all countries will eventually need to achieve a fixed or declining population. The sooner they achieve this state the better for their long-term chances of economic survival. Is this demographic transition to a fixed size population easy? Germany has had many problems adjusting. But ultimately there is no alternative. All countries should aspire to reach a point where there is neither net growth nor net decline in population, a steady state where added annual births and immigration balance the number of deaths and out migration. Get over it. Aging populations are something to be celebrated as a path toward sustainable economies.

Posted by reutersreviewer | Report as abusive

Robots and other automated systems are getting better by the day. How may checkout chicks/guys are left at your local supermarket? Or is it all self-scan machines now? Who is replacing those lost job opportunities for young people? Maybe all these kids this guy wants us to have will be able to get jobs at the local bookstore or DVD library? Oh that’s right…they’re all going out of business. Same with fashion stores. People are ordering online. Most welding is done by machines. I could go on and on. The point is that there will never again be enough jobs to go around. Some robot will be doing that. Why have kids when they will have no opportunity in their lives? Also what is the aim in an ever increasing population? To turn the planet into a crush of humanity like a Tokyo train station? To destroy the food chain and live on Soylent Green? How about we have less kids and value them more. Put more effort and resources into each one. Give them support and high education without crippling debt. Quality over quantity. It’s worth a thought

Posted by FunkNugget | Report as abusive

Poor people breed. Rich people, in the main, don’t.

This is true all over the world. The more educated and rich people get, the lower fertility.

This is why the debate in the US is so strange. It is poor immigrant democratic voters that have the larger families. It is richer whiter rebpublican voters who have the smaller ones.

Getting a spin doctor to segment your population this way, that way, the other to prove the opposite is just silly.

America is a country that has lied to itself so much that now turkeys vote for christmas.

I hope you get real soon, because we generally follow what you do.

If population growth is what you want, lend some support to single mothers. The young ones have the helathier, more intelligent babies.

Promoting marriage can only help via side effect, with shrinking family size it may not help at all.

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

“Conservatives also seem to have a hard time admitting that one major culprit ‑ particularly in the United States and East Asian countries such as Singapore ‑ is modern capitalism. Young workers building their careers can face consuming demands for long work hours and substantial amounts of travel. Many confront a choice between a career and family.”

An overlong article that dances around the essential truth that is contained and buried in a paragraph way down the page. When my parents were raising our family a single income provider could provide us a middle-class lifestyle. Who can say that now?

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive


You presume, quite incorrectly, that the American way of life in the fifties is (1) sustainable and (2) desirable. Wrong on both counts.

Are you so contemptuous of American women that you would banish their life choices back to those of that period? Those women that left the farms and little towns all across the country and flocked to the “big city” during WW II proved quite capable of doing everything that men did and, in many cases, better. With the end of the war and the return of our servicemen, that window slammed shut.

It took a generation or more to pry it open again, slowly. What nation that would be truly “great” can afford to deny productive employment to half of it’s citizens by gender? Do you really believe that a majority of intelligent females want to spend their youthful years within a “world” defined by their yard with “conversations” limited to immature children and similarly isolated local “peers” and gossips? That is a prescription for intellectually stunted later years, whether “working” or not.

When I searched for a wife, I made it plain that I wanted a full partner on the journey through life and I did not want to share her time or affections with children. Every day I remain thankful that I succeeded as we near fifty years of wedded bliss. I pulled my weight and she pulled hers.

I grew mentally. So did she. We did not “grow apart” as do so many couples whose lives have little in common. We made decisions together. A direct result was lives more diverse and satisfying on relatively modest incomes than many with four to eight times ours managed to achieve. As but one example, I am a pilot and so is she.

To those who would ask: “What if your parents, or everyone had felt the same” I would ask another question. What if everyone chose to be an archeologist? A person not born is not a consideration to anyone anywhere. The reality is that there is sufficient diversity in what makes each of us “tick” that every male does not choose the same female, the same job, the same path, or vice versa. Silly, silly questions. One size does NOT fit all.

It must irritate those no end who believe man’s purpose on earth is to cover it with humans to learn that others not only perceived a choice between quantity of life and quality of life, but pursued such choice to a satisfactory end. It is not uncommon for such people to view honest attempts to improve our individual existence here on earth as interference with some cosmic “plan” no one can explain in terms a mere human can make sense of. They know who they are.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

You are missing a key component, a great many people in Europe and Asia do not have enough money to start a family. Land, even a simple flat is expensive there

Take Spain for example, 50% of young people from 18-24 or so have no job. We in the West may like to think that’s young and carefree but biology and society need people to be ready to start a family, No money, no kids.

And no, Social Democracy won’t cut it. No society can support that level of taxation.

If corporations and government want citizens who are part of the dominant culture, educated and skilled, they are going to have to employ them.

If they don’t, the people are not going to raise kids on famine rations in sardine cans for church and state like they did in the 19th century. They have options and they’ll use them to not have kids or not have as many.

Now if finding a way for people to have enough to enjoy life and get buy is too difficult, than the smart play is to accept demographic shrinkage until society stabilizes. If that means a much tinier population, mostly rural so be it.

Posted by SimonAcerton | Report as abusive