300 Million and Counting

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

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

People in the demographics business like to think of themselves as the only futurists you can trust. They've got a point: if you want to know how many 21-year-olds there will be in 2027, just count the number of infants living today. Absent a catastrophe of biblical proportions, you'll come up with a pretty good prediction.

From This Story

What demographers admit they're not so good at is anticipating change. (For example, they were terrible at projecting the impact of birth control.) At the height of the "population explosion" hysteria four decades ago, few believed that birthrates could fall so far and so fast that the population of a major country like Russia would actually start shrinking (as it did about 14 years ago). Germany's tipping point seems to have arrived in 2002, and Japan's in 2005.

So what are we to make of the moment, projected by the U.S. Census Bureau to arrive this month, when the population of the United States reaches 300 million, behind only that of China and India? Demographics is simply the arithmetic of culture and values—it only quantifies, it doesn't explain. Is 300 million a good thing? A bad thing? Thinking about that number provides an opportunity to talk about where we're headed and what makes us tick.

Readers who remember November 20, 1967, when the population of the United States passed 200 million, may recall the predictions of Paul R. Ehrlich. In The Population Bomb, in 1968, he foretold "certain" mass starvation by 1975 because of population growth. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," Ehrlich's first sentence read. "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs," he declared. At best, North America and Europe would have to undergo "mild" food rationing within the decade as starvation and riots swept across Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Arab countries; at worst, the turmoil in a foodless Third World would set off a series of international crises leading to thermonuclear war.

Of course, things didn't quite work out that way. The problem in the United States is obesity. Even in places like Somalia and Sudan, famines have been intractable not because of any global lack of food, but because the food has not gotten to the people who need it—too often because corrupt regimes have withheld it as a means of political control. Nonetheless, Ehrlich's misjudgment sold more than three million copies, and the phrase "population bomb" entered the vocabulary.

That's why some people find it hard to wrap their minds around the big news in demographic circles today. It's not catastrophic population growth. It's catastrophic population shrinkage.

Yes, shrinkage. True, the total global population has not yet finished increasing. But nearly half the world's population lives in countries where the native-born are not reproducing fast enough to replace themselves. This is true in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Russia, Japan, Canada and the United States. It's also true in much of East Asia, pockets of Latin America and such Indian megacities as New Delhi, Mumbai (Bombay), Kolkata (Calcutta) and Chennai (Madras). Even China is reproducing at levels that fall short of replacement.

Typically, a couple has to produce about 2.1 children to replace themselves, allowing for death among the young. Even in traditionally Catholic countries in Europe, the birthrate has dropped to shockingly low levels in the last two generations: 1.3 in both Italy and Spain in 2005. In metropolitan Tokyo, the rate dropped to 0.98. In Hong Kong and Macau, it hit 0.96 and a hitherto unthinkable 0.84, respectively, the latter the lowest on record. Few demographers ever dreamed that in the absence of war, famine and pestilence—in fact, as a result of urbanization, development and education—birthrates would drop so dramatically. No one knows where the bottom is. Keep this up, and eventually your civilization will disappear.

The United States' population is growing at the rate of almost 1 percent per year, thanks in part to immigration and its secondary effects. Not only does the United States accept more legal immigrants as permanent residents than the rest of the world combined, but these recent arrivals tend to have more children than established residents—until, as their descendants attain affluence and education, the birthrates of these Americans also drop below replacement levels. Overall—that is, counting both immigrants and the native-born—the United States has a replacement rate of 2.03.

Nearly half of the nation's children under 5 belong to a racial or ethnic minority. The face of the future is already in our schools: our kindergartens now prefigure the country as a whole, circa 2050—a place where non-Hispanic whites are a slight majority. High-achieving school systems are already adapting: in Fairfax County, Virginia, for example, where 93 percent of all high-school graduates go on to post-secondary education, programs that teach English as a second language accommodate more than 100 native tongues, including more than five flavors of Chinese.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus