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Rethinking Low Fertility

In 2022, Elon Musk made statements that shocked the Twitterverse that led to headlines like “Elon Musk thinks the population will collapse. Demographers say it’s not happening” and “Elon Musk says ‘population collapse’ is more dangerous than global warming. Experts say that won’t happen.” 

Elon Musk warns about population collapse | Image Source: X
Elon Musk warns about population collapse | Image Source: X

By now, Musk has taken these claims off X, formerly known as Twitter, yet sharing similar rhetoric at a conference where he made the unsubstantiated claim that the environment could support an entire doubling of our population.

Despite immediate corrections and criticisms from professionals in the field, Musk hasn’t shown any signs of a change of heart, begging the question, why would the richest man in the United States be so concerned about low fertility rates?

Musk’s Claims

Experts immediately critiqued Musk’s claim by refuting that population collapse would occur globally, adding that one country’s decline in fertility rates could not nearly constitute a “population collapse.” 

As for why Americans today are not having as many kids, Musk reasons that environmental pessimism drives the shift away from having children, a reason he himself writes off as “nonsense.” The billionaire further claims that the excuse “kids are too expensive” doesn’t hold up either, as the wealthy and highly educated tend to have fewer kids, perhaps due to increased selfishness that manifests in ways such as not wanting to have a large family to be able to go to Coachella.

From a purely economic perspective, “failure to increase the U.S. population is among the biggest economic risks for the years and decades ahead.” Economists make such bold, alerting claims since, plainly,  the United States economic system is not stable enough to support such a natural demographic shift. An economic system that relies on consistent population growth has no larger enemy than a stagnant or declining population—but is this a problem with our population size or a problem with our economic systems?

Why Americans are Having Fewer Kids

The reasons behind the declining birth rates in the United States are multifaceted and vary from case to case. Factors such as expensive housing, mounting student loan debt, reliance on the gig economy, environmental concerns, and high childcare costs frequently emerge as justifications for the decision to have fewer children. 

While these issues do not have straightforward solutions, they all point toward a common legislative direction. Addressing the declining birth rates in the United States is a complex challenge. While economic strain, student loan debt, and environmental concerns significantly influence people’s family planning decisions, simplistic remedies like stimulus checks, student loan forgiveness, and pro-environment policies may not comprehensively tackle the underlying intricacies and ultimately will never be enough. Instead, a more holistic strategy is required, encompassing sustainable economic policies, affordable education, responsible environmental practices, and support for work-life balance. This multifaceted approach is essential to address the issue at hand effectively.

Yet, those in power most concerned about low fertility rates oppose these policies. A look into contemporary American politics tells the same story in different fonts time and time again. “Progressives are hoping to pass a transformational expansion of the social safety net that would make it easier for many Americans to have kids. But Republicans appear dead set against Democratic proposals for paid family leave and universal childcare.”

Despite prominent figures on the right pushing their self-titled “pro-family” legislation, their concerns seem to focus on a pro-life, anti-abortion agenda and are focused on short-term stimulus solutions. Most notable is the Romney Family Security Act 2.0, which aims to pay families a monthly rate per child in the household. A plan almost guaranteed to exclude some low-income and minority families that prioritizes disincentivizing abortion rather than improving the system in which children are raised.

Should We Fear Low Fertility?

Population size fears aren’t new; historically, fears of overpopulation have dominated headlines, with no one other than Richard Nixon leading the charge against the dangers that overpopulation could pose. Mass anxieties about overpopulation have been faced head-on in modern times as increased carbon emissions and stress on natural resources have continued to plague the planet.

Fears stem from the idea that a declining fertility rate implies “persistent labor shortages, slumping growth, and struggles to fund Social Security and other retirement programs.” This is based on the dependency ratio, which assesses the proportion of non-working individuals, i.e., the young and elderly, relative to the working-age population. A high dependency ratio suggests a potential strain on the working population to support those who aren’t economically active. 

While the dependency ratio is a key concept in how our economic system functions, having an entire system balanced on it simply isn’t sustainable. Looking at the issue of social security alone is enough to suggest it is time for something new, as the current working-age population is not likely to see a dime of social security by the time of retirement. If the solution to this is to have more children and not fix what’s clearly broken, it is putting child welfare at risk for the benefit of outdated systems.

According to Prof. Alice Reid, director of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, “both lower fertility and smaller populations should be celebrated rather than feared,” adding that “lower birth rates are often tied to increased education of women, greater gender equality, and higher living standards.”

This begs the question of why the economic system is almost incentivized to promote regressive policies that work to keep women from having children they don’t want and/or don’t have the resources for. Rather, wouldn’t it be optimal for the population to have lower birth rates and reap the benefits of higher living standards and potentially massive shifts in the country’s economic culture that promote welfare over capital? 

2022 was “the first time in history, the average woman in each of the world’s 15 largest economies [had] fewer children than are needed to sustain the population over the long term.” While this statistic can sound unnerving, it can be a call to action for a better system and stronger institutions.

New System, Not New Children

Encouraging those who can’t afford to have children to procreate for economic gain—especially when hundreds of thousands of children are stuck in foster care across the country, American public schools are severely struggling, and family assistance programs are insufficient—is at best tone deaf and at worst a blatant exploitation of the American people’s bodies for the one percent’s economic prosperity.

The United States is a global leader, ranking first in the world in GDP and technology power. As a developed nation, the United States no longer needs to treat children solely as a means of population salvation. Children are future adults who need proper resources for over eighteen years to contribute positively to American society and the economy later. Despite having one of the most powerful economies in the world, America doesn’t even crack the top ten countries for childcare and “ranks 31st out of 36 OECD countries for child well-being.” 

Those in power must dedicate their time and resources to creating a system that can hold up in the long term and isn’t at risk of collapse if the fertility rate isn’t constantly increasing.

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