Ross Douthat recently caused a stir with this piece in the New York Times in which he bemoaned the recent decline in the American birthrate. While the immediate cause of this fall could, as Douthat recognizes, be a function of today’s hard times, he worries that it may persist and that the economic consequences for America will not be pretty:
Today’s babies are tomorrow’s taxpayers and workers and entrepreneurs, and relatively youthful populations speed economic growth and keep spending commitments affordable.
That might have been true in the past. But now? We live in an age in which production relies ever more on technology and ever less on a large workforce. And when it does still need the latter those factories have a nasty habit of migrating abroad.
The traditional idea that (per capita) economic growth relied on population growth has been looking a little tired for quite some time, and the increase in the numbers of the elderly depending on social security does not alter that fact: the unemployed are not going to be able to pay for the pensions of the retired.
What counts is not the size of a population, but its productivity. That’s not yet something that the baby boosters are prepared to acknowledge, but why should they? Many of them are bothered by something else altogether, as is evident from this passage towards the end of Douthat’s article:
The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.
Well, you can agree with that or not (let’s just say that I am unconvinced), but one thing is clear, this is not an argument that has much to do with economics.