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The Demographic Cliff

7:07 AM, Dec 20, 2012 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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The New York Times has finally discovered that fiscal cliffs aren’t the only thing that menace the modern nation-state. There’s a demographic cliff, too. A couple weeks ago, the Times’s Ross Douthat wrote a column about America’s bleak demographic future and suggested that the reason we aren’t having enough babies is that we’ve become a decadent society. Douthat’s column touched off something of a firestorm on the left as liberal writers flipped out over the ideas that (1) There aren’t enough babies; (2) More babies would be a good thing; and (3) The dearth of babies suggests there might be something wrong with America’s present cultural moment. 

Well last weekend the Times carried an even bigger piece on demographics from Alexandra Harney, looking at how much worse the situation is in Japan. Some highlights:

The first grade class at the elementary school in Nanmoku, about 85 miles from Tokyo, has just a single student this year. The local school system that five decades ago taught 1,250 elementary school children is now educating just 37. Many of the town’s elegant wooden homes are abandoned. Where generations of cedar loggers, sweet potato farmers and factory workers once made their lives, monkeys now reside. The only sounds at night are the cries of deer and the wail of an occasional ambulance.

Nanmoku’s plight is Japan’s fate. Faced with an aging society, a depopulating countryside and economic stagnation, the country has struggled for decades to address its challenges. . . .

Nowhere is the rapid aging of Japan more visible than in rural towns like Nanmoku, where 56 percent of local residents are over 65. Over the next 25 years, the proportion of Japan’s population that is elderly will rise from almost one in four to one in three.

Yowza. But the truth is, things are even worse than Harney lets on. If Japan’s fertility rate were to somehow rebound to replacement level, its demographic structure is already so dilapidated that the country would lose 30 percent of its population by 2100. If Japan’s fertility rate stays where it is now? Then by 2100 the country will have lost more than half of its current population.

Population contractions are bad news. They bring with them economic distress and social instability. And sometimes worse. So no matter what happens, Japan is in for a rough ride over the next four generations. It’s entirely possible that “Japan” as we know it today won’t exist by the end of the century.

It’s to the New York Times’s credit that they recognize the demographic danger Japan—and by extension the rest of the world—faces. (Japan is the leading edge, but most countries are on the same curve and the world is headed toward global population contraction right now.) This is news that many of the people who read the New York Times don’t want to hear.

But Harney concludes by offering Times readers false comfort. Like many liberals, Harney seems to believe that demographic problems can be conquered with further expansion of the state. Here she is explaining how Japan could get out of the fix it’s in:

Japan could address its baby shortage by taking three basic steps that have been discussed for years but have never enjoyed sufficient political leadership to be enacted. First, the government must create more subsidized public day care centers, which would make child care more affordable for more people.

Second, companies must dismantle old systems that promote employees on seniority, rather than skills. These antiquated practices hold down young workers’ salaries and keep the labor market too rigid. And companies should discourage overtime work so that employees have more time with their families.

Third, both the government and companies should encourage more women to enter the labor force with high-quality jobs on a par with men and offer incentives to women to return to work after childbirth. In places where these sorts of reforms have taken hold, from France to Sweden, the result has been a boost to the birthrate and the economy.

I don’t mean to be a wet blanket, but there’s been a great deal of research done on exactly the policies Harney proposes and the results are, at best, mixed.

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