All across America, millions of women and couples are deciding to have smaller families. The birth rate across the Lehigh Valley has also declined over the past two years.
This need not be cause for alarm.
This represents an extraordinary opportunity. We can downshift and focus on creating a greater society — as opposed to a larger one.
Yet alarms are being raised that somehow our future prosperity hinges on an ever-larger number of people. Most Americans clearly understand that is not true for their own families. And it is neither true for our own region, nor for our nation.
Americans have managed to adapt — and often thrive — in response to vast changes. For example, none of today’s five largest U.S. companies even existed when the U.S. population hit 200 million in 1967.
Remember when Amazon was just a river in South America?
Since then, our economy has gone through vast changes. Regardless of population trends, disruptions are a fact of modern life.
A stable U.S. population with fewer people entering the workforce could provide job opportunities for those currently trapped in poverty — which includes some 6,000 Lehigh Valley children. When they grow up, they deserve the chance to find great jobs.
Some worry that we won’t be able to provide for older Americans without rapid population growth. Certainly, we will need more nursing homes but fewer nursery schools. More senior transportation services but fewer school buses. More gerontologists but fewer obstetricians.
Yes, the ratio of workers to retirees will shrink, but the ratio of workers to young dependents will rise as family size declines. These manageable shifts will unfold over decades and generations. In fact, demographers still project that U.S. population may rise by more than 100 million by 2100.
As family size shrinks, higher employment among working-aged women, who are still the primary caregivers, can help offset the shrinking ratio of workers to retirees. Also, smaller families make it easier to invest more per child in terms of health and education, which is a boon to our future economic productivity.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis as of 2019, the Lehigh Valley employed 77,000 people in health care and education. Tomorrow’s jobs in those and other fields will demand a highly skilled workforce.
If we do need more workers down the road, there is no shortage of people who would like to be part of the American dream.
Slower population growth should be seen as a breath of fresh air.
And speaking of fresh air ... while our air and water are cleaner than they were 50 years ago, most Americans are still understandably worried about air and water pollution. And we are among the primary drivers of global climate change.
While we typically think of climate change affecting faraway places, there are serious challenges facing us here at home as well.
Hot weather is on the increase in the Lehigh Valley. Out West, the Colorado River is in peril. California — which produces most of our fruits, vegetables and nuts — relies on the Colorado for crop irrigation. Slower population growth would reduce demands on the shrinking supply of fresh water in the American Southwest.
Back East, coastal communities already face “sunny day” flooding due to climate-related sea level rise. Overbuilding, triggered by rapid population growth, in increasingly flood-prone areas is a prescription for disaster.
Economies are human-made. They can be adjusted to reflect our changing world.
We will have more older people and fewer younger people. We will have more women entering and staying in the paid labor force. And we will have more jobs carried out through automation.
We can also have more green spaces and wildlife habitats, more investment in each American, and more hope for a planet that can comfortably support future generations.
In this situation, less can be more.