America’s fertility rates plunged in the early 1970’s, falling well below the minimal Zero Population Growth (ZPG) of 2.1 children per American woman. Never before has this happened to the nation while enjoying peace and relative prosperity. But a decisive rebound in the birthrate does not seem likely in the near future, given the widespread use of contraceptives, the legalization of abortion, the movement of unprecedented numbers of women into the workplace, and the distressingly high divorce rate. Ironically, while the nation’s maternity wards sit nearly empty, millions flock to hear Bruce Springsteen sing “Born in the U.S.A.” American birth has become a nostalgic rock fantasy.
Meanwhile, in Mexico—our trading partner to the South—completed fertility now stands at four births per Mexican woman, according to the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, DC. Even higher fertility rates are found in some other Latin American countries, producing a bountiful supply of immigrants to export to the United States.
America has generally welcomed new immigrants, but a naturally growing and youthful population can assimilate an influx of newcomers far better than a nation of childless geriatrics. Numerous observers believe that Western Europe’s failing birthrates are the primary reason that those countries have in recent years virtually closed their doors to immigrants. Ethnic animosity toward foreign “guest workers” has become an explosive political issue in France, while Switzerland is actively deporting its resident aliens.
Intensified distrust of foreign immigrants counts as only one of the unpleasant side effects of a depressed birthrate. One in five Americans is now born in poverty, not because the poor have so many children, but because the wealthy and middle classes bear so few. Businessmen also feel the pinch when the middle class stops having babies. Writing in Advertising Age recently, Peter Francese warned that unless the baby boomers get busy having children, the economy will suffer recessionary consequences. The eroding base of youthful taxpayers also disquiets Social Security and Medicare officials. Phillip Longman of Americans for Generational Equity now predicts that given current fertility trends, “Medicare won’t be able to meet the needs of today’s middle-aged Americans and their children,” and concludes: “The trade off between health care for the young and the old will become increasingly stark and unavoidable.”
Perhaps the only winners in the baby bust are teenagers looking for part-time jobs. Fast-food chains in New England are now paying as much as $6 an hour to woo the declining number of teens to work. Some Atlanta restaurants now offer $8 an hour to attract busboys. But if America’s birth dearth eventually creates a depressed economy and a war between immigrant and native, between the elderly and the young, then today’s teenagers will eventually pay a high price for their solid gold McNugget paychecks.