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  • America’s Demographic Advantage Narrows

    The United States’ global preeminence owes a great deal to demographics; that includes age, education, gender, marital status, parental status, ethnicity, etc. After the collapse and fragmenting of the Soviet Union, the United States became the world’s third most populous country, behind the giants China and India.

    By comparison to other developed countries, the United States has maintained unusually high levels of fertility and immigration, a phenomenon demographer Nicholas Eberstadt has termed “American demographic exceptionalism.”

    Since the end of the Cold War, the overall American population and its number of working-age people (between the ages of 20 and 64) have grown more rapidly than those of other developed countries, as well as less developed rivals like China and Russia.
    Growing working-age populations boost national productivity in economies run by governments that can successfully develop and tap human resources. And for modern welfare states, slowing the average aging of the population forestalls some of the fiscal burdens built into their social arrangements.

    To the extent that crude demographic trends matter in world affairs, they have been running to the United States’ advantage for some time. But big changes are underway. Results from the U.S. 2020 census and reports about 2020 birth totals offered sobering news.

    These indicate that with its slowdown of population growth and steady declines in national fertility, the United States seems to be charting a less optimistic demographic path, leading to a grayer and less populous future.

    In short, the United States may be losing its advantage and becoming less exceptional as Americans choose to have fewer children. To the degree that lower birthrates may signal diminished popular confidence about the future, the drop-off in fertility warrants attention and perhaps concern.

    Slower population growth could also have troublesome longer-term implications for Washington’s pay-as-yougo entitlements for senior citizens and other social welfare programs. 

    Fortunately, a look under the hood of the latest population data and projections suggests that there is no immediate reason to be alarmed about the country’s prospective international standing. The United States will remain in a strong demographic position with respect to its competitors for decades to come.

    Consider the specifics.

    The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 “headline” numbers formally ratify something demographers already knew. The United States’ population growth has been decelerating steadily since 1990 - and is now at the slowest recorded tempo in the country’s history, apart from the Great Depression era.

    Between 2010 and 2020, the U.S. population grew by an estimated 7.4 percent. That is a distinctly slower rate of growth than that of the previous decade, when the United States’ population grew by just under ten percent.

    Interestingly - some would say surprisingly - immigration does not seem to have much to do with this slowdown; indirect indications suggest net immigration amounted to about a million people a year over the 2010s, roughly the same level as in the previous decade.

    Rather, changes in birth and death trends explain the shift. “Natural increase,” which is defined as the total number of births minus deaths, averaged 1.7 million annually for the decade between 2000 and 2009 but just 1.2 million between 2010 and 2019.

    In 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, it fell below 900,000, the lowest annual sum on record since at least 1933, when the United States’ nationwide birth and death registration system was completed.

    The falloff in U.S. “natural increase” in the 2010s was partly due to an increase in annual deaths - an entirely predictable result of the aging of the overall population.

    But the slump in births played a greater role. Birth totals in 2019 were down by over half a million from their all-time high of 4.3 million in 2007, just before the Great Recession.

    Total fertility rates - a measure of births per woman per lifetime - tell the American childbearing story on a more human scale. For the two decades leading fertility rate averaged just over two births per woman.

    Between 2007 and 2019, however, the U.S. rate dropped from over 2.1 (just above the level for long-term population replacement) to 1.7, which is below replacement level.

    That was the lowest rate ever recorded for the United States - until now. The provisional birth figures for 2020 indicate another four percent drop, to about 3.6 million, implying a 2020 national total fertility rate of around 1.64, which is more than 20 percent below replacement level.

    The available evidence documents a substantial and remarkably widespread fertility reduction since the Great Recession. Economic concerns may play a part, with some blaming the high costs of child-rearing for their reluctance to have more children or any children at all.

    Younger generations may also have different priorities and cultural attitudes from those of their predecessors; the rising cohort of millennials, who make up most of today’s population of childbearing ages, is decidedly less religious and also less sanguine about the future.

    However, the demographic future remains relatively bright for the United States. In fact, the 2020 census results are far from harbingers of doom, especially when placed in a broader context.

    And that’s true even if we accept the UN’s low-end forecasts of future U.S. population growth.

    Specifically, the “low variant” models constructed by the United Nations Population Division assign the United States a total fertility rate below 1.4 for the second half of the 2020s; that assumes a nationwide average fertility rate lower than the fertility rate of any single U.S. state in 2019 and an even lower rate during the 2030s and 2040s.

    But, even with this strikingly low fertility rate, the projected U.S. population would still rise for the next generation, peaking in 2047 at just under 350 million people, where it would roughly remain through 2050.

    Under that pessimistic scenario, the number of working-age people would likewise rise modestly during the next quarter century - to a projected 2050 level about five percent higher than the corresponding total for 2020.

    As this highly cautious example demonstrates, the 2020 census results should not cause a “de-populationist” panic. Even with extreme and unrelenting sub-replacement fertility levels, the United States’ total population and working-age population are on course to keep growing.

    For example, as rising cohorts of Zoomers and Millennials move into age groups currently occupied by comparatively smaller cohorts those groups will expand. 

    This “population momentum” built into the current U.S. demographic structure will combine with continuing migration to push the overall U.S. population as well as the “working-age population” to higher levels for at least another generation.

    As a result, the United States will likely retain a demographic edge over other great 21st century powers. China, Japan, Russia, and the countries of the European Union have all had sub-replacement fertility rates for much longer than the United States.

    And their current fertility levels are all lower than that of the United States. Furthermore, their populations are all older than the U.S. population today. Notably, even though China has the most youthful population of those other great powers, its median age has already exceeded that of the United States.

    The United States’ most recent year of achieving replacement-level fertility was 2008. By contrast, Japan and the EU fell into sub-replacement fertility in the 1970s, while China and Russia did so in the early 1990s.

    Although the United States’ surfeit of births over deaths has been steadily dwindling for over a decade, deaths have outnumbered births in the EU since about 2012, and Eurostat projects that the combined population of the 27 EU member states will begin shrinking around 2025.

    Japan has had a surplus of deaths over births since 2007 and a continuously shrinking population since 2011. Russia has seen nearly 14 million more deaths than births since the fall of the Soviet Union.

    As for China, (Nicholas Eberstadt explained in Foreign Affairs back in 2021), that its working-age population is already in decline; depopulation is set to commence sometime in the coming decade and the country is on a path toward extremely rapid population aging, with all that implies for economic performance and domestic social need.

    The particulars of China’s future demographic course will become clearer when the details of China’s 2020 census are divulged - but its unexplained months-long delay in announcing findings suggests official displeasure with the results.

    Among other unpleasant demographic surprises, the Chinese Communist Party has seen births continue to plunge since the suspension of the regime’s harsh one-child policy in 2015.

    China’s still imperfect vital registration system tallied almost 18 million births in 2016, but the 2020 census reports only 12 million births in 2020.

    That extremely low reading may reflect the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic (a crisis the regime insists it has always had well under control) - but as demographers learn more, they may find that China’s demographic slide is progressing even more rapidly than they thought.

    Of all the presumptive great powers, only India stands to see greater and more rapid total population and working-age population growth than the United States over the coming generation and to remain a more youthful society than the United States.

    In just a few years India will displace China as the world’s most populous country and will surpass China in working-age population shortly after that.

    But India, too, is now entering sub-replacement fertility; UN estimates suggest India’s under 20 population is already declining, and India’s working-age population could peak before 2050.

    The dip in fertility in the United States does suggest that clear-cut U.S. demographic exceptionalism may be over, at least for the time being. But this could also simply represent a cyclical trough similar to the 1930s.

    If business, government and individuals freely make informed decisions that are in their own best interests, the United States will continue lead the world into a brighter future. 

    Given this trend, we offer the following forecasts for your consideration.

    First, remote work will enable America’s Millennials and Zoomers to raise children more easily.

    Remote work makes parenting easier by freeing up 5-to-10 hours a week otherwise spent commuting and preparing to commute. It also enables parents to reside in less costly locations further from commercial centers, where they can afford larger homes.

    And for the most part, remote work can be more easily adjusted to accommodate family-friendly schedules. All of these factors make having a family with children more manageable. Consequently, many of today’s over-priced urban centers will rapidly age and decline in importance.

    Second, in order to attract talent, companies will increasingly integrate parent-friendly perks into their benefit packages.

    Today, many women and some men are absent from the workforce because they are unable to cost-effectively balance a family and a career. In the competitive environment of the 2020s, companies will increasingly provide day-care and similar benefits as part of a broader compensation package.

    Third, as Millennials and Zoomers become more affluent, they will begin marrying and having children at higher rates than widely expected.

    As explained earlier, most American childlessness is “involuntary.” In much the same way that the Great Depression and World War II caused the so-called Greatest Generation to put their lives on-hold, the malaise following the Dot-Com crash and the Great Recession put the lives of Millennials on-hold.

    While the Golden Age of the Digital Revolution will not generate the kind of “baby boom” we saw after World War II, it will definitely seem like a boom when compared to the birth rates of the past few years.

    Fourth, in the case of the United States, immigration will largely offset the declining birth rate.

    Because of new immigrants and their higher fertility rates, the U.S. population will continue to increase at a higher rate than most other OECD countries.

    Fifth, because Americans are more religious and more affluent than citizens of most other OECD countries, they will continue to have higher birth rates for the foreseeable future.

    Religious Christians and Muslims both have higher birth rates than secularists. Similarly, higher incomes and lower costs of food and housing in much of the United States make having a large family more affordable.

    Sixth, during the Golden Age of the Digital Revolution, economic growth will accelerate as wages rise and technology increasingly substitutes for human labor.

    As highlighted in trend #1, achieving this reality depends on relentless innovation. And,

    Seventh, South Asia and Africa will become increasingly important as they become a larger share of global workers and consumers.

    In the medium-term North America will be the big winner in absolute terms, but South Asia and Africa will be the biggest winners in relative terms. The youthful and increasingly well-educated population of India will rise from poverty to middle class status by 2050.

    Meanwhile, Africa’s youthful population will continue to soar, making it a global source of low-end manufacturing and a leading consumer of agricultural products. 

    Resource List
    1. Trends. September 2019. The Trends Editors. Great Power Demographics.

    2. Trends. May 2013. The Trends Editors.  The Population Implosion Takes Center Stage.

    3. Trends. September 2021. The Trends Editors. Will Demographic Winter End the Human Family?

    4. Trends. June 2019. The Trends Editors. The Great Millennial Happiness Crisis.

    5. Foreign Affairs. May 24, 2021. Nicholas Eberstadt. America Hasn’t Lost Its Demographic Advantage: Its Rivals Are in Much Worse Shape.

    6. AEI.org. January 3, 2022. Nicholas Eberstadt. The future of global population.

    7. Washington Examiner. March 3, 2022. Timothy P. Carney. A fecund society is a polite society.