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  • Will Demographic Winter End the Human Family?

    At Trends, our job is to tell you what will happen, why it will happen and how you can profit from it. To do so, we track the trajectory of developments in demography, technology and human behavior to identify and flag economic opportunities and threats while there is still time to make the most of the situation. In September 2008, we spotlighted the global decline in birth rates and family formation highlighting related economic, social and geo-political implications. At the time, we reported that, “In the past half-century, birthrates have dropped by 50 percent. Today, 59 countries, representing 44 percent of the world’s population, are below the replacement fertility rate.”

    In this issue, we’ll reexamine those trends and what they imply for business, politics, and personal happiness.

    As renowned demographer Joel Kotkin observes, “For millennia the family has stood as the central institution of society: often changing, but always essential. But across the world, from China to North America, and particularly in Europe, family ties are weakening, with the potential to undermine one of our last few precious bits of privacy and intimacy.”

    Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “no matter how many communes anyone invents, the family always creeps back.” But today’s demographic trajectory is not promising for families. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, family formation and birth rates were declining throughout much of the world. That’s true not just in most of the West and in East Asia, but also in parts of South America and the Middle East.

    Globally, the ongoing pandemic appears to be driving birth rates down even further, and the longer it lasts, the greater the possibility that the “familial implosion” will get far worse, and perhaps irreversible. For instance, the Brookings Institution predicts that COVID will result in 300,000 to 500,000 fewer U.S. births in 2021. Beyond that, our marriage rates have dropped significantly to a 35 year low.

    Ironically, this was unimaginable just 50 years ago. In fact, it was in 1968 that Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich’s book Population Bomb prophesied an “explosion” of population that would foster Malthusian mass starvation; this forecast echoed the premise of another popular book called Famine 1975! Ehrlich and his acolytes urged extreme measures to stave off disaster, including adding a sterilizing chemical to the water supply. Similar conclusions were drawn four years later in the corporate-sponsored Club of Rome Report, which embraced an agenda of austerity and retrenchment to stave off population-driven mass starvation and social chaos.

    As Trends subscriber know, these predictions turned out to be absolutely and totally wrong! In fact, the 1970s saw a rapid decline in global hunger. More amazingly, the anticipated population explosion has now morphed into a population implosion, with much of the world now facing population contraction. As birth rates have dropped, the only thing holding up total population figures in many places is longer lifespans, though recent data suggests lifespans may be getting shorter once again.

    These trends can even be felt in the United States, where the birthrate is sinking. U.S. population growth among the cohort between the ages of 16 and 64 has dropped from 20 percent in the 1980s to less than 5 percent in the most recent decade. This is particularly bad for the future of an economy dependent on new workers and consumers.

    This demographic transition is even more marked in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and much of Europe, where finding younger workers is becoming a major problem for employers and could result in higher costs as well as increased off-shoring of jobs to countries with higher birthrates. As the employment base shrinks, some countries, such as Germany, have raised taxes on the existing labor force to pay for the swelling ranks of retirees.

    Similar patterns can be seen in China where an expanding workforce, which grew by 380 million between 1980 and 2012, drove a world-shattering economic boom.

    This resource is already in peril because birthrates have cratered to historic lows. China’s 15-to-64-year-old working-age population peaked in 2011 and is projected to drop 23 percent by 2050. This plunge will be exacerbated by the effects of the now discarded one-child policy, which led to the aborting of an estimated 37 million Chinese girls since it came into effect in 1980. By 2050, China is projected to have 60 million fewer people under fifteen years old than today: a loss approximately the size of Italy’s total population. China’s ratio of retirees to working people is also expected to have more than tripled by then. And importantly, by 2050, its proportion of older citizens will be roughly 20 percent higher than that of the U.S at that time. That represents one of the most rapid demographic shifts in history.

    These grim statistics have created an imbalance between the sexes that could pose an existential threat to President Xi’s “China dream,” and perhaps to the stability of the Communist state. We’ll examine Xi’s preemptive strategy in more detail in trend #5, this month.

    Notably, China is not the only Asian powerhouse facing a future of diminishing workforces, low fertility rates and declining marriage rates. Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore all face similar threats.

    Today’s demographic stagnation represents a throwback to earlier times. After the relatively strong population growth during Classical times, the Middle Ages was a period of global demographic stagnation, caused by famine, pestilence, widespread celibacy and poverty. Population growth soared with the rise of liberal capitalism in the Early Modern period, aided by changing attitudes toward motherhood, children, and families. Simon Schama describes the Netherlands, the fount of this transition, as a “Republic of Children” built around the nuclear family. The medieval obsessions with the Virgin Mother and the unrealistic cherubim typical of Renaissance painting were replaced with domestic images characterized by “uncompromising earthiness.”

    As Kotkin observes, “We now seem to be moving away from those values, and as in the Middle Ages, becoming less centered around the family. Serfs at least had religion and a sense of community; our societies have become increasingly lonely, with single men hit hardest. Meanwhile children around the world often live chained to social media, without two parents or any siblings, and increasingly isolated. Since 1960, the percentage of people in the United States living alone has grown from about 12 percent to 28 percent.” Even intimacy is on its way out, particularly among the young; the once swinging age groups are now suffering a “sex recession.” For more details, refer to the trend titled The Great Millennial Happiness Crisis.

    Furthermore, the percentage of American women who are now mothers is at its lowest point in over three decades. Intact families are rarer, and solitary living is more common. In the United States, the rate of single parenthood has grown from 10 percent in 1960 to over 40 percent today. This is very bad news for society in general and minorities in particular because intact families tend to have fewer problems relating to prison, school, or poverty. The numbers are irrefutable!

    And this social collapse is going global. In Britain, 8 percent of households in 1970 were headed by a single parent; now, the rate is over 25 percent. The percentage of children born outside marriage has doubled over the past three decades, to 40 percent. In the Scandinavian countries, around 40 percent of the population lives alone.

    As alluded to earlier, this breakdown in family structure has spread to Asia. Half of all Korean households have experienced some form of family crisis, mostly involving debt, job loss, or issues relating to child or elder care. Shin Kyung-Sook’s highly praised bestseller Please Look After Mom, which sold two million copies, focused on the “filial guilt” of children over failing to look after aging parents. The proportion of people living alone in China, once a virtually unimaginable situation, has risen to 15 percent.

    In Japan, the harbinger of modern Asian demographics, the number of people living alone is expected to reach 40 percent of the whole population by 2040. And Japan has a rising “misery index” of divorces, single motherhood, and spousal and child abuse - all of which is accelerating the country’s disastrous demographic decline and deepening its class divisions. More and more people are not only living alone but dying alone. It is estimated that four thousand people die alone in Japan every week.

    The disinclination to form families is often described as a “generational choice.” But attitudes of American Millennials about family life are not significantly different from prior generations, though there may be a greater emphasis on “gender equality.” For instance, among American childless women under age 44, only 6 percent are “voluntarily childless.” The vast majority of Millennials want to get married and have children!

    High housing prices crowded living conditions and related financial pressures certainly account for much of this gap. This phenomenon is particularly common in the urban centers that dominate the world’s economy and culture. Today, many large cities are becoming childless demographic graveyards. Between 2011 and 2019, the number of babies born annually in Manhattan dropped by nearly 15 percent, while the decrease across the entirety of New York City was 9 percent. That means the nation’s premier urban center could see its infant population shrink by half in the next thirty years. And notably, the share of nonfamily households grew three times as fast in gentrifying neighborhoods as in the city overall. In the future, writes Steve LeVine in Axios, shifting local priorities “could write kids out of urban life for good.”

    This phenomenon is even more pronounced in more crowded, expensive Asian cities. In Hong Kong, around 210,000 middle-class and working-class residents now live in tiny spaces, some described as hardly bigger than a coffin. Not surprisingly, twothirds of women in Hong Kong want either only one child or no children at all, mainly due to the price of housing and a harried lifestyle.

    Meanwhile, major Chinese cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, have among the lowest fertility rates in the world, which amount to only about one-third of the required replacement level. No wonder China is getting smaller.

    Around the world, conflicting values and ideals are at war in a world where feelings and facts compete for primacy. In such a world, the long-term commitments required to build successful families are often delayed or jettisoned entirely.

    Nearly half a century ago, Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell foresaw a rising “new class” with values profoundly divergent from the traditional bourgeois norms of self-control, industriousness, and personal responsibility, which together form the essence of “family values.” Instead, Bell anticipated a new type of individualism, unmoored from religion and family, dissolving the foundations of middle-class culture. And many in the Millennial generation seem to fit that description.

    Indeed, for some, particularly in Europe and North America, declining birth rates represent an ideal result, chosen by those who “give up having children to save the planet” by reducing the carbon impact of each additional human. Reducing family size fits with the widely promoted notion of de-growth which has strong support even from some of the oligarchs and financiers associated with the World Economic Forum. Their goal is no GDP growth, less consumption, smaller houses, and less class mobility; all of which are likely to reduce birthrates.

    Others, particularly among feminists and gender activists, also celebrate the decline of the family for more ideological reasons. The late feminist icon Betty Frieden once compared housewives to people marching voluntarily into “a concentration camp.” One recent New York Times article even linked women who choose to stay at home with the paper’s “white supremacy” obsession. And Black Lives Matter, true to its quasi-Marxist ideology, has made clear its antipathy to the nuclear family, an attitude shared by many in the mainstream media as well.

    On the contrary, the more conventional Marxists in China now see these “post-family” attitudes as a threat to their country’s future. China’s Communist leaders, while officially genuflecting to Maoist ideology, now promote the filial piety central to both traditional folk religion and Confucianism, though long reviled by the founders of the CCP. Once terrified by overpopulation, China’s leaders are now seeking ways to transform childbearing and family formation into “socialist values.”

    But it’s Japan which again epitomizes the shift in Asian attitudes. There, traditional values such as hard work, sacrifice, and loyalty are largely rejected by the new generation. These younger Japanese, writes one sociologist, are “pioneering a new sort of high quality, low energy, low growth existence.” Maybe they don’t need much energy since nearly a third of Japanese adults entering their thirties say they have never had sex. And that’s also not a very favorable predictor for family formation.

    What’s the bottom line?

    The human race has reached a critical inflection point at which we must decide whether we’ll live in a growing world where families continue to play a crucial role in our economy and our lives or we embrace the ideal of a shrinking civilization composed of isolated and autonomous individuals. Despite what some “new age” ideologues may claim, virtually all of the empirical evidence indicates that the family-friendly society is happier, healthier and more sustainable.

    For better or worse, each nation must choose which path to follow. And that decision will be crucial to its survival.

    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. NewGeography.com. September 8, 2021. Joel Kotkin. THE FADING FAMILY.

    2. Chapman.edu. 2021. Joel Kotkin, Anuradha Shroff, Ali Modarres, Wendell Cox & Zina Klapper.The Rise of Post-Familialism: Humanity’s Future?

    3. Brookings. December 17, 2020. Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip Levine. The coming COVID-19 baby bust: Update.

    4. The New Yorker. August 13, 2015. Jedediah Purdy. Environmentalism’s Racist History.

    5. Potomac Associates Books. 1972. Donella Meadows, et. al. The Limits to Growth.

    6. AEIdeas.com. June 2, 2016. JAMES PETHOKOUKIS. On economic growth and the decline in US births.

    7. World Economic Forum. 25 Jul 2016. Joe Myers. China’s working-age population will fall 23% by 2050.

    8. The Wall Street Journal. Jan. 17, 2020. Chao Deng. China’s Birth Rate Falls to New Low, Threatening Economy.

    9. RealClearWorld.com. November 9, 2017. John Dale Grover. Xi’s China Dreams Will Not Age Well.

    10.Deseret News. May 6, 2021. Bethany Mandel. The great American birth dearth has arrived.

    11.Institute for Family Studies. MARCH 24, 2021. Nicholas H. Wolfinger. Is the Sex Recession Turning into a Great Sex Depression?

    12.USAToday.com. June 17, 2021. Ian Rowe and Brad Wilcox. Sorry, Harvard, fathers still matter — including Black fathers.

    13.HANKYOREH. Mar.21,2017. Lee Chang-gon. Economic crises the biggest threat to South Korean families.