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Opinion: The coming population bust no one is talking about

Demographers say the number of people will likely begin to shrink during this century. When that starts, consequences follow.

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A man holds his grandson. The world’s population is expected to begin to decline this century.

America’s fertility rate has hit a new low, which has been the nation’s birthrate story of late. One issue policymakers and planners ponder is the impact that will have on programs that serve the elderly, such as Social Security.

Raul Rodriguez, Fotoluminate LLC—Adobe Stock

Latvia’s current population bust may not provide a perfect glimpse into how the United States eventually shrinks and declines. For one thing, that country’s unique history of Soviet occupation has made it so suspicious of the one thing that could save it — a more generous immigration policy — that it seems to be committing demographic suicide.

And yet, Latvia’s empty smaller towns, with, as The Wall Street Journal described it this week, sagging roofs over empty houses and a lack of restaurants where people can sit to eat, may indeed describe the United States one day for the children or grandchildren of today’s adults.

That may not be the topic at a lot of dinner parties right now, assuming people still hold such things. Bring up the subject of population and the average person probably still sees the problem as one of too many people. 

Demographers know better. The opposite is true.

Latvia has lost 17% of its population since 2004, the year it entered the European Union.

As the Journal put it, “Latvia is on the front line of what could become one of the defining challenges for the industrialized world: It is running out of people.”

Such a thing may be hard to imagine in the United States right now, and especially in Utah. Entrata, the property management software company, issued a report this week that showed rents rising by 45% on average in five major Utah counties. The main driver is a pressing demand by people moving in, which is outstripping supply. The line of people wanting to come here is so much longer than the number of existing houses and rental units that it seems never-ending. 

And yet, if you listen carefully, you can hear the distant roar of an approaching waterfall against the soothing sounds of today’s placid water.

The nation’s official birthrate this year is 1.64 children per woman, which was the lowest recorded rate since records began in the 1930s. While the pandemic might have been a factor, the downward trend of births has been ongoing for several years. 

The same trend is apparent in virtually every part of the world except Africa. A New York Times report on the trend last May said, “Demographers now predict that by the latter half of the century or possibly earlier, the global population will enter a sustained decline for the first time.” 

And, like a boat approaching a waterfall, the time may be coming when it is difficult to reverse course. 

“The change may take decades, but once it starts, decline (just like growth) spirals exponentially,” the Times said. “With fewer births, fewer girls grow up to have children, and if they have smaller families than their parents did — which is happening in dozens of countries — the drop starts to look like a rock thrown off a cliff.”

Initially, the population decline could cause nations to open their borders and actively compete for immigrants, using incentives. Latvia is trying to lure ex-patriots back with promises of jobs and housing. Families with children get all kinds of benefits, from discounts on transit to academic scholarships.

The United States, with its strong economy, high wages and tradition of innovation, would be poised to do well in such a competition. Americans may suffer from a perpetually cranky attitude toward immigration, but a strong economy with relatively high wages continues to make the United States a people-magnet.

But eventually, countries may close their borders to stop the drain. 

Some people say all of this is good news. Norwegian academic Jorgan Randers predicts people will have more money to care for the elderly, rather than for children, and the environment will benefit because people use fewer resources. 

And yet that hasn’t been the case in countries that already are in decline, such as Latvia, Japan, South Korea and others. “There is little sign of wage growth in shrinking countries, and there is no guarantee that a smaller population means less stress on the environment,” the Times said.

In the United States, a steady decline in population may not come until the 22nd century. When it does, the financial pressures on elderly entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare will be enormous, given the lack of younger workers. The national debt, growing by leaps and bounds today, may be impossible to rein in or pay down. With tax receipts dwindling, military funding may suffer, weakening the U.S. position in the world. Universities may shrink and supplies chains may break. Capitalism’s reliance on ever-expanding markets may collapse.

Answers to the coming crisis aren’t clear. Among other things, they involve changing behaviors and attitudes toward marriage and children. 

But the time has come to start talking about it in more places than Latvia.

Jay Evensen is the Deseret News’ senior editorial columnist.