- Saturday, February 24, 2024

Imagine you’re standing at the side of a railroad track. Suddenly you see a train barreling toward you, accelerating as it goes. The brakes aren’t working. It’s heading toward a collision with another train coming in the opposite direction.

What do you do? Jump up and down, wave your arms, shout at the top of your lungs? What if it does no good?

We are heading for a demographic train wreck. Demographers and governments know about it, but no one can figure out what to do about it, though there are no shortage of unworkable solutions.

Once renowned for its high birthrates, Asia is leading the march into the frigid wasteland of demographic winter.

Japan’s economy just fell into fourth place internationally, behind the U.S., China and now Germany. The nation is slipping into recession, due in part to what is described as crimped domestic demand, which reflects a falling population. With a fertility rate of 1.34, well below replacement, it’s losing roughly 800,000 people a year.

According to the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, China is set to lose 60% of its population by the end of the century.

In 2023, for the second consecutive year, there were more deaths than births in China. Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on his people “to actively foster a new culture of marriage and childbearing.”

But they’re not listening.

Compared with South Korea, China and Japan are in the midst of a baby boom. That nation has the world’s lowest fertility rate — 0.78, roughly one-third of the 2.1 children per woman needed to maintain population stability.

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon wants to counter this with city-sponsored dating events. South Korea pays the equivalent of $1,500 to parents for their first child and $2,250 for the second. This is working as well as “Bidenomics.”

The rapidly aging Asian tigers are turning to older adults to bolster a sagging workforce.

In South Korea, almost one-quarter of the workforce is 70 and older. There are now more Koreans in their 70s than in their 20s. In Japan, 1 in 10 workers are 80 or older. Older adults account for 31% of Singapore’s workforce.

This is staving off the inevitable. With each generation smaller than the last, the graying dragons will eventually run out of older workers to fuel their economies.

When it comes to bolstering falling fertility, nothing seems to work — cash payments and other subsidies and appeals to national pride. Eventually, countries like China will resort to force — as it did for decades with its one-child policy. How would this work in reverse: evicting singles from their apartments? A tax rate that punishes bachelors?

The one thing that hasn’t been tried is faith, in part because most governments discount the value of religion.

Around the world, it’s the religious who are having children — including Catholics, Orthodox Jews and Mormons. In an anti-natalist culture, procreation is an act of faith.

In 1952, President-elect Dwight Eisenhower remarked, “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

“Silly old Ike,” liberals sneered. “He wants Americans to be religious, but he doesn’t care what that religion is.”

What Eisenhower meant was that a free society works only when most citizens believe in a higher power. Ike qualified his comments with “Of course, it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be religion with all men being created equal.”

Like democracy, procreation needs a foundation in faith.

The fertility bright spot in Asia is the Philippines, a Catholic country with the highest fertility rate in the region — 1.9, down from 2.7 just a few years ago.

Even there, the population controllers are having an impact. They’ve convinced Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. that limiting population is the key to growth.

In reality, it’s the opposite. Since the Industrial Revolution, population growth and economic development have gone hand in hand. It was the population boom of the post-Civil War era that led to American preeminence in the 20th century.

The wreck is coming. On one train, there are declining fertility and fewer resources that come from fewer producers. On the other, a growing population of old people and the expenditures needed to care for them.

Avoiding this looming catastrophe is the great challenge of the 21st century.

“Having children is saving the world,” Elon Musk says. True, but the right motivation is required.

• Don Feder is a columnist with The Washington Times.

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