For millennia the family has stood as the central institution of society—often changing, but always essential. But across the world, from China to North America, and particularly in Europe, family ties are weakening, with the potential to undermine one of the last few precious bits of privacy and intimacy.
Margaret Mead once said, “no matter how many communes anyone invents, the family always creeps back.” But today’s trajectory is not promising. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, family formation and birth rateswere declining throughout much of the world, not just in most of the West and East Asia, but also in parts of South American and the Middle East.
The ongoing pandemic appears to be driving birth rates globally down even further, and the longer it lasts, the greater possibility that familial implosion will get far worse, and perhaps intractable. Brookings predicts that COVID will result in 300,000 to 500,000 fewer U.S. births in 2021. Marriage rates have dropped significantly to 35 year lows.
The Surprising Demographic Crisis
It’s been a half century since Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb(1968) prophesied a surge of population that would foster Malthusian mass starvation, which echoed the premise of lurid book called Famine 1975! Ehrlich and his acolytes urged extreme measures to stave off disaster, including adding sterilantinto the water supply. Similar conclusions were drawn four years later in the corporate-sponsored Club of Rome report, which embraced an agenda of austerity and retrenchment to stave off population-driven mass starvation and social chaos.
These predictions turned out to be vastly exaggerated, with a rapid decline in global hunger. The anticipated population explosion is morphing into something more like an implosion, with much of the world now facing population stagnation, and even contraction. As birth rates have dropped, the only thing holding up population figures in many places is longer lifespans, though recent data suggests these may be getting shorter again .
These trends can be felt in the United States, where the birthrate is sinking. U.S. population growth among the cohort aged between 16 and 64 has dropped from 20 percent in the 1980s to less than 5 percent in the last decade. This is particularly bad for the future of an economy dependent on new workers and consumers.
This demographic transition is even more marked in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and much of Europe, where finding younger workers is becoming a major problem for employers and could result in higher costs or increased movement of jobs to more fecund countries. As the employment base shrinks, some countries, such as Germany, have raised taxes on the existing labor force to pay for the swelling ranks of retirees.