Falling Birthrates, Falling Down On The Job
You’ll notice this whenever (for example) you read comment threads about movements like OUR Walmart (seeking better pay and working conditions for people at that company), or the Hostess/union bankruptcy story a couple weeks back: anytime any worker asks for higher wages or better working conditions, there’s plenty who’ll argue they don’t deserve these things because they’re so very replaceable: “If you don’t like your job, there’s plenty of people who’ll take it!” And that’s true, especially in this dismal economy.
So color me unsurprised to learn that pundits like Ross Douthat and Megan McArdle (both of whom oppose minimum-wage laws for sundry reasons) are extremely concerned about America’s declining birthrate. Douthat tut-tutted about it last week in a New York Times column titled “More Babies, Please,” and McArdle agreed with him a few days later when she worried about “Our Demographic Decline.”
It’s true that our current pay-as-you-go Social Security system can’t survive without an ever-growing base of younger workers to support retirees. But that’s true of any Ponzi scheme; the housing bubble would still be inflating, if only America had a few hundred million extra suckers and some additional too-big-to-fail banks willing to lend them money with no concern about repayment. So even if my generation (X) had enough kids to support us in retirement, that would only kick the can down the road a generation or two.
Of course, to address an argument I’ve had thrown at me before, it’s absolutely true that humanity would go extinct if everybody decided to travel the childfree route. (Though pretty much any life choice would be catastrophic if adopted by every adult on the planet: “You want to be a doctor? But if everybody became a doctor then we wouldn’t have any farmers, and we’d starve to death!” “You want to be a farmer? But if everybody became a farmer then we wouldn’t have any doctors, and would die of easily treatable diseases!”)
Not that Douthat or McArdle resort to the extinction-of-humanity strawman argument. McArdle instead offers the following thought experiment:
That’s happening already; high unemployment among the young is exacerbated by Baby Boomers clinging to their jobs because they can’t or won’t retire. But adding more young workers to the competition isn’t going to help, either. Nor is America running short of upwardly mobile young entrepreneurs. The one thing we’re low on these days is jobs that pay enough to support a family, for non-entrepreneurs who aren’t destined to found the next Facebook or Twitter or Apple. (And for every twentysomething American today working soul-crushing hours in hope of getting rich, there’s a far greater number working just to keep themselves housed and fed.)
No, even if American births remain at below-replacement rates, we won’t run out of upwardly mobile entrepreneurs, or of service workers to make their lattes and care for their elderly relatives in nursing homes. But if birthrates don’t increase, there will be a shortage of people desperate enough to work such jobs for poverty wages. And it truly is an amazing coincidence, the large level of overlap to be found between those who oppose minimum wage laws, and those who tut-tut over falling birthrates.