A dangerous mixture of increasing urbanization, longer work hours and the waning influence of religion has set off a demographic time bomb that is leading to a slow-motion population collapse in most of the world’s industrialized nations.
Joel Kotkin, a prominent authority on economic and social trends, made that assertion Wednesday as he painted a picture of a “post-familial” future marked by a shortage of children to support aging populations or to spark innovations that energize the global economy in the 21st century.
Speaking to 800 people at Zions Bank’s trade and business conference in Salt Lake City, Kotkin said declining fertility rates are triggering a host of problems, including rapid aging, smaller youth and working-age populations as people forgo marriage and start families — and even a loss of shared purpose that glues societies together.
“It’s very hard to quantify, but I think it’s pretty evident that when people are raising a family, working for a family, they have very different motivations than when they are doing it as an individual,” said Kotkin, professor of urban development at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and author of The next Hundred Million: America in 2050.
Zions has staged the conference for 12 years. This year, the keynote speaker at a luncheon that was closed to the media was former President George W. Bush (see story, Page B1).
At the public session at Marriott City Creek, Kotkin said that although fertility rates are declining in the United States and Europe, the drop off is most evident in Asia — particularly in Japan, Taiwan and Singapore — where millions of women are forgoing marriage and children. Around 2000, Japan’s elderly population exceeded the number of children ages 15 and under. By 2050, more people will be over 80 than under 15, and the country’s population will be far smaller than today, he said.
“This is incredible,” Kotkin said. “We’ve never seen populations disappear without a war or a plague, but that is exactly what ‘post-familialism’ is — a kind of sociological plague.
“We don’t know where it’s going to lead us, but certainly there are some things to be concerned about.”
The tendency to have fewer children, even the inclination to put off or deliberately avoid marriage, has its roots in several economic and social trends, Kotkin said. Numerous studies, including his own, show direct links between factors such as high housing prices and rising urban densities, and the falling numbers of births. Secularism is undermining family formation, too. Even the rise of education levels among career-oriented women is cutting the rate of population growth.
“Part of the problem is we haven’t yet figured out how to balance [the career and educational aspirations of women] with marriage and families,” Kotkin said.
Kotkin’s message isn’t that the U.S. and other industrialized nations turn back the clock. Instead, he proposes immigration reforms to offset declining workforce numbers in countries whose populations are shrinking. Urban planners should think about how cities of the future could be constructed in order to make them more family-friendly. In the U.S., a shortage of 6 million homes has made single-family housing unaffordable for many young couples who have given up having children.
“If we figure out how to nurture families, we can retain the very essence of our culture. If we don’t, we are in for a very rough time,” he said.
“You don’t have to be a prophet to know that down the road, if we don’t recover the primacy of the family in the 21st century, not only are we in trouble, but the whole world is in trouble.”
A future with a shortage of children
Demographer Joel Kotkin says falling numbers of families and children are unleashing changes that threaten the security and prosperity of the world’s economies.