From Too Many People to Not Enough
Jonathan V. Last contributed a very interesting article in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal about America’s declining population rates and the negative consequences it’s generating. Just when you thought that we were getting world population under control, you can now sleep uneasily as our country tailspins into zero growth for the foreseeable future.
Today, America's fertility rate is at 1.93, below the replacement rate of 2.1, and according to Last, the United States has been leaning on immigrants and their higher birthrates for our continued growth and innovation over the past several decades. This will eventually dry up, he claims, which means the United States will ultimately need to fix this mess. How? By having more babies, of course.
But fixing the problem isn’t as simple as just telling people to make more babies, because the author deduces – and this is a gem of a deduction – “the problem is that, while making babies is fun, raising them isn't.” He writes, “A raft of research shows that if you take two people who are identical in every way except for childbearing status, the parent will be on average about six percentage points less likely to be ‘very happy’ than the nonparent. (That's just for one child. Knock off two more points for each additional bundle of joy.)”
Now they tell me.
But whereas Last is rather pessimistic about America’s future, (he concludes: "Can we keep the U.S. from becoming Japan? in the long run, the answer is, probably not."), I’m more optimistic, at least in this respect.
Last’s most interesting suggestion to help thwart the decline in population growth is revamping the University system, which is clearly broken and which has pushed off child-rearing years past what it was in the early twentieth century. Last suggests encouraging education systems to respond to market demands and create opportunities for students to get basic “no-frills” degrees.
This is already starting to happen. Three-year degree programs are becoming more common, and on-line opportunities in education are spreading rapidly. In Time Magazine’s October 29, 2012 issue, Amanda Ripley wrote about the influx of startup MOOCs (massive open online courses) like Udacity, Coursera and edX, who’ve put college-level courses on-line for – at least for now – free. But even after these and other institutions rely on fees, Ripley concludes, “One way or another, it seems likely that more people will eventually learn more for less money.”
And what’s really cool is that on-line courses are teaching in ways that are more productive than the traditional methods universities have always relied on. As part of her research, Ripley took an on-line physics course and was surprised to learn that the class was taught “according to how the brain actually learns. It had almost nothing in common with most classes I’d taken before.” The class included fast-paced videos, interactive opportunities for students to answer questions, positive reinforcement for answering correctly, opportunities to fix incorrect answers, and games to apply the lessons they just learned.
Regardless of where people get educated in the future - whether it's on-line or through brick and mortor establishments - the competition that on-line eduation programs provide will eventually have a big impact in how people are educated, how much it costs, how much debt they incur, and – ultimately – how many babies they have.
And look, even if we can’t fix our university system and if our current immigration dries up, we can consider the following: the United States National Research Council estimates that sea levels will rise 2 to 6 ½ feet by the end of this century. If they're correct, perhaps we can rely on a new wave of immigrants to feed our need for population growth: the Polynesians.