In the United States, we seem to be fond of attaching catchy names to everything from commercial products to dating sites on the Internet, including ourselves. Beginning in the early part of the last century, we started putting names to various generations of Americans. This was probably initiated by Gertrude Stein, who wrote an epigram to Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” which included, “You are all a lost generation.”
Although various authors and organizations have contrived labels for generations of Americans, the “Lost Generation” is generally accepted as the sobriquet for those who were born around the beginning of the 20th Century and came of age in time to fight in World War I. “The Greatest Generation” was made up of those people who grew up during the Great Depression and served both abroad and at home in World War II. The label for that generation came from the best-selling book by journalist Tom Brokaw.
During the years of the Great Depression (which started in the 1930’s after the crash of the stock market in 1929 and the bank closure in 1932) and the end of the Second World War (1939-1945), the U.S. birth rate declined dramatically. The Population Reference Bureau has dubbed those born during this “stagnant” period “The Lucky Few.”
At the end of the war, the U.S. birth rate spiked, creating the Baby Boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964. Then, as Americans enjoyed an expanding economy and the blossoming of a new middle class, the nation experienced the Baby Bust.
The Baby Bust is a phenomenon that was caused by falling birth rates and a consequent decline in the total fertility rate (TFR). It is the latter that is central to today’s column. The TFR is a reference to the total number of children that each adult woman in the population will produce during her lifetime, on average. A TFR of 2.1 is required to replace the current generation.
Maintaining that 2.1 has been a problem for the Baby Bust generation, which has been identified according to three sub-generations. Those born between 1965 and 1976 are known as Generation X; those born between 1977 and 1995, Millennials or Generation Y; and those born after 1996, Centennials or Gen Z. (Various sources may use slightly different dates.)
The Lucky Few
I am one of the Lucky Few (born between 1930 and 1945), and we are dying out, but not as quickly as expected. Collectively, we are the longest living generation in recorded history, and because there were relatively few of us (counted in millions, of course), we enjoyed the best that any society has had to offer.
Most of us who continue to survive understand this, and we are saddened that future generations will have to suffer social conditions that we managed to avoid. The tail end of our generation came of age about the same time as the advent of the Baby Boom. Former President Bill Cllnton, who was born on the cusp of two categories (1946) was among the first of the Baby Boomers to reach retirement age.
To give you an idea about those who benefited from the glitch in demographic history, here is a brief list of some of the people who were born in 1930: Clint Eastwood, Warren Buffett, Sandra Day O’Connor, George Soros, Stephen Sondheim, and Joanne Woodward. And, among those born in 1945 are journalist Diane Sawyer, actresses Goldie Hawn and Helen Mirren, astronauts Roberta Bondar and Bjarni Tryggvason, economist and best-selling author Jeremy Rifkin, Olympian John Carlos, and General Tommy Franks.
Along with them, I and millions of others enjoyed the fruits of a growing economy that was brought on by an enlarging population which fueled an expanding economy due to the Baby Boom. As the Boomers entered the workforce, they fed the social programs, like Social Security and Medicare, that now support the Lucky Few.
The Birth Dearth
As the Baby Boom came to an end, the United States entered a period which could be called the Birth Dearth. The total number of children born each year, as well as the TFR, began to fall. The trend was gradual, and — with few exceptions — it was continuous from 1964 when the TFR was above 3.0 to 1974 when it dropped below replacement level. For the next several decades, the U.S. TFR flirted with the replacement level of 2.1. Then, the country experienced the Great Recession, beginning with the burst of the housing bubble in 2006.
Writing for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Terence P. Jeffrey states, “The total fertility rate of the United States fell below the replacement level for the ninth straight year in 2016, according to the final birth data report … published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” That trend continues.
The 2017 World Population Data Sheet, published by the Population Reference Bureau, shows that the U.S. had a TFR of 1.8 last year. Those tiny changes in percentages take on real meaning when they are multiplied by the tens of millions of women who are between 15 and 45 (generally used to indicate “child-bearing age,” although we realize that there are exceptions at both ends of the continuum).
WSJ’s Jonathan V. Last writes, “The nation’s falling fertility rate underlies many of our most difficult problems.” Further in his article, he explains, “Once a country’s fertility rate falls consistently below replacement, its age profile begins to shift. You get more old people than young people. And eventually, as the bloated cohort of old people dies off, population begins to contract.”
His comment about a country having more old people than young people has measurable consequences. For example, Japan experienced the Birth Dearth long before the United States. In 2012, Japan sold more adult diapers than baby diapers.
This dual problem — a population that is disproportionately old and shrinking — has enormous economic, political, and cultural consequences. We’re already experiencing some of these outcomes: young people who are not in school and have no jobs, pension plans that have a difficult time trying to support a growing number of retirees, a concentration of wealth among those over 65 and a devastating accumulation of debt among young college graduates.
It’s difficult to reverse this trend. One of the reasons, of course, is that it’s fun making babies; it’s not nearly as much fun raising them.
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Jim Glynn may be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org.