Between the Lines: Expect More Competition for the World’s Best & Brightest27 Dec 2013
The New Yorker recently published a thought-provoking essay by Elizabeth Kolbert about population trends around the world. In the course of her discussion about the agricultural infrastructure needed to sustain a booming population in the developing world, Kolbert touches upon the implications of declining birth rates for wealthy industrialized nations with aging populations. [See Head Count: Fertilizer, Fertility, and the Clashes Over Population Growth, by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, 21.Oct.2013.]
Kolbert notes that the total fertility rate (TFR) – “the average number of children that the average woman will produce in her lifetime” – in many developed countries is hovering well below the rate at which the population would replace itself, one for one. In Singapore, for instance, the total fertility rate is .79; in Taiwan, 1.1; in South Korea, 1.2. The rates in most of Europe are not much better, Kolbert reports: “Most European countries have T.F.R.s under 1.5; these include Italy, Spain, Germany, and the Czech Republic.”
So what’s the problem with that? Kolbert cites a recent book by a Johns Hopkins professor, Steven Philip Kramer, who she says is concerned about the population bust “in countries like Singapore and Italy, where the fertility rate has dropped below replacement levels,” because “as their populations age and ultimately shrink, low-fertility countries will have fewer and fewer workers supporting more and more retirees. This will strain their social welfare systems,” and leave these countries at a technological disadvantage, because young people tend to be more tech-savvy, Kramer says.
For now, the U.S. fertility rate is about 2.06, enough to maintain a stable population, but not enough to alleviate stresses on the social-welfare system as more and more Baby Boomers retire. As Kolbert observes, U.S. and European social-welfare systems “were structured around the assumption that there would always be more young people paying for benefits than there would be old people receiving them.”
In the short term, many countries will respond to this demographic shortfall by making it easier for immigrants to settle there – especially younger, tech-savvy immigrants who can help build the businesses of the future. The message for our lawmakers in the United States is clear: we should expect plenty of competition in our bid to attract the world’s best and brightest, and Congress should do everything it can to ensure that the U.S. remains the destination of choice. Modernizing our immigration system would be a good first step.
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