‘In case some of you Europeans were getting hopeful, no, mainstream demography does not predict that Americans are on the brink of extinction’

Guess who’s dying out now? Americans. According to Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster (Encounter, £15.99), we Yanks are an endangered species. Numerical decline would have been upon us even sooner without our leaky borders: the total fertility rate “for native-born American women was 2.0 in 2011; the TFR for foreign-born women was 2.6 . . . [T]he natives would be depopulating themselves into oblivion without the help of immigrants.”

OK, hold it. A replacement-rate TFR is 2.1. So claiming that a native-born TFR of 2.0 leads to “depopulating yourself into oblivion” is arithmetically absurd. Having conspicuously boned up on demography, Last knows full well that he’s flogging an unfounded, sensationalist premise.

True, by 2012 America’s TFR dipped to 1.94, helping to paint this terrifying future of the Lonely American. Yet in 2007, US fertility was a spot-on 2.1. Need I mention what happened in 2008? Unemployed or financially insecure people put off having children. American fertility plummeted during the Depression and sagged during the 1970s oil crisis, only to recover. Should the economy improve, both fertility and immigration could easily return to pre-recession levels.

Let’s consult other sources. With America’s population now 312 million, the UN projects it will grow to 438 million in 2050, and to 478 million by 2100. This is disappearing? Foreseeing somewhat fewer (423 million) Americans in 2050, the respected Population Reference Bureau shies from making predictions for 2100. Long-term demographic projections are whimsical confections born of unknowable, arbitrary inputs. In 2008, the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech estimated we’ll have one billion Americans by 2100 — merely by assuming that the fertility rate at the time remained constant, while immigration and longevity continued to rise. The farther into the future the forecast, the more equations can be manipulated to spit out whatever numbers support a preconceived theory.

So in case some of you Europeans were getting hopeful, no, mainstream demography does not predict that Americans are on the brink of extinction. Indeed, there’s a rough consensus that US population will probably grow by about half again before levelling off. 

Nevertheless, like Jonathan Last, these same sources also anticipate an age-structure crisis — in the US as well as in Europe, China, Japan, and southeast Asia. Last’s answer to the coming support-ratio crunch is for everyone to have more babies. 

It’s a physical certainty that no population, of any animal, can increase indefinitely within a finite space. If you accept the proposition of a limit, whatever the number might be, then any country has to go through an ugly transition on the way to a no-growth scenario: lots of old people, not enough workers. Which is a giant drag for everybody. That means high taxes, restricted benefits, burdensome healthcare costs and economic stagnation — or, to use the latest fad euphemism for a Pandora’s box of horrors no one wants to examine very closely, “pain”. But unless we colonise other planets, this pain is inevitable — for every country, including developing nations. The only questions are when you bite the bullet, and at what population you peak. Making more babies now merely delays this reckoning, while raising the size of the population at which you stop.

Likewise, turning on the tap of immigration constitutes more mere delay. Last is certainly correct that America’s influx of visitors-for-life has provided it with a younger age structure than Europe’s, thus putting off our rainy day. But here’s a little known fact: foreigners get old, too. So you either have a small, put-upon workforce toiling to support a bunch of decrepit white folks, or you have a similarly small, put-upon workforce toiling to support a bunch of decrepit Mexicans a few years later. Does it matter? Maybe it’s better to get it over with.

Although ducking the implications, this author is dead right on one point: it’s the white, educated Americans who are having too few kids (people like childless me). He’s unashamedly dark on his prognosis for senescent Europe — which by 2100 he expects to have been subsumed by Islamist fanatics from the Middle East. Yet he bends over backwards to bemoan the fact that Hispanic immigrants to the US gradually mirror lower native-born fertility rates over time. Oh, no, the Hispanics were going to save us from extinction! But the only faction in America facing “demographic disaster” is the dominant elite of European ancestry. Might this book have a subtext? In urging all “Americans” to have more children, the author seems secretly sanguine that the majority of his readership is apt to be white.

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