The Graying of the West

  A presidential commission on the future of Social Security recently recommended allowing workers to invest part of their contributions in the stock market. There was one fix, however, the distinguished panel didn't recommend, because it couldn't. Yet it's the one fix that would make a real difference: that is, encouraging more children. For the last half century, Western industrialized nations have made slowing population growth one of their top priorities, both at home and abroad. The message took, to the point that now we're asking, "Where have all the children gone?" We're in the midst of what Nicholas Eberstadt, in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, calls a "global baby bust" whose affects are most keenly felt in Western industrialized countries. In European countries, the average women is reproducing at barely half the rate needed to replace herself and her husband. And it's worse in Japan. This "birth dearth" is accompanied by the "graying" of the population. Median ages in the industrialized West are steadily rising. For instance, within twenty-five years, more than one-fifth of Japan's population will be over 70. And there will be more people over 75 than under 15. Europe faces a similar situation, that's already placing a strain on its social welfare and retirement systems. That's because, as with Social Security and Medicare in this country, benefits for current retirees are financed by taxes paid by current workers. There's no trust fund. It's a pay-as-you-go system. Fewer young workers, coupled with an aging population, leaves these relatively homogenous countries with a difficult choice: either cut back on benefits or admit more immigrants. The United States isn't as far along this path as Europe and East Asia, but we're headed that way. The media has focused attention on the impact of the Baby Boomers reaching retirement age, but that's only part of the problem. Each year there are fewer workers supporting each retiree. Not too long ago, there were four Americans of working age for each retiree. By 2020, there will be two. If it weren't for today's high rates of immigration, the U.S. would be facing an even worse scenario. But even with immigration, we need to make some difficult choices if we're to assure our system's viability. "Where did all the workers go?" you ask. They're the children we aborted, or the ones we didn't have because they didn't fit into our lifestyle. They're the children we didn't have because we were too busy with our careers. They're the brothers and sisters a nation of only-children will never know. And, to paraphrase Tennessee Williams, they're why Americans will find themselves dependent on "the kindness of strangers" in their old age. We bought into a worldview that frowned on childbirth, that ignored God's word to Abraham that his descendants would be as many as the stars. It was considered an act of environmental vandalism, or denial of a woman's potential to have children. Some Americans thought nothing of scolding pregnant women who already had two kids. And the birth dearth is the result. In the end, it turns out, that the best investment for our future is the one the Bible prescribes: investing in those who call us "Mom and Dad."   For further reading: Eberstadt, Nicholas, "The Population Implosion," Foreign Policy Magazine, March-April 2001. [Also see further resources linked at the end of the article.]


Chuck Colson



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