Summer 1988 // Volume 26 // Number 2 // Research in Brief // 2RIB3

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Will Declining Birth Rates Create a Crisis?


William H. Reid
Human Development Specialist
Georgia Cooperative Extension Service
University of Georgia-Athens

K. Davis, M. S. Berstam, and R. Ricado-Campbell, eds., Below Replacement Fertility in Industrial Societies: Causes, Consequences, and Policies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.

Demographics is the study of population. Malthus was one of the first to predict critical consequences for society as a result of overpopulation. A century later, modern demographers resumed the call for population control through Zero Population Growth (ZPG).

In most of the developed countries in the 1980s, ZPG has been achieved. Of 25 European countries for which data were available, only four haven't reached ZPG. The United States has reached this goal.

Now some demographers are painting a bleak picture of the future because we have reached ZPG. It's common to read in popular periodicals today of the dire consequences because of ZPG. For example, there are so many members of the baby boom generation, that their retirement will create chaos in our society. Today, five people work for every retired person. In 2030, that figure is projected to be halved. For every retired person, there will be only 2.5 persons in the labor force. The result? The Social Security system will become overwhelmed, the economy will stagnate, the generation gap will create major divisions in our society, and innovation will decrease. Some picture our world of the future as a population of old people living in old houses with old ideas.

Despite the headlines, demographers disagree over the impact of low fertility rates. A conference held at the Hoover Institute focused on these issues. The papers presented and discussed there were published in a supplement to Population and Development Review.

This report reveals the diversity of opinion about the problem and its impact on society. For example, take the decreasing birth rates. People are having fewer children today than in the past. (In fact, this decrease in family and household size is a trend that goes back over 900 years.) Today, many couples elect to have zero, one, or two children. Some argue that those who have few or no children may suffer in old age, with no younger family members to act as caregivers when they become older, dependent, and frail.

Yet others argue that people who have elected to have few or no children will put aside more money for their retirement. They won't need children to care for them. They'll be able to afford the services themselves.

Alarming predictions of the effects of overpopulation make headlines. Some demographers say we'll reach worldwide ZPG in about 100 years with a population of 11 billion people (we currently have 5 billion people). Although some predict severe consequences with 11 billion people, others say our planet can reasonably support them.

Demographics is one of the more accurate sciences in predicting the future. Yet even demographers disagree over the meaning of numbers. As Extension planners look into the future, we must rely on demographics to direct our efforts. We should expect some consistency among projections. We should also expect some disagreements about what those projections mean. Extension planners must join in interpreting the meaning of these numbers and plan initiatives to deal with impending social problems.