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The new baby boom

Remember all the jokes about big families?

Issue: "A few good men," May 6, 2006

Twice now in the last two years, demographics and population expert Phillip Longman has played the part of an intellectual bomb-thrower. But if he didn't get the full attention of thoughtful Christians with his first missile, his latest should focus our thinking for sure.

Mr. Longman is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. He writes from neither an evangelical Christian nor a socially conservative point of view.

Two years ago, Mr. Longman argued in an article in Foreign Affairs that most experts, and most of the media elite, were getting a very important issue wrong. "Most people think overpopulation is one of the worst dangers facing the globe," he summarized. "In fact, the opposite is true. As countries get richer, their populations age and the birth rates plummet. And this is not just a problem of rich countries; the developing world is also getting older fast. Falling birthrates might seem beneficial, but the economic and social price is too steep to pay. The right policies could help turn the tide, but only if enacted before it's too late."

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Mr. Longman's journal article was a summary of his 2004 book, The Empty Cradle: Freedom and Fertility in an Aging World. In it, he argued that the rate of population growth has fallen by more than 40 percent since the 1960s, and that the number of human beings on the planet could well start to decline within the lifetime of today's children. Demographers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, he said, "predict that human population will peak (at 9 billion) by 2070 and then start to contract."

Even by 2045, Mr. Longman points out, UN projections suggest that the world's fertility rate as a whole will have fallen below replacement levels.

You don't read those reports, of course, in the traditional media. It's almost certainly still true in 2006, as Mr. Longman said it was two years ago, that nearly half of all Americans, when asked how long it will take-at current rates-for world population to double, say 20 years or less. But they're all wrong, Mr. Longman says-not just about the rate, but even that it's going to happen.

Now Mr. Longman is dropping the other shoe from his book. It could leave a pretty big footprint.

In an article in the newest issue of Foreign Policy, he suggests that leaving ideology aside and focusing only on demographics, conservatives are destined to inherit the earth.

The statistics simply don't lie. Mr. Longman says that "nearly 20 percent of women born in the late 1950s are reaching the end of their reproductive lives without having had children"-and that such a proportion is nearly twice what it was a generation earlier. This "greatly expanded childless segment of contemporary society, whose members are drawn disproportionately from the feminist and countercultural movements of the 1960s and 70s, will leave no genetic legacy." The children they might have influenced, Mr. Longman says candidly, were never born.

Even "single-child families are prone to extinction. A single child replaces one of his or her parents, but not both. Nor do single-child families contribute much to future population." Mr. Longman doesn't seem to explore the impact of abortion on the demographic pattern.

Conservatives, meanwhile-typically including lots of evangelical Christians-have gone right on having babies. In doing so, they may be profoundly increasing their influence in the world at large. Nor is this impact just a fuzzy researcher's theory. Fertility rates in the states carried in 2004 by George W. Bush are 11 percent higher, Mr. Longman says, than in states won by John Kerry. In other words, conservative dominance might be expected to continue to grow where a majority has already been established, while what he calls "progressive" political influence will probably shrink.

Overall, the Longman theory points to the "emergence of a new society whose members will disproportionately be descended from parents who rejected the social tendencies that once made childlessness and small families the norm. These values include an adherence to traditional, patriarchal religion, and a strong identification with one's own folk or nation."

Or, less academically, you might want to revisit all those jokes you've heard about how big homeschooling families could take over the world. If, of course, you're really committed to those so-called "progressive" ideas, you may not think the joke is very funny.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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