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Alarming birthrate trend in U.S., Japan

Japan's death rate has surpassed its birthrate. Above,

Japan's death rate has surpassed its birthrate. Above, senior citizens exercise in Tokyo in 2016. Credit: Corbis via Getty Images / noboru hashimoto

In P.D. James’ dystopian novel “The Children of Men,” the unthinkable has happened — people have stopped having children.

Science cannot pinpoint the reason why human reproduction is no longer possible, and it’s at a loss how to fix it. Without hope for the future, society descends into moral darkness.

The elderly, now a burden, are involuntarily euthanized. “Criminals” are exported to an island prison from which none return. Roving bands of hedonic young men terrorize and kill.

Government, seeking to retain some control, promotes pleasure-seeking activities among the populace — everything from golf courses to pornography shops.

That hopelessness came to mind as I read a devastating piece in The New York Times last November about the lonely deaths of Japan’s rapidly aging population. Japan’s death rate has surpassed its birthrate. In 2016, the number of births dropped below a million — a disheartening milestone for a nation that is expected to lose a third of its population by 2060.

The village of Nagaro, once home to 300, has fewer than 30 people. One resident even made dolls to remind her of the people — and the children — who are no longer there.

These stories are about Japan, but they provide a sobering look at the future of the developed world if it continues on its current demographic trajectory. That’s because Japan is far from the only nation experiencing a baby bust. Birthrates across the European Union are below the replacement rate. Things are equally grim in the United States.

Last year, the U.S. birthrate, already declining for years, hit a historic low — 1.77 per woman — largely driven by a collapse in childbearing by people of the millennial generation. The decline has been rapid. Only a decade ago it was 2.1, the rate necessary to keep a population stable.

And while some progressive thinkers (like those who believe large families are unethical or that slowing population growth means greater sustainability) welcome this news, most observers understand the profound consequences of a nation with fewer and fewer babies.

Economist and migration blogger Lyman Stone has described a few of them, including major slumps in economic growth and economic dynamism.

Then there’s the looming collapse of our faltering entitlements state. If Social Security survives the baby boomers, how much longer can it be sustained by an ever-shrinking working population?

Demographers and social scientists have plenty of theories as to what is causing this loss of “will to breed” — delayed marriage, increased use of contraception, failure to launch, the extreme cost of higher education, public policies that are unfriendly to families, the increased secularization of society.

And few people can agree on public-policy solutions that might incentivize fertility.

Some argue that tax cuts and other financial incentives will spur the birthrate. Others think limits on contraception will have the same effect. Stone says any impact they create would be nominal.

What’s most disturbing about this trend is that, despite calls for increased contraception and female empowerment, women in the United States and Europe are having fewer children than they want to.

That alone should tell us the causes run deep and something dramatic needs to happen if we want to reverse course. Policy changes are well and good, but we need wholesale cultural change.

Having children, says Emmanuel Gobry, of Ethics and Public Policy Center advocacy group, is “a signal that people are willing to commit to the most enduring responsibility on Earth, which is raising a child.”

To have hope in our future, we must have more children.

We don’t want life to imitate art.

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.