Discussing the Demographic Winter in China and the US

An interview with Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute.

(photo: Shutterstock; Nicholas Eberstadt, courtesy of AEI)

Nicholas Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C. A Catholic, he is the author of numerous books and articles on population issues, North Korea and the falling workforce participation rate for the American male. 

From 2006 to 2009, he served as a member of the President’s Commission on Bioethics during the George W. Bush administration, and he is a member of the Board of Scientific Counselors for the National Center for Health Statistics.

During an interview with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Eberstadt discussed recent reports that China may drop any restrictions on family size and the sharp decline in fertility rates in the United States.


What is your reaction to the news that the Chinese government may drop any restrictions on family size?

This is a day late and a dollar short. In the 1970s, the Chinese government undertook the most ambitious social experiment in history, with its forcible population-control program, and it has brought unintended consequences.

Now the government is trying to re-engineer its policy, presumably to increase family size. I don’t think they will have much success.

Baked into the cake is a declining working-age population, rapid population graying and an imbalance between a rising generation of prospective brides and grooms.

And they have created a new sort of family structure — only children begetting only children. In many cities, children have no siblings, aunts or uncles. The atrophy and erosion of the extended family may have dramatic social and economic consequences in parts of China, and possibly political consequences, as well.


Though the one-child policy was recently modified to allow two children, the data show that many families did not take advantage of this change. Why?

There have been calls from Chinese academics and researchers in government to drop the program for more than a decade.

When the program was started in the late ’70s, the Communist Party announced that this was a temporary measure, that policed birth-control strictures might be necessary for a few decades or a generation.

The remarkable thing is that the government took so long to move away from the one-child norm. And when it finally did, it still kept birth quotas to a two-child norm.

The fact that there was no bounce [in family size] after the Chinese government relaxed its policy suggests the demand for children has been radically transformed.

But it is unsettled how many children parents in China would have now if they had been allowed to choose the number of children they desired in the first place.


How does China’s median family size track with other Asian nations?

China’s one-child policy was a horrendous violation of human rights that the outside world was shamefully quiet about. But we can look at Taiwan and Hong Kong, where birth rates are barely over one child per woman. Elsewhere, like Myanmar, where people are very poor, birthrates are below replacement levels.

So we still need to learn whether the [present] trend in China is due to government policy or to other factors.


Meanwhile, U.S. fertility rates have dropped to the lowest level in decades for two years in a row. What’s going on?

I don’t think we know for sure what is going on here. One possibility is that we are seeing another big social shift in the U.S., similar to what we saw in the early ’70s, when there was a collective decision to have children at a somewhat later age. There was a big dip in fertility rates in the early ’70s, but by the time we got the number for them in their 40s, then they had completed childbearing age, the average number of births per women over their lifetime didn’t drop.

It is possible that this is going on now. But there are other things going on which may also explain it.

We could be moving closer to trends in Europe.

For one thing, we are becoming a more secular society very quickly. The U.S. government doesn’t collect information on religiosity. Information collected by the Pew Research Center suggests we have a strikingly rapid increase in the number of Americans who are not affiliated with any religion, the “Nones.” This trend may be related to the drop in birth rates.

We have also had a continuing erosion in the traditional family. The rise in one-parent households usually means “mother only,” and that puts a lot of pressure on childbearing.

This suggests a transition to a more European-style future [of lower birth rates].


Some analysts initially argued that the 2008 economic crisis was behind the drop in birth rates. Could that still be a factor?

The big economic picture is that most people in America, when they are asked to respond to big public surveys, say we are still in a recession. The economy is pretty bad for them, and that may be a factor encouraging people to postpone having children. But if you postpone too long, you won’t have them at all.


In Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis, you addressed the problem of too many men in their prime working years who were no longer looking for a job, and so were not counted in unemployment statistics. Did you pursue this research because it had a demographic impact?

I took up this research after I realized that people were only paying attention to the unemployment rate, not the relatively huge number of men who were not looking for work and had left the workforce altogether. I saw that the decline in men’s workforce participation was related to other advanced social pathologies, like the [growing] instability of family formation.

Europe has undergone two demographic transitions. The first [marked a shift from] large to small family size.

The second transition moved to increasingly unstable relationships and reflected a big shift, in mentality and outlook, away from traditional religious values to more materialist values.

The second transition had already been going on for a while in Europe when researchers described it in the 1980s. Increasingly, we can identify the same transition in the U.S.

We still have higher birth levels as a whole, but there has been a big drop in our fertility rates since the crash in 2008.


In 2011, the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate, authorized under the Affordable Care Act, began providing “no-cost” birth control. Could this play a role in declining birth rates, particularly for lower-income Hispanic women, who experienced a 27% decline in fertility rates in recent years?

I haven’t looked at this issue carefully. My general impression is that what we have seen over the last decade has been a convergence of Hispanic fertility rates with fertility trends in the rest of the West.

Until the crash, the most notable demographic trend was the convergence of [lower fertility rates for] every ethnic group except Latinos.

Of course, “Hispanic” covers Cubans with low fertility levels and Central Americans with higher fertility levels.

But there is so much going on with Hispanic cultural assimilation that [it is reasonable to view] the drop in their fertility rate as part of this [broader] trend.


What about the drop in teenage pregnancy?

There has been a big drop in teenage pregnancy, and estimates of the abortion rate for teenagers have also shown a decline for a while.

Ultimately, we have to bear in mind that there is a correspondence between the desired number of children and the number of children born in the U.S. It is not a perfect match, but what we are seeing has to do with a shift in mentality in the desire for children in our society.

The alternative would be to presume that we had a big increase in unwanted children before 2008, and now there isn’t as much, and that is a harder storyline to prove.


In a recent article in National Review Online, David French argued that America’s declining fertility rate was connected to the rise in depression, anxiety and suicide. Do you agree?

We see serious signs of crisis in the U.S. There is the opioid epidemic and the huge wave of suicides for middle-aged whites — what researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton have called “deaths of despair” —  and the collapse of work for many men.

It is apparent that life for a lot of people is very difficult, and that would affect family formation.

Sometimes this kind of malaise can dissipate quickly.

In the late 1970s, everything seemed to point to a gloomy future in America. Paul Johnson, in his 1983 book Modern Times, wrote about “America’s Suicide Attempt.”

Then that mood changed, and I hope that will happen again.


Why do demographers often fail to predict fertility rates correctly? Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 best-seller, The Population Bomb, warned that overpopulation would result in mass starvation by the 1980s, and other experts anticipated similar catastrophes that never materialized.

Demographers do a poor job of predicting the future because human beings aren’t fruit flies, and they aren’t red-tailed deer. Population biology has a lot of neat formulas for predicting birth levels over time for [other species] constrained by resource limitations.

Human beings are [unpredictable because] they have human agency and volition, and they can change the resource base on which they subsist. There are no robust realizable scientific methods for predicting birth levels for human populations.