This past week a news story got my attention. It detailed a coming phenomenon that is already having an impact across the globe: a demographic reversal in which by the year 2030 there will be 56 countries that will have more people aged 65 and over than children under 15. The countries in which this will occur are diverse and from various continents, and include the United States. The causes for this epoch reversal are two-fold. First, people are living longer; and second, fewer children are being born. It is something that has never happened before.
This will have a tremendous impact on all sorts of things, including economies, immigration, and political volatility. For example, when Social Security was instituted, 15 workers were supporting the pension of every retiree. In the very near future, the United States will resemble present-day Italy, which has a ratio of 3 to 1. This will lead to difficult social and political problems. These strains will increase political pressure to adopt “fixes” like euthanasia, already legal in several states. There are many other unforeseen consequences.
How did this happen? Well, the reasons are complex and more than can be explored in a short column, but I will suggest a key factor: the American dream. For an Eagle Scout to say that sounds a bit heretical, I know. But, in many ways the American dream is about having—having things, being a consumer, acquiring goods. Modern capitalism, which has generated great wealth and lifted many out of poverty (a good thing), is not beyond criticism (something Pope Francis and his predecessors have done). And one of the most serious flaws is that it tends to subordinate family and children to acquisition. Until relatively recently, children were always seen as an asset rather than a liability. Various technologies were employed to limit the “liability” such as contraception and abortion, so as to enhance one’s ability to pursue the “dream.” In effect, while there are more rich people with more things, we have been committing demographic suicide. Lost is that the greatest treasure of any nation is its families and children—its people. And it is a vicious cycle: the pursuit of having makes raising children more expensive. Parents are led to believe that you should not have a child unless you can: give them the “best” of everything, provide each child with his or her own room, and fully pay for his/her college tuition. A child who cannot be given the American Dream should not be born. Ironically, modern capitalism is its own undoing, eliminating the future consumers it relies on for success.
One can already see the early effect of the trend in our nation as well as in our own parishes and diocesan schools. There are fewer children. The exception to this, of course, is with our newly arrived immigrant families. They bring two blessings to our country and our communities: the majority of them bring a devout Christian faith, and they prize family and children. Both enrich America.
While this news is sobering, all is not bleak. The Gospel of Jesus Christ retains its power to show us another way to live and to answer the difficult questions that are being asked by human beings today. There is a need for new “mustard seeds” to sprout and grow, and these mustard seeds are our marriages and families, the foundation for any healthy civilization. This is why the recent extraordinary synod on marriage and the family was so timely.
Let us be careful not to fall prey to the false god that the Gospel calls mammon, but to attend to the living God and His way. In the words of Pope Francis, “The ability of human couples to beget life is the path along which the history of salvation progresses” (Amoris Laetitia, 11). It is also the path along which nations rise or fall.