Viewpoint: Declining birth rates are an opportunity

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Karen Rubin, Columnist

Are demographics a curse or opportunity?

The global population, now at 7.9 billion, is headed to 11 billion – that is if climate change doesn’t make the planet uninhabitable – so slowing population might relieve some of that stress on resources and climate. The U.S. in the 2020 Census, at 331.4 million on April 1, 2020, posted the slowest rate of growth, 7.4 percent in the decade, since the 1930s.

Certainly, demographics pose a challenge. We are hearing about declining birth rates, not just in the US, but around the world, as improved health care, medical technology and lower infant mortality, and frankly, changing workforce no longer require a family to pop out 10 children.

Add to that the changing demographics of work, as women pursue professional careers requiring more education, certification and licensing, while American politics, at least, fails to ease their work and family challenges with affordable, accessible, quality child care; parental leave; and even access to health care that isn’t tied to an employer (there is still a need for true, universal health care).

And then there is simple depression over societal and political trends and finances and dread, rather than optimism, over the future that discourages couples from having more than one or two or any children.

“When I talk to people my age about having children, we don’t talk about whether or not we like kids, or whether or not we would be able to support them,” Astrid Braun of Cleveland, wrote in a Letter to the Editor of the New York Times. “We talk about the moral implications of putting more people on this earth to consume more resources. And we talk about not wanting our kids to live in the terribly uncertain future, one in which they could be facing a world of climate change disasters. We ourselves are already facing it, in many places.

So if the U.S. government decides it has a stake in my giving birth, it needs to start fixing the atmosphere. That, not gifts for newborns and pink seats on subways for pregnant women, as South Korea is doing, might convince me that I should.”

Considering the human impact on climate change, not to mention a growing “Lord of the Flies” savagery, it isn’t a bad thing if the population slows, even declines.

Indeed, unless you advocate for a global society of a privileged few rich while the vast majority are poor (top 1 percent of Americans own 43 percent of the wealth; the bottom 80 percent own just 7 percent; put another way, the richest 50 Americans have as much wealth as 150 million Americans), instead of everyone having a decent quality of life, there is simply not enough resources and climate change will exacerbate the disasters that make much of the world uninhabitable and living more miserable, while promoting pandemics and suffering.

With slowing birth rates, there is concern that there will not be enough working-age people to No. 1 do the jobs and No. 2 support retirees – an interesting dilemma since Social Security and Medicare were implemented when people were expected to live just five to 15 years in retirement; half the children born today are expected to live to 103 – that means 40 years passed retirement. How will that work, exactly? (a topic for another day).

The radical rightwing anti-democratic (Republican) extremists’ (using the pretense of “religious belief”) response is both to force women to have babies even if their pregnancy is the product of incest or rape, or the baby would have little chance of survival (and then prosecute her if she miscarries) and penalize mothers, forcing them to go work out of the home without access to affordable child care or health care or even a living wage (Socialism!). (On top of that, they decry recent rise in wages to address a shortage of workers as inflation!)

Democrats have a very different idea for encouraging women to propagate: they advocate policies that support families – oh wait, there is such a policy, as described in Biden’s American Families Plan! Biden also advocates climate initiatives that would address Astrid Braun’s concerns and help shape a more sustainable, liveable planet. Biden also advocates for universal health care – his executive order has already resulted in a 31 million Americans obtaining Obamacare, a public health necessity during the pandemic.

Biden’s American Families Plan goes far to correct those issues. The parental leave, expansion of access and affordability of child care and universal pre-K, and elder care and access to health care go far to erase many of those barriers. Women would also not be delaying childbirth so long into their careers if they could count on flexible work arrangements (the COVID-19 pandemic proved how effective these could be) and paid parental leave, plus child care.

On the other hand, it is time to reconsider the paradigm that “success” can only be measured by economic growth – annual increases in GDP – which is fueled by population growth and increasing consumption. Instead, what should be measured is the quality of life – living standard.

People can be quite happy and society successful with less. In fact, there is such a thing as a “World Happiness Index” (Finland is No. 1, Denmark is No. 2, Switzerland is No. 3, Iceland is No. 4, US comes in 19th) (https://countryeconomy.com/demography/world-happiness-index)

We can re-imagine society where fewer workers are needed – which is already happening with robotics, Artificial Intelligence and the like – and the cost to society is reduced of retirees living 40 years past their productivity.

For example, if the population is healthier, there is less cost to keep people alive (now, 80 percent of healthcare spending occurs in the last few years of life); if it costs less to have a decent, happy life, we can manage the imbalance between young and old, while preserving the planet.

In addition to the American Jobs Plan which is geared to building infrastructure for a sustainable 21st century and the American Families plan, we need to restructure the tax system and the social safety net. Universal health care would mean everyone pays into Medicare throughout their lives (we currently pay 1.45).

And, with medical technology capable of keeping people alive to 120, it is time to give people their Right to Die (people should have the choice whether to continue to live when they are incapacitated, suffering – not quite “The Giver,” where people are given a going away party and then euthanized when they are no longer productive to society).

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