Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Now for Some Good News: Giving Birth to the Future

Given the week that Israel has undergone, we can use some good news. So here goes – from a completely different perspective.

Doomsday pundits about a country’s future focus on several factors, but above all else “demographic” trends take precedence. From that standpoint, a comparison between the U.S., China, and Israel is both enlightening and sobering.

The news from America is not good. Last week, the government issued its 2020 demography report: birth rates dropped 4% to 1.6 per woman – continuing a relatively precipitous decline since 2007, when births were 19% higher than in 2020! Add to this the politically-induced drop in immigration (mainly during the Trump presidency) and one finds the second slowest population growth rate for any decade in American history (going back to the 18th century)!

China is in even worse shape. Their population report was also released this week, and it’s nothing short of catastrophic: the absolute number of births dropped to the level way back in 1961. Indeed, China’s 1.3 children per female puts in the low end of all countries. At this rate, its “social security” fund will run out of money in 2036, as the number of workers drops drastically and the retiree numbers skyrocket.

Meanwhile, Israel continues to show an overall, healthy birth rate. The Israeli Jewish and Arab fertility rates are very close to each other, with the latter having plummeted precipitously since 1948 and the former steadily increasing – both nearing the same rate from opposite directions: 3 children per woman.

Overall, America’s population (including births, deaths and immigration/emigration) increased in 2020 by 0.6%, whereas Israel’s rose by 1.6% – a rate 167% higher!

Obviously, there is no comparison in absolute numbers: 1.4 billion in China, over 330 million in the U.S., and “only” (close to) 10 million in Israel. Rather, when considering the future of a society, the real measure is the overall trend. This is because ever since birth control became universally attainable last century, birth rates are almost exclusively a matter of parental choice. And when parents choose to have fewer children (or when the government directly dampens it, as did China until a few years ago – but now Chinese parents themselves are loath to have “too many” children), that’s a statement not only about their own family’s future, but about society’s prospects as well.

True, there are several factors that go into family planning (income, cost of raising children, etc.) but even most of these considerations reflect on society’s strengths and weaknesses. For instance, the Biden Administration’s announced policy of subsidizing childcare is an attempt to enable people to bring up children without giving up professional advancement – something that Israel has excelled in from the start with lengthy (15 weeks), paid maternity leave.

Economic considerations are but one of several that go into such parental decisions. Social psychology plays a decisive role, albeit not necessarily conscious. If citizens perceive their country to be languishing or “deteriorating” (in whatever sense the individual views this), the tendency is to bring fewer children into such a declining world – and of course the opposite is true: optimism feeds on itself.

Moreover, there is a feedback loop to this as well. A declining growth rate – or more catastrophically, an absolute decline in population numbers (Japan today; China, Italy, Germany in the near future), ineluctably leads to economic decline with less consumers to buy products and fewer “brains” to come up with technological innovations. Once started, the spiral continues downwards.

Israel’s birthrate is the absolute highest among all OECD countries – by almost a full child per woman! This reflects significant optimism among Israelis. It also belies the “argument” that Israel is threatened by Palestinian demographics (the “population bomb”) – which in turn influences how Israeli policymakers view their foreign policy freedom of action (or lack of constraints) moving into the future.

Similarly, U.S. governments have to consider whether declining American birth rates should(n’t) lead to opening the gates of immigration in order to enable continued population growth – not only because every immigrant adds an individual to the total, but because immigrants tend to have more children than native born citizens (again, “optimism” regarding their personal future). Xenophobic China has always been loath to open its gates to foreigners.

The bottom line: the economic “bottom line” can tell us how well a country is doing in the short term, but for its long-term future the real factor to look at is birth rates and general population increase. In that respect, Israel is doing just fine; China is in deep trouble; and America (as is the case for the rest of the West) needs to resolve a trend that in the mid-term future could well signal serious societal ennui and decline.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see:
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