As 2016 rolled to a close, many citizens in the United States were eager to put a year of grinding problems behind them.
Terrorist attacks. An opioid addiction crisis. Crippling political gridlock. Indeed, America has been grappling with an overwhelming set of challenges that defy all attempts at solutions.
And last month brought news of what might prove to be America’s greatest problem of all. Hidden beneath the customary headlines was a grim announcement by the United States Census Bureau. Apparently, the American population is growing at its slowest rate since the Great Depression.
The causes? The mortality of the massive baby boom generation. Millennials delaying the start of new families because of financial concerns. Restrictions on immigration inflows.
Japan, Russia, and other nations are further along. They are experiencing an outright population decline, and the pervasive economic malaise that accompanies it.
When newlyweds don’t start families, for instance, they don’t purchase small homes. And so the current owners of those homes can’t move up to larger ones. Without such growth, furniture isn’t purchased. Schools aren’t built. Motor vehicles aren’t bought. And the economy wilts.
In addition, social and economic resources are diverted towards care for the elderly. Fewer resources are thus available to train the next generation of employees. So employers shift jobs away to nations with young, dynamic, and growing work forces.
In the United States, there may be little that can be done to reverse the mortality rate of baby boomers. But government policies can certainly be modified to promote population growth among millennial and immigrant groups.
Would such policies generate their own problems? Indeed they would. But they would also begin to address the stagnating growth rate of the population, which may represent the greatest long term challenge that confronts the American people.