Demography as Destiny: The Vital American Family


Recent reports of America’s sagging birthrate ‑ the lowest since the 1920s, by some measures ‑ have sparked a much-needed debate about the future of the American family. Unfortunately, this discussion, like so much else in our society, is devolving into yet another political squabble between conservatives and progressives.

Conservatives, including the Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Last, regularly cite declining birth and marriage rates as one result of expanding government ‑ and a threat to the right’s political survival. Progressives, meanwhile, have labeled attempts to commend a committed couple with children as inherently prejudicial and needlessly judgmental.

Yet family size is far more than just another political wedge issue. It is an existential one – essentially determining whether a society wants to replace itself or fall into oblivion, as my colleagues and I recently demonstrated in a report done in conjunction with Singapore’s Civil Service College. No nation has thrived when its birthrate falls below replacement level and stays there – the very level the United States are at now. Examples from history extend from the late Roman Empire to Venice and the Netherlands in the last millennium.

Falling birthrates and declining family formation clearly effect national economies. One major United States’  advantage has long been high birthrates, akin to a developing nation’s, as well as a vibrant family-oriented culture. This was largely because of immigrants and their children, striving first- and second-generation Americans. The United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is expected to have a roughly 40 percent growth in its workforce in the first half of this century, largely thanks to immigration.

In contrast, the Census Bureau predicts that leading U.S. competitors, notably Japan, Europe and South Korea, will likely suffer a decline of 25 percent or more over that time. Even China, whose birthrate has dropped precipitously under its one-child policy and rapid urbanization, is expected to see a sharp drop in its labor force over the next decade.

Perhaps the greatest threat from collapsing fertility is the aging of society. Consider “the dependency ratio,” which measures the number of people in the workforce compared to retirees, in effect, how many working people are needed to support those over age 65. In 1960, before the decline in birthrates, that ratio was 9 percent in the 23 most developed countries. Today, it is 16 percent across these advanced countries. By 2030 it could reach as high as 25 percent.

Countries with the longest history of declines in fertility face the biggest fiscal crises. By 2050, for example, Germany and Singapore  are predicted to have roughly 57 people above age 65 for every 100 workers. In the United States, this ratio will rise by 50 percent, to roughly 35 per 100 workers, even if the current decline is eventually reversed.

If birthrates continue to decline, Western nations may devolve into impoverished and enervated nursing homes. And without strong families, children are likely to be more troubled and less productive as adults.

You don’t need a crystal ball to see what this future could look like. Consider Japan. By 2050, there are expected to be three people above age 65 for every person in Japan under 15. In fact, more people are expected to be over 80 than under 15.

This demographic shift signals a kind of death sentence for that once thriving, but now declining, nation. Not only are Japanese couples having far fewer children, sociologist Mike Toyota notes, roughly one-third of Japanese women in their 30s are not getting married ‑ which, in that conservative society, essentially means they are unlikely to have children. Even teenagers, according to a recent government-commissioned study by the Family Planning Association, seem oddly indifferent to dating and sex.

Given the stakes, Americans must forgo political squabbles and focus on practical ways to remove barriers to marriage and child-rearing. One crucial component for strong birthrates is steady economic growth. Before the 2008 economic collapse, the U.S. fertility rate  was 2.12, the highest in 40 years. But the tumultuous economic problems since then have helped drive the fertility rate to 1.9 per woman, the lowest since the economic malaise era under President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.

Even amid increasing awareness of the country’s demographic problems, however, political extremes focus on their own ideological spin. Conservatives set their arguments in neo-traditionalist terms, embracing right-wing tropes against gay marriage and abortion while blaming expansive government and rampant individualism. Others on the extreme right link declining fertility rates, particularly among Caucasians, to what Pat Buchanan calls “the end of white America.”

Yet conservatives must recognize that fertility is not just a white or high-income Asian issue. Fertility and even marriage rates are, for example, declining throughout much of the Muslim Middle East, in some cases below our own levels, as my colleague Ali Modarres has shown.

Nor is “white America” likely to be demographically overwhelmed by the current dramatic influx of Latino immigrants, particularly Mexicans, as many on the far right insist. Within a generation, Mexican-Americans immigrants’ fertility rates decline to that of native-born U.S. citizens. In fact, as Mexico modernizes, its fertility rates are falling to U.S. levels.

Conservatives also seem to have a hard time admitting that one major culprit ‑ particularly in the United States and East Asian countries such as Singapore ‑ is modern capitalism. Young workers building their careers can face consuming demands for long work hours and substantial amounts of travel. Many confront a choice between a career and family.

“In Singapore,” Austrian demographer Wolfgang Lutz observes, “women work an average of 53 hours a week. Of course they are not going to have children. They don’t have time.”

For hard-pressed low-wage workers, raising children can be even harder. Indeed, much of the decline in child-rearing in the U.S. can be traced to a fall-off among immigrants, particularly Latinos, who fared particularly poorly in the long recession.

On the other side, many Democrats praise the rise of “singlism” ‑ demonstrated by  the women in their 40s who never had offspring. This cohort has more than doubled since 1976. Pollsters like Stan Greenberg hail single women as “the largest progressive voting bloc in the country,” and Ruy Texeira, a leading political scientist, asserts that singletons are critical to the “emerging Democratic majority.”

Progressives also embrace urban density ‑ a residential pattern that discourages child-rearing. Unlike the wave of immigrants or rural migrants who flooded the American metropolises of the early 20th century, urbanites today are not raising large families in cramped spaces. Instead, in virtually all high-income societies, high density today almost always translates into low marriage rates and fertility rates.

The causes of this radical change are diverse. But crucial reasons include decline of extended family support networks; erosion of traditional, often religiously based values; and a culture that celebrates individualism.

We no longer see family-centered urban neighborhoods like those depicted in the Chicago of Saul Bellow’s novel The Adventures of Augie March. Instead, many urban centers today are among the most “child free” ‑ whether in Manhattan, San Francisco, inner London or Paris, Singapore, Hong Kong or Tokyo.

In contrast, America’s nurseries are in the suburbs, exurbs and lower-density greater-metropolitan areas. The metropolitan regions of Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Salt Lake City have above-average numbers of children. The percentage of children, according to the census, under age 15 in these cities is almost twice that of Manhattan or San Francisco.

Many progressives don’t seem to care much if the birthrate falls. Some green activists seem to actually prefer it –  perhaps viewing offspring, particularly in wealthy countries, as unwanted carbon emitters. They seem to have taken up the century-old Malthusian concerns about overpopulation and environmental ruin. “A whole lot of people don’t have kids BECAUSE they’re worried about the future,” explains one critic of our report, suggesting that concern for the environment may justify the decision not to have children.

Before signing on to a low-fertility agenda, American progressives as well as conservatives might want to consider the long-term consequences. The long fertility-rate declines in Europe and Japan occurred as economic growth flagged. Diminishing expectations of the future, painfully evident in countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, are now further depressing marriage and childbirth.

As to the culture wars between religious social conservatives and progressives, let’s declare a truce. Spiritual values and traditional families are precious resources to be nurtured. Mormons, evangelicals, practicing Catholics and highly self-identified Jews, all of whom largely favor big families, help make up for the almost certain continued expansion of single, and often childless, people.

Social conservatives also need to champion more than the narrowly defined “natural family.” Many children, whether because of divorce or diverse family circumstances, must look to someone other than their birth parents for nurturing. Adoptive parents, grandmothers, uncles or aunts or other sorts of extended-family units also need to be cherished as committed caregivers.

Popular TV shows like Modern Family show the wide range of family types today. The crucial element is that family obligation often extends well beyond “likes” and ties exist over generations. This can be true for gay couples or “blended families” in a way that can rarely be said of people who are dating, or friends, both of the real and Facebook variety.

Fortunately, the long-term prognosis is not all bad. Pew Research Center reports that the emerging millennial generation rank being good parents, owning a home and having a good marriage as their top three priorities. Generational chroniclers Morley Winograd and Mike Hais, in their book Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America, suggest that the younger generation is as family-oriented as their elders, albeit with a greater emphasis on shared responsibilities and more flexible gender roles.

“No matter how many communes people invent,” the anthropologist Margaret Mead once remarked, “the family always creeps back.” Let’s hope she’s right, not only about the past but the future as well.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and contributing editor to the City Journal in New York. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.

This piece originally appeared at Reuters.

Baby photo by Bigstock.

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Fertility rates


Thanks for the interesting and thoughful article.

I'm not convinced, though, by the idea that lower birthrates are caused by capitalism. I think women have realised they don't now need to have lots of babies in order to have someone to look after them in old age. So they are choosing to have fewer babies.

Fertility rates themselves are declining in virtually every country in the world, irrespective of political system. Even in the Phillippines, where most forms of contraception have been banned till recently, rates have come down from 7.42 in 1950 to 3.05 today.

What I think confuses the issue is the phrase 'population explosion', which leads to an assumption that most people outside the US are still having lots of babies. But in fact its a 'health explosion, where we now have a generation of people over 55 years of age for the first time in hisotry.

In case its of interest, my latest book 'Boom, Gloom and the New Normal' discusses the topic in more detail (

Brooklyn & Japan


As usual, I think you bring some penetrating insights to this discourse. I have a couple of comments.

First, as regards Japan, it's interesting to note that Japanese companies follow *arguably* pro-family or pro-procreation policies by applying heavy pressure to women to quit work after marriage. This results from the perception in that conservative country that women's primary job should be motherhood. However, this policy is one of the primary factors in Japanese women's loss of interest in marriage, as Japanese women who are interested in self-determination eschew marriage entirely to keep their careers going. In the US, many women are forced to choose between career and family in the sense that they must choose which to prioritize, but at least they are not literally forced to give up one or the other, and they still preserve the option to have children later, as many wind up doing when the clicking of the biological clock becomes too loud to bear.

As for the purported lack of family-centered urban neighborhoods, I suggest you make an occasional trip to Brooklyn to puncture this bubble. Neighborhoods like Park Slope and the rest of Brownstone Brooklyn are booming precisely because of the spectacular growth of families. One of the great sources of controversy in this area is the friction between childless people in their 20s and older people with families about whether children should be allowed in bars. Putting aside whether you think children should accompany their parents to bars, the debate here is not about morality but about screaming kids, and the fact that there is a debate at all is evidence of the overwhelming number of children in the neighborhood. New schools are being built to accommodate the increase in demand, and according to my realtor friends, much of the new development in the area consists of 3 and 4 bedroom apartments, aimed at families who want to stay in Brooklyn as their families grow. I know that this is anecdotal evidence and can't really rebut demographic evidence, but the demographic evidence obscures as much as it illuminates.


we need more immigration

I think Joel hits this family creation issue just about right...if we get our attitudes right about immigration, we may have a chance, otherwise we don't.

Demography as Destiny

Richard Lewis

There have been nearly 56,000,000 abortions in the United States since Roe v. Wade. Yet in an article bemoaning low birthrate and risks of declining population, you choose to berate conservatives for “embracing right-wing tropes against … abortion ….”


In seeking to decry the supposed extremes of both left and right in equal measure, Mr. Kotkin, you have strained the gnat and swallowed the camel.

Additional Observations and Questions

Interesting article. Here are some observations and questions.

Instead of saying "Conservatives also seem to have a hard time admitting that one major culprit ‑ particularly in the United States and East Asian countries such as Singapore ‑ is modern capitalism," I would say "Career opportunities for women have greatly increased over the last 50 years and they are now in a position of making the choice between balancing career and family."

I am curious as to how the family structure has broken down so much. It seems like a majority of baby boomers I know are divorced. As a Gen X member, the percentage is lower; however, the time period required for a marriage to fall apart isn't as long. Most Millennials are still in the early stages of family creation so the jury is still out. Conversely, people from "The Greatest Generation" were mostly never divorced.

What has caused such an increase in the divorce rate and absentee parenthood? Is this more common that it was in the 1800s? or the 1920s? Or whatever time period one would want to pick. When did it become more common?

My question is from a public policy perspective. What can be done to encourage strong families? Is it possible? Or is it something like trying to legislate morality? Good luck at that.

Another thing that can make things difficult is the mobility of people. Most young people move when they go to college and may move additional times once they start their careers. Even with the changes that have been brought about by social media, it seems like it can be more difficult to build up the friendship and trust that is required for a marriage.

Good work on the article Joel.

My two cents on divorce

Baseball Warrior,

I think the reason that the "Greatest" generation had low divorce rates was that divorce was still taboo; it was not that marriages were necessarily any better at that time. The Baby Boomers, like their parents, got married early, but during the course of their marriages, social mores changed and the taboo against divorce crumbled just as this generation was realizing that perhaps at the age of 35 or 40 they really didn't have all that much in common with someone they married at 18 or 22. I think a lot of the Greatest stuck out bad marriages because of the taboo against divorce, something that the Baby Boomers did not feel constrained to do.

As for us Genexers, various factors contribute to more stable families and marriages. First, many of us came from families broken by divorce, witnessed the emotional destructiveness of broken families first-hand, and, as a result, take marriage more seriously as an institution. Second, and perhaps more importantly, they are delaying marriage, which (a) allows them to sow wild oats first, and (b) makes it more likely that they are mature enough for the responsibilities of marriage when they undertake it.

Perhaps you are right that it's merely an issue of not enough time passing yet, and it's probably true that the divorce rate in our generation will tick up somewhat over time. But for the reasons I outlined, I doubt it.


shouldn't divorce be taboo?

While I don't think people should stay in a bad marriage, the lack of a taboo against divorce is one of the causes of the high rate of divorce in our times. Its not hard to get divorced and many do so for very lame reasons. There will be hard times in any marriage, and people divorce the second the first time it happens.

The reason why the greatest generation had low divorce rates was due to the much harder times (Depression and WWII, and yes, those times were way harder then our current economic problems) that they lived in. They didn't believe in failure and grew backbones and determination, and that included marriage.

I see that determination in almost every person of that generation I know or knew. I see it in very few of those following including my generation (I am a X'er). The baby boomers will never have it, as they are quickly becoming senior citizens. Maybe X and Y will, hopefully we won't have to have 50+% unemployment, soup lines and a world conflict to earn it. The greatest generation learned the hardest way possible, the baby boomers rejected that knowledge, X and Y will likely have to learn the hard way too.

X and Y likely will have lower rates, but that will be due to growing up in broken homes more then anything. I am not blaming the baby boomers, but that generation missed out on the best opportunities the world had ever seen.

Good Insight

BBD and rich_b

I can say this. Coming from a divorced household stinks. It was terrible and many people from our generation had to go through it. It really scars children all through their lives.

I guess you could say I want to break that cycle. I was in my early 30s when I got married and was quite picky (some told me too picky at the time but that's another story) in selecting a wife.

It seems like more people in Gen X got married in their late 20s and early 30s. In fact, it seems like there are more and more people in their early 40s with young children.

I really hope that Gen X and Y do a better job than the Boomers at building strong families. Time will tell though.

Demography is destiny as

Demography is destiny as they say.

One constructive way to encourage more children would be to vastly expand and extend the earned-income tax credit (EITC) to make children a more affordable option for working families.

One of the few arguments against the EITC as presently designed is that it encourages beneficiaries to work fewer hours than they otherwise would. But that is a feature not a bug, in my opinion, so far as two-earner families are concerned.

Of course financing such an expansion would require a big increase in government revenues, which in turn implies comprehensive tax reform. A simple formula, conceptually at least, would be to treat all income the same -- earned and unearned alike -- but make savings tax exempt.

A "graduated expenditure tax" (GET) as economists call such a tax has the potential to raise lots more revenue without discouraging savings and investment and future economic growth. It also makes it easier to get rich if your goal is to establish a family fortune for many generations. Thanks to computers and the internet, implementing such a tax is no longer the insuperable obstacle it used to be. Look at the way we administer Individual Retirement Accounts for example. See Nicholas Kaldor's book, The Expenditure Tax, for the history of the concept.

Keep up the good work, Joel, and have a happy New Year!

Luke Lea