Ed Driscoll

The Population Bomb Implodes

“By 1985 enough millions will have died to reduce the earth’s population to some acceptable level, like 1.5 billion people.”

— Paul Ehrlich, the author of 1968’s The Population Bomb, in a related follow-up article.

So, how’s that overpopulation crisis working out?

Demographers have long known that the baby boom of the 1950s was giving way to a baby bust nationwide. Now Illinois and the Chicago area are providing a vivid example of the trend: According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, from 2000 to 2010, Illinois had a 6.2 percent drop in children under 10, among the biggest declines in the country.

The impact is being felt in declining school enrollments and refashioned youth programs, officials say. In coming years, it will be felt in a workforce with fewer workers to replace retirees and help replenish pension coffers.

Changes in the youth population are especially pronounced in Chicago, which lost one-fifth of its young residents, particularly along parts of the lakefront, in Hispanic neighborhoods and in places where public housing high-rises once stood. But the trend is also under way in suburbs in Cook and DuPage counties…

…Over the last three decades, several forces have dramatically reshaped the population of children in Chicago.

— The Chicago Tribune this past Sunday. (Link goes to Deacon Greg Kandra of Patheos.com.)

According to statistics presented to a special hearing of the Board of Supervisors on Thursday, San Francisco has the lowest percentage of children of any major city in the country. Only 13.4 percent of the city’s approximately 800,000 residents are under the age of 18.

The number of kids in San Francisco has gradually declined since the 1960s, when they made up a full quarter of the population.

— The Huffington Post, “Families Flee San Francisco: City Has Lowest Percentage Of Kids Of Any Major U.S. City,” March 9th, 2012.

There’s something missing from many Seattle neighborhoods: the sound of children’s laughter.

Recent census data indicate Seattle is continuing a decades-long trend of having the lowest concentration of children among all the major U.S. cities, except San Francisco.

Less than 20 percent of all Seattle households included children younger than 18, compared with 34 percent nationally and 33 in Washington state.

Seattle also has one of the nation’s highest rates of married couples without children and one of the highest rates of people living alone.

The Seattle Times, December 16th, 2010.

Fortunately though, to compensate for the birth dearth, we’ll always have the Puppy Bowl. Or as Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe wrote last month:

As babies and children disappear from a society, what takes their place? One answer, as journalist Jonathan V. Last observes in a forthcoming book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, is pets.

In surveys taken from the 1940s to the 1980s, fewer than half of Americans said they owned a pet. Today America’s 300 million humans own 360 million pets. Last puts that in perspective: “American pets now outnumber American children by more than four to one.” Often those pets are pampered to a degree that quite recently would have been thought eccentric. The average dog-owning household’s spending on pet grooming aids, for example, more than doubled between 1998 and 2006. Last notes that when a kids’ clothing store in the suburban Washington neighborhood where he used to live went out of business, it was replaced by a doggie spa – leaving the neighborhood “with six luxury pet stores and only two shops dedicated to clothing children.”

A mania for pets isn’t all that materializes when the birth rate sinks. So do economic stagnation, dwindling innovation, a declining lifestyle, the exploding health and pension costs of an aging population, and the ever-heavier taxes needed to maintain the government safety net when there are fewer workers and entrepreneurs. Optimism, booming markets, and technological dynamism recede, supplanted by intergenerational conflict and loneliness.

Many people, it’s true, are still in the grip of the Malthusian fallacy. The superstition that that the Earth is already too full, and that more human beings will mean more hunger, misery, and environmental despoliation, is a popular one. But serious demographers, economists, and others have been warning for years that declining populations lead to shortages, misery, and upheaval.

“If you think that population decline is going to be a net boon to society,” Megan McArdle writes in the Daily Beast, “take a long hard look at Greece. That’s what a country looks like when it becomes inevitable that the future will be poorer than the past: social breakdown, political breakdown, economic catastrophe.”

Greece? Sounds very much like California today — a state that’s becoming increasingly less family-friendly, as Joel Kotkin noted late last week in the Orange County Register.