America the Fertile

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By Nicholas Eberstadt
Sunday, May 6, 2007

The concept of "American exceptionalism" has long been applied to the political differences that separate the United States from the "Old World." But America's "exceptionalism" today extends beyond the explicitly political and into the nation's rhythms of birth and death. Indeed, we may now rightly speak of American "demographic exceptionalism."

Two demographic tendencies separate the United States from virtually all other developed countries in Europe and Asia. The first is childbearing patterns: At a time when most rich countries report markedly low birthrates, fertility levels in the United States are close to long-term population-replacement levels, making the United States peculiarly fecund for a contemporary affluent democracy. The second is immigration patterns: America's absorption of foreigners continues apace, with high and continuing inflows of immigrants from the Third World, but without (as yet) the symptoms of "cultural indigestion" that have lately troubled much of the European Union.

These differences will beget many others in the years ahead. They presage a major and unavoidable "demographic divergence" between the United States and the rest of the developed world -- a growing demographic divide that may hold myriad implications for America's future.

From an exceptionally high starting point at independence -- a total fertility rate (TFR) over seven births per woman per lifetime in our first census, in 1790 -- the United States completed an extraordinary "demographic transition" to lower death and birth rates in the following two centuries. By 1976, America's TFR was down to 1.74 -- lower than the fertility level that same year of what is now the E.U. 15 and 18 percent lower than the requirements for long-term population stability. But then U.S. fertility levels turned upward and stayed up. In 1989, America's TFR rose slightly above 2.0, where it has remained. In the years since, America's TFR averaged 2.02 births per woman, implying near-complete replacement from one birth cohort to the next. U.S. fertility levels today are fully 50 percent higher than those of Japan and about 45 percent higher than those of Europe. These recent trends have even opened a divide between the United States and Canada, erstwhile demographic "twins": In 2004, for example, America's TFR was 35 percent higher than Canada's.

Wherefore this birth premium? Perhaps surprisingly, the most obvious explanations -- America's increasingly multiethnic composition and the partly related phenomenon of high rates of teen childbearing -- do not explain most of the growing fertility gap. By 2004, teen births comprised just a tenth of all American births. And while fertility differences by ethnicity in the United States are real enough, it is easy to exaggerate their significance. With the single, albeit highly significant, exception of Mexican Americans, fertility levels for U.S. minorities have largely been converging with the "Anglo" majority.

The single most important factor in explaining America's high fertility level these days is the birthrate of the country's "Anglo" majority, who still account for roughly 55 percent of U.S. births. Over the past decade and a half, the TFR for non-Hispanic "white" Americans averaged 1.82 births per woman per lifetime -- below replacement levels but more than 20 percent higher than corresponding national levels for Western Europe and much higher if one compares "Anglo" total fertility rates with those of Western Europe's native-born populations.

What then accounts for "Anglo" America's unexpectedly high and stable propensity to reproduce? Pro-natalist government policies cannot explain it: The United States has none. Nor do U.S. labor patterns seem especially "family-friendly": Americans work longer hours and enjoy less vacation time than any of their European friends. Other economic and policy explanations are similarly unsatisfactory.

The main explanation for the U.S.-European fertility gap may lie not in material factors but in the seemingly ephemeral realm of values, ideals, attitudes and outlook. In striking contrast to Western Europe, which is provocatively (but not unfairly) described as a "post-Christian" territory these days, religion is alive and well in the United States. It is not hard to imagine how the religiosity gap between America and Europe translates into a fertility gap. Unfortunately, the hypothesis is devilishly difficult to explore. There are virtually no official national data for the United States that would permit a rigorous testing of the hypothesis that America's religiosity is directly related to its childbearing. For the time being, at least, this religion-fertility proposition must be treated as speculation.

For its part, immigration (both legal and illegal) is a central feature of U.S. demographic life. Though Western Europe has experienced its own influx of newcomers over the past generation, the trends do not compare with those in America. No large country today has an immigration rate even close to that of the United States: America accounts for a fourth of the population of "developed regions" but nearly half of its annual net migration. In purely arithmetical terms, America's high flows of net immigration do explain much of the country's steady population growth.

As for the future: If American "demographic exceptionalism" continues for another decade or so, the consequences could be profound. Just what such "exceptionalism" would portend may be seen from U.S. Census Bureau projections for the United States and Western Europe for 2025.

By 2025, Western Europe's total population would be shrinking despite continuing immigration, while America's would still be growing by about 2.8 million a year. Western Europe, with a median age of 46 years, would be much "grayer" than the United States, with a median age of 39. In this future, Europe would be home to many more septuagenarians and octogenarians than the United States -- but for the under-25 population, Americans would outnumber West Europeans.

America's population profile is set to depart not only from Europe but also from the rest of the developed world. By 2025, according to Census Bureau projections, the U.S. population growth rate would be the highest among the more developed regions, and America's median age should be among the lowest. The United States would be the only developed country of 5 million-plus people with more children than senior citizens and the only developed country whose working-age population (ages 15 to 64) would be growing.

With its exceptional and robust projected population growth, America is poised to account for an increasing share of the total population of the present developed countries. Whereas the ratio of Americans to Russians today is a little more than 2 to 1, by 2025 that ratio may be almost 3 to 1. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 3.6 Americans for every German today, and there will be 4.4 per German in 2025. There are five Americans for every Italian today, and there will be six per Italian in less than two decades. And so on.

Such trends might reinforce U.S. international predominance -- even though the divergence in demographic profiles between the United States and the other developed countries may also portend an era of diminishing affinities between the United States and its historical Western allies.

In short: U.S. demographic exceptionalism is here to stay, as far as the eye can see. Indeed, America's demographic profile could look even more exceptional a generation hence. Whatever else may be said, if our American "moment" passes or U.S. power in other ways declines in the coming decades, demographics is not likely to be the culprit.

The writer holds the Henry Wendt chair in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute. A longer version of this essay appears in the current issue of the American Interest.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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