U.S. Population Growth Has Nearly Flatlined. Is That So Bad?

Well worth reading, a useful and needed counterpoint to all the fretting about demographic decline and an aging population. Canadian policy makers and others need to think more about how to manage an aging population that mainly advocating for increased immigration to slow the trend:

A Demographic Crisis.” “A Blinking Light Ahead.” “The Death of Hope.” Those are some of the dire headlines that have been written in recent years about the sluggish pace of U.S. population growth, which in 2021 fell to its lowest rate ever — just 0.1 percent.

While the pandemic played a major role in driving last year’s decline, the country’s population growth has been slowing for much of the last decade, depressed by declining fertility rates, a surge in “deaths of despair” and lower levels of legal immigration.

But is a population slowdown as much of a crisis as some have made it out to be, or could it actually bring welcome changes? Here’s a look at a longstanding demographic debate.

For a population to replenish itself in the absence of immigration, demographers estimate that there must be, on average, about 2.1 births per woman. In the United States, the fertility rate has been consistently below that level since 2007. And it’s not alone: While some countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, are still growing rapidly, the global average fertility rate has been falling for decades, and even China’s population, the world’s largest, may very soon reach its peak.

As a result, the United Nations now predicts that the human population will start declining by the end of the century. (Other demographers have projected an even earlier peak.) Some countries — notably Japan and South Korea, whose fertility rates are among the lowest in the world — are already shrinking.

Why are fertility rates falling? The trend is typically attributed to a combination of economic prosperity, which leads to lower infant mortality, and greater gender equality. “As women have gained more access to education and contraception, and as the anxieties associated with having children continue to intensify, more parents are delaying pregnancy and fewer babies are being born,” Damien Cave, Emma Bubola and Choe Sang-Hun reported for The Times last year. Because many of those babies then go on to have smaller families than their parents did, they added, “the drop starts to look like a rock thrown off a cliff.”

It’s a stark reversal of the demographic trends of the 1900s, during which the coincidence of high fertility rates and lengthening life spans caused the global population to nearly quadruple in size, from 1.6 billion to six billion. And for much of the 20th century, it was the specter of overpopulation, not stagnation or decline, that animated dystopian visions of the future.

Which raises a question: How much stock should we really be placing in population forecasts? As David Adam explained in Nature last year, medium-term projections are usually quite accurate, as most people who will be alive in 20 to 30 years have already been born.

But over the longer term, projections diverge and become less reliable, in part because technological and environmental shocks that could cause demographic swings are impossible to predict, as Vox’s Kelsey Piper has written: “If, for example, climate change drives currently developed countries back into poverty and drives their birthrates back up, the estimates are poorly equipped to account for that. On the other hand, if more reliable contraceptives are developed and virtually end unintended pregnancies the world over, birthrates could fall much faster than predicted.”

For many futurists, the primary challenge posed by declining population growth is economic: When people live longer and have fewer babies, the population ages, leaving fewer working-age adults to support a country’s swelling number of retirees.

“Older people are more prone to illness, and many rely on publicly funded pensions and eventually require caregiving,” Stephanie H. Murray wrote in The Atlantic in February. “Many countries, including the U.S., are already struggling to meet the needs of the rapidly growing elderly population.”

This can create a kind of national languishing, as the Times columnist Ross Douthat argued last year: “If you assume that dynamism and growth are desirable things (not everyone does, but that’s a separate debate), then for the developed world to be something more than just a rich museum, at some point it needs to stop growing ever-older, with a dwindling younger generation struggling in the shadow of societal old age.”

Aging may take a particularly heavy toll on middle-income countries. Historically, as industrialized countries have become richer, their labor force grew more rapidly than their nonworking population, providing a “demographic dividend.” But in some developing countries, including Brazil and China, fertility rates have fallen to around or below replacement level much more quickly than they did for their higher-income counterparts, and their populations now face the risk of getting old before getting rich.

A population slowdown can be a symptom of other national problems. For example, as Derek Thompson has noted in The Atlantic, while declining fertility is often a sign of female empowerment, it can also be a sign of its opposite, as suggested by the growing gap between how many children Americans say they want and how many they have. “There are many potential explanations for this gap,” Thompson wrote, “but one is that the U.S. has made caring for multiple children too expensive and cumbersome for even wealthy parents, due to a shortage of housing, the rising cost of child care, and the paucity of long-term federal support for children.”

To see how population stagnation or even decline need not spell disaster, you can look at countries where it’s already occurring, as Daniel Moss, a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies, did last year. Take Japan: “Despite the caricature of the country as an economic failure in the grip of terminal decline, life goes on,” he wrote. “True, growth in overall G.D.P. has been fairly anemic in past few decades, but G.D.P. per capita has held up well.” What’s more, he added, Japan’s unemployment rate is very low and has remained so throughout the pandemic (it was 2.6 percent in July).

Japan’s example lends some credence to the view of Kim Stanley Robinson, a widely acclaimed science-fiction writer, who believes that an aging population with a smaller work force could actually lead to economic prosperity. “It sounds like full employment to me,” he argued in The Washington Post last year. “The precarity and immiseration of the unemployed would disappear as everyone had access to work that gave them an income and dignity and meaning.”

The challenges of an aging population could push countries to pursue policies that improve quality of life:

  • One 2019 analysis estimated that if the European Union eliminated inequities in educational attainment and in women’s and immigrants’ labor force participation, it could cancel out more than half of the labor force decline it might otherwise experience by 2060.
  • Another way governments have responded to labor shortages caused by population aging is by investing more in the automation of work, an M.I.T. study found last year. As The Times’s John Yoon reported last month, “The prospect of a shrinking work force has put South Korea at the forefront of developing robots and artificial intelligence for the workplace.”
  • In the view of the Times columnist Paul Krugman, the biggest economic problem of an aging population isn’t increased strain on the social safety net, but rather weak investment from businesses anticipating reduced consumer demand. If that scenario comes to pass, though, “why not put the money to work for the public good?” he wrote last year. “Why not borrow cheaply and use the funds to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, invest in the health and education of our children, and more? This would be good for our society, good for the future, and would also provide a cushion against future recessions.”

Fertility rate declines may also be making climate change easier to combat, albeit not in the way many think: As Sarah Kaplan of The Washington Post has explained, fossil fuel consumption is driven primarily by increases in affluence, not the number of people on the planet per se. So while population growth in poor countries hasn’t led to large increases in planet-warming emissions, a sudden baby boom in high-income countries like the United States almost certainly would.

For some demographers, the prospect of population stagnation or decline isn’t any more a cause for alarm than population growth was; it’s simply a change that governments will need to manage. “Rather than panicking or trying to forestall this for ourselves,” Leslie Root, a demographer and a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Colorado, Boulder, wrote in The Washington Post last year, “we should be thinking about what that transition will mean globally — both for rich countries and for poor ones that will be far more burdened by aging populations than we will.”

Source: U.S. Population Growth Has Nearly Flatlined. Is That So Bad?

Immigration Can Offset US Population Decline | Cato at Liberty Blog

Cato Institute’s reply to the CIS post highlighting the limits of immigration in addressing an aging population ( Immigration and the Aging Society ). Not convinced. And like all immigration debates, the question is one of balance and understanding the limits of immigration in addressing ongoing policy and demographic issues:

The U.S. population is growing slowly and the average age of Americans is increasing as a result. Although the United States is not as old as other countries and likely to age better, the future looks demographically grim. Some social scientists and commentators think that boosting immigration can help delay or reverse those trends. Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, makes a series of silly argumentsagainst the notion that immigration can slow the aging of the U.S. population. Camarota’s points below are in quotes and my responses follow.

In reality, a significant body of research shows that the impact of immigration on population aging is small. While immigration can certainly make our population larger, it does not make us dramatically younger.

Camarota might be correct that the current and historically low rate of immigration to the United States doesn’t much lower the average age of the population, but that does not mean that immigration could not lower the average age if it were expanded. He merely shows that current U.S. immigration policy, which is very restrictive and much closer to his ideal level than mine, cannot much affect the average age. We shouldn’t expect a restrictive immigration system that allows in, at least prior to the immigration restrictions adopted by President Trump and partly maintained by President Biden (so far), a number of immigrants roughly equal to 0.3 percent of the population annually to have a big effect on the average age of the population. In 2018, 32 OECD countries had higher immigration flows as a percent of their populations and only five had lower flows, relative to the United States. Camarota’s point does not rebut the argument that expanded immigration would lower the average age and expand U.S. population.

But demographers have known for a long time that, absent truly gargantuan and ever‐​increasing rates of immigration, it isn’t actually possible for immigrants to undo or dramatically slow the overall aging of society. As Oxford demographer David Coleman observes, ‘it is already well known that [immigration] can only prevent population ageing at unprecedented, unsustainable and increasing levels of inflow.’

Do demographers know that? I looked up the source of the quote by David Coleman, former British MP and member of the Galton Institute. Camarota clipped a portion of a longer quote that makes a slightly different point. Coleman’s full quote is: “Although immigration can prevent population decline, it is already well known that it can only prevent population ageing at unprecedented, unsustainable and increasing levels of inflow, which would generate rapid population growth and eventually displace the original population from its majority position [Camarota’s quote italicized].”

Coleman agrees that immigration can prevent population decline. He identifies two problems with more immigration: It would “generate rapid population growth and eventually displace the original population from its majority position.” Rapid population growth is one of the many goals of those of us who favor liberalized immigration, so I have no argument with Coleman there. We simply disagree as I believe that population growth is positive and he thinks it’s negative. When it comes to “displace the original population from its majority position,” Coleman means that immigrants and their descendants would eventually become the majority of the population in the United Kingdom at a high level of immigration.

There’s no good reason for Camarota to find that shocking as it has happened at least once in U.S. history. As sociologist Charles Hirschman pointed out, the population of the United States today would only be about 100 million if immigration had stopped in 1800. Since the current population is about 330 million, that means most Americans are immigrants or the descendants of post‐​1800 immigrants. That doesn’t mean that boosted immigration would be “unprecedented” or “unsustainable.” It sounds like a return to immigration normality for Americans.

There are four broad reasons why the demography doesn’t support the political credo. First, not all immigrants arrive young — in fact, a growing share are arriving at or near retirement age. Second, immigrants age just like everyone else, adding to the elderly population over time. Third, immigrant fertility rates tend to converge with those of the native born. Fourth, to the extent that immigrants do have higher fertility rates than the native born, their children add to the dependent population — those too young or old to work.

Camarota’s first point is a curious criticism of the current restrictive immigration system. If this is his concern, why not just increase legal immigration opportunities for younger immigrants? Camarota’s second point somewhat answers that criticism – because “immigrants age just like everyone else, adding to the elderly population over time.” After all, newborn babies age too and will one day retire, which is a particularly poor argument against having children or increasing immigration.

Camarota’s third point is that immigrants assimilate. While a surprising admission from Camarota given his research, immigrants and their children still increase the population, and it takes time for immigrant fertility to approach that of natives – which he admits in his next point. Camarota’s fourth point is that immigrants have higher fertility rates that produce children who are also dependents.

To sum up, Camarota thinks that our current immigration system doesn’t help reduce the ratio of dependents to workers, immigrants age like everybody else, immigrant fertility shrinks too rapidly, and immigrant fertility doesn’t shrink fast enough.

The Census Bureau also estimates that, in 2060, 59% of the population will be of working age. Again, this is based on the assumption that net migration will amount to an average of 1.1 million each year. Under a zero‐​immigration scenario, just under 57% of the population would be of working age. In other words, while immigration is projected to add 75 million people to the American population by 2060, it will only increase the working‐​age share of the population by about two percentage points. Even if annual net immigration were expanded by 50% above what the Census Bureau projects, so that it averaged about 1.65 million a year, it would still only increase the working‐​age share of the population by three percentage points.

In other words, Camarota writes that the U.S. can increase immigration by 50 percent and have a working‐​age share of the population in 2060 similar to what it would otherwise be in 2027 or, on the extreme other side, 2060 America will look like Japan will in 2032. The percentage point spread is small, but the social, economic, and fiscal impacts are larger than they appear. Japan’s looming population collapse is terrifying and a few percentage points difference caused by expanded legal immigration can delay it for decades or longer. Even better, expanding legal immigration is a lot cheaper than birth subsidies.

You can read the rest of Camarota’s piece as it merely expands upon his points, offers some politically correct suggestions for reforming entitlement programs, and adds more figures. Nowhere does Camarota contest the obvious counterargument that immigration’s currently small effects on America’s age distribution result from very restrictive immigration policies.

The U.S. fiscal imbalance is a serious problem created by a poorly designed entitlement system. Declining U.S. fertility exacerbated the problem of the fiscal imbalance in a way that a well‐​designed system would not face. In addition to that, a growing population is correlated with increasing prosperity over the long term. More people mean more ideas, workers, consumers, investors, as well as potential friends, neighbors, and family members.

The worldwide and American increase in economic output from expanded legal immigration would be large and much of it could be captured to resolve the fiscal imbalance – at least for a few more generations. According to some estimates, massively expanded immigration would place the United States in an unassailable economic position. Allowing Americans and immigrants to interact as they see fit would also be a more ethical policy. In short, there are many reasons to support expanding legal immigration, and reversing expected US population decline is one of them, despite what Neo‐​Malthusians say.

Source: Immigration Can Offset US Population Decline | Cato at Liberty Blog

Statistics Canada: The contribution of immigration to the size and ethnocultural diversity of future cohorts of seniors

Projected_distribution_of_various_cohorts_at_age_65__by_place_of_birthNot surprising but interesting:

The aging of Canada’s population is currently related to the baby-boom cohort reaching their senior years. Subsequent cohorts will continue to sustain high populations of seniors because of declining mortality rates and higher immigration levels.

According to population projections, future cohorts of older Canadians could also be more ethnoculturally diverse, as a larger portion of them could be born outside of Canada.

Source: The Daily — Study: The contribution of immigration to the size and ethnocultural diversity of future cohorts of seniors