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300 Million and Counting

The United States reaches a demographic milestone, thanks largely to immigration

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If you're old and poor and you can't rely on either your government or your grown children for support, you have to keep working. In China, this does not mean greeting customers at Wal-Mart, much less answering the technical support line at Dell. Many of China's elderly barely have a primary school education, live in rural areas and haven't had the food and health care that would allow them to be vigorous in their old age. Nonetheless, the only work available to them is farming, which without mechanized tools is a tough row to hoe.

It's not a pretty future. Even if China's economy continues to grow by 8 percent per year, every year, for two decades—a scenario that is difficult to construct—the older generation is in big trouble. "China's outlook for population aging," political economist Nicholas Eberstadt writes, is "a slow-motion humanitarian tragedy already underway."

But not even China is as bad off as Russia. Americans talk about age 40 being the new 30 and 80 being the new 60, but in Russia, 30 is the new 40. Since the 1960s, just about each new generation of Russians has become more fragile than the one that preceded it. Every year, 700,000 more Russians die than are born.

"Pronounced long-term deterioration of public health in an industrialized society during peacetime is a highly anomalous, indeed counterintuitive proposition for the modern sensibility," Eberstadt writes. "Nevertheless, over the four decades between 1961-62 and 2003, life expectancy at birth in Russia fell by nearly five years for males." What's more, he notes, this increased mortality was concentrated among working-age men: "Between 1970-71 and 2003, for example, every female cohort between the ages of 25 and 59 suffered at least a 40 percent increase in death rates; for men between the ages of 30 and 64, the corresponding figures uniformly exceeded 50 percent, and some cases exceeded 80 percent."

Demographers and public health specialists are at a loss to explain these awful numbers, though such obvious factors as diet, smoking, drinking and sedentary lifestyles certainly enter in. One mystery in the "ongoing Russian health disaster," Eberstadt adds, "is that the problem looks to be worse than the sum of its parts: that is to say, death rates are significantly higher than one would predict on the basis of observed risk factors alone."

Whatever the answer, the future is grim: a Russian man has barely a fifty-fifty chance of making it to age 65 while, in the developed world, the over-80s make up the fastest-growing portion of the population.

Are you feeling any more comfortable with America’s healthier, younger 300 million by now? Wait, there's more.

At the rate ethnic Germans are not reproducing, they will probably lose the equivalent of the entire population of the former East Germany by mid-century. Who will fill up the rest of the country? Immigrants from Muslim countries is the odds-on bet. But as last year's riots in France and subway bombings in England demonstrate, Europe is not having a lot of luck assimilating its immigrants. In the Netherlands, for example, where nationality is based on ancient ties to family or land, concepts that seem unremarkable in North America—such as "Moroccan-Americans" or "Moroccan-Canadians"—simply have no meaning. The Dutch language offers two words: autochtonen ("us") and allochtonen ("them"); the Dutch people are still working to find ways to incorporate the latter into the former.

And yet: just about the time you start feeling comparatively good about living in a nice, young, healthy, assimilationist United States, you get smacked upside the head by the mind-boggling and peculiarly American problems this country's growth creates.

One is that to accommodate our growth of almost 1 percent a year—about 2.8 million new Americans annually—we have to build the equivalent of one Chicago per year. That's not impossible. Lord knows we have enough developers eager to do the job. What's more, if you fly across this country and look down, you will see that it includes a lot of emptiness. If you are among those people stuck in endless traffic jams from Boston to Richmond and from San Diego to Santa Barbara, you may find this hard to believe, but only 4 percent of all the land in the contiguous United States is urbanized, and only 5.5 percent is developed.

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