Heeding Real Change

Terry H. Schwadron

Jan. 18. 2023

Headlines expressing surprise this week heralded a significant drop in the population of China, reflecting a decline over several years in the country’s birthrate — a marker that may ripple through the world’s economy.

It was most surprising not for its content — it is more a marker rather than a trend — but that the subject was demography rather than democracy, and changes of note in the human climate rather than in our weather patterns. The idea that science — in this case social science — would garner top headlines attracted my attention all by itself.

It seems obvious that we ought to be raising a lot more of these kinds of questions than worrying about whether Republicans will expel a falsifying George Santos from its congressional ranks or arguing over school boards who feel it necessary to set bathroom rules for transgender students.

As with other scientific explorations, these social science questions about who we are and how we are adjusting our behavior may be a much more important directional vane than what we get from our very messy political processes.

In brief, the thinking behind the numbers from China is that a dropping birthrate and a longer life expectancy in the world’s biggest manufacturing giant is sowing seeds for economic upheaval over the long haul. The Washington Post said the population drop in China “sounds a demographic alarm.”

Among other things, it translates to a smaller group of available workers who will have to support a growing number of aging citizens.

Of course, the same thing is going on in the United States — and, indeed, in most of the developed world — if only we look.

Long-time Trends

Demographic changes don’t happen all at once; they take time. While this has been the first time that 10.4 million Chinese deaths have outnumbered 9.5 million births, this has been a trend for some years.

As a result, there have been public policy choices in China to match. So, we have followed various government incentives over time to dissuade births or to incent couples to have children, the creation of whole new cities and the various efforts to advance or depress new economic freedoms — with or without the usual political freedom demands that come with such policy changes.

The point is, there is a link between who we are, how we life, what our demands for fair and prosperous lives might be and what happens with our systems of government and rules. It has been an American world view of the Chinese officialdom that they wanted the best from economic growth policies while sticking their heads in the sand over human rights, for example.

As The New York Times reports, Chinese officials have tried for years to slow down the arrival of this moment, trying a futile a one-child policy and offering incentives to encourage families to have children. “Now, facing a population decline, coupled with a long-running rise in life expectancy, the country is being thrust into a demographic crisis that will have consequences not just for China and its economy but for the world.”

Without its constantly renewing billions of people, China’s position as the world’s foremost manufacturer will face issues exasperated by demands of a population seeking more rewards from life with or without children

It also reflects a reluctance to have children in times perceived as expensive and less than stable.

In the United States

Now look at the United States, where new reports from the National Center for Health Statistics show that families are smaller and people are waiting longer to have children than in years past. NBC News says that the average size of U.S. families is three rather than four, as in the past.

Contributing have been a decades-long drop in teen births and a decline in births between ages of 15 and 44. Births are falling for moms in their twenties and thirties, but slightly up for those 35 to 44. We’re married later or not at all and having fewer children — later. There are differentiations among race and income.

Longevity is increasing in the United States as well, resulting in the same issue as in China. There will be fewer young workers to support an aging population.

Is it too much to ask that our political leaders who are so quick with slogans about lowering taxes and devising more attacks on social service spending and immigration to spend a few minutes with demographic studies before shooting off their sloganeering mouths?

In this regard, the questions over immigration policies ought to be recast over national economic health rather than the mélange of cultural, legal, racial, and ethnological issues we now rely on to settle absolutely nothing about what our policies need to include.

Our demographic changes include race, as well, of course, making the current culture wars we are enduring even stranger when you consider that we are quickly becoming a nation of ethnic and racial pluralities rather than a white majority.

The open questions raised concern why are developing policies are being skewed to protect traditionalist views to protect a white, Christian nation over recognition of emergent realities. Fueling the numbers of change are the continuing civil rights campaigns to make it easier to identify as gay or transgender, with all the policy issues that must accompany such adjustments.

Demography is not a matter of partisan choice. It is a set of realities that ought to be driving the policymaking.





Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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