R.I.P.: American’s demographic “exceptionalism”

Jonathan V. Last, editor of the Weekly Standard and author of the forthcoming book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting (Encounter, 2013), comments in his e-letter today about the recent report from the Pew Research Center about falling fertility rates in the U.S.:

Last week the general public had a momentary freak-out when it was reported that U.S. fertility rates had hit their lowest point since 1920. The news made it into the front pages of the Washington Post and USA Today and it was as if, for a moment, mainstream America awoke to the fact that our demographics are terrible. And getting worse.

But then the moment passed and everyone went back to worrying about the fiscal cliff and the royal pregnancy. Such is the nature of media.

It’s worth looking into the new numbers in a little more depth, though, because they give you a reasonably good sense as to what’s happening in our society.

So here’s the top-line: Between 2007 and 2010, the U.S. birthrate dropped 8 percent, to the level of 64 births for every 1,000 women. The preliminary data for 2011 shows it sliding still more, to 63.2. This is as barren as America has ever been. For some contrast: During the Great Depression—when it really collapsed—the birth rate bottomed out in the high 70s. In the 1970s—when fertility rates all across the Western world entered a death spiral—the birth rate never dipped much lower than 65. Our birth rate is now lower than it was both during the greatest economic calamity, and the greatest social upheaval, in modern American history.

One striking (and sobering) aspect, Last notes, is that the birth rates among immigrants are not just falling, but are plummeting:

When you unpack that top-line number, you see two other trends. While the average birth rate dropped by 8 percent, the rate of decline for native-born women was actually smaller: just 5 percent. What moved the average then? A giant drop in births from immigrants. Among immigrant women in general, the birth rate dropped 13 percent. Among immigrants of Mexican descent, the decline was 23 percent.

Look at the trajectories for these two classes—native-born Americans and immigrants—and it’s clearly possible that within another 20 years or so, our recent immigrants will be having kids at basically the same extremely low rate that the natives are.

That’s the raw power of assimilation at work, because the changes aren’t an artifact of the population’s age structure—they’re behavioral changes.

Exactly right. There are a lot of factors involved, but one of them is that having a culture of death eventually leads to the death of the culture. Part of that culture is the widely accepted lie that we, as Americans, can have it all: money, careers, leisure, spare time, and—oh yeah!—a family of 1.2 children, slipped in somewhere amid all of the consuming and obtaining and doing and being successful. In addition, we’ve been told that all of this can be happily and easily regulated using contraceptives, having recourse to abortion when “necessary”, putting off or ignoring marriage altogether, and having a lax approach to divorce. Alas, it isn’t working out so well, and the increasingly infertile present is quickly turning into a barren future:

In the long run, this is a somewhat unpleasant development for America. In the United States we’ve often looked at our not-horrible fertility rate, compared it to the rates in places like Italy, Japan, and Germany, and thought, Hey, there’s American exceptionalism for you. We won’t fall into the low-fertility trap that they have in other industrialized nations.

But our demographic “exceptionalism” was really being held aloft by the elevated fertility rates of our immigrants. If immigrant fertility merges with native fertility, then all of a sudden America’s demographic structure starts to look a lot more like Europe’s. And not very exceptional at all.

Eventually, the mainstream won’t be able to ignore this demographic stuff because it threatens everything that everyone holds sacred. The left will realize that you can’t have big government when there aren’t enough taxpayers being born to fund it. The right will realize that the free market breaks down when labor shortages run into a population with a skewed age profile. And everyone in the middle will realize that the most elemental aspect of “sustainability” isn’t having recycled material in their running shoes or fair-trade organic coffee—it’s having enough people to make the world as you know it function.

Here is Bl. John Paul II, writing in 1995:

Contraception, sterilization and abortion are certainly part of the reason why in some cases there is a sharp decline in the birthrate. It is not difficult to be tempted to use the same methods and attacks against life also where there is a situation of “demographic explosion”.

The Pharaoh of old, haunted by the presence and increase of the children of Israel, submitted them to every kind of oppression and ordered that every male child born of the Hebrew women was to be killed (cf. Ex 1:7-22). Today not a few of the powerful of the earth act in the same way. They too are haunted by the current demographic growth, and fear that the most prolific and poorest peoples represent a threat for the well-being and peace of their own countries. Consequently, rather than wishing to face and solve these serious problems with respect for the dignity of individuals and families and for every person’s inviolable right to life, they prefer to promote and impose by whatever means a massive programme of birth control. Even the economic help which they would be ready to give is unjustly made conditional on the acceptance of an anti-birth policy.

Read more from “Evangelium vitae”.

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About Carl E. Olson 1216 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.