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Think Tank Specials — The Grandchild Gap

New Documentary Examines Surprising Trend
Toward Fewer Children, Smaller Families



“It's hard to afford children in today’s society”

“I don’t want to have any children.”

“So many more problems are around today with drugs and AIDS and things like that, people are paranoid to bring kids into the world.”


These are the voices of just a few of the young people presented in The Grandchild Gap, a one-hour PBS documentary hosted by Ben Wattenberg, moderator of the weekly PBS series Think Tank. The program examines a new and important demographic trend: never before in history have birth rates and fertility rates fallen so low for so long in so many places, all around the world. Wattenberg predict that as time goes on, the Population Explosion will be smothered by the Baby Bust. (See accompanying charts.)

As Johns Hopkins University demographer Andrew Cherlin points out, “We're going to see a grandchild shortage.”

Demographic Trends
It has now been 25 consecutive years that American total fertility rates have been below the “replacement rate” of 2.1 children per women.

The Baby Boomers had different ideas about childbearing than did their parents. Surveys show that boomer women wanted to extend their education, work in the mainstream economy, and have fewer children.

The Boomers did indeed have smaller families. The number of children per woman, which reached 3.7 in the mid-1950s Baby Boom, was cut to 1.8 by the mid-1970s, the lowest American rate ever. After a small upward blip in the late 1980s, fertility declined steadily again from 1990-1996, to near all-time lows. The decline continues.

Social Programs
This Baby Bust poses some problems. Programs like Social Security and Medicare were designed (in part) to alleviate the direct dependence of the old on the young. But while the intergenerational contract between children, parents and grandparents was partly institutionalized, it was not revoked.

Social Security, for example, is a “pay as you go” system. Many grandparents are, at essence, still reliant on their children and grandchildren for security at the end of their lives — even though we channel payment for their retirement through federal taxes.

These “pay as you go” plans are put in jeopardy by on-going low birthrates. For example, in 1950 there were eight workers to support each retired person. By 2030, the ratio is projected to be 2 workers per retiree.

Wattenberg argues that the projected “entitlement crisis” is thus caused not just by the aging of the Baby Boom, but by the fact that the Boomers had a Baby Bust. “Critics describe Social Security as a Ponzi scheme, but life is and always has been a Ponzi scheme,” says Wattenberg. “Parents take care of children. Later on, children take care of parents. The problem arises when we do less ‘Ponzing’ — like when the Baby Boomers have so few children of their own. When the Baby Boomers retire, who pays their tab?”

A New National Debate
What policies could make it easier for young Americans who want children to have more children? Paid parental leave? School choice? Tax credits? The program presents the views of both liberals and conservatives, including feminist author Betty Friedan and conservative Karl Zinsmeister of the American Enterprise Institute.

The Global Picture
New United Nations data show that trend toward sharply diminishing fertility is going on all over the world. In the modern developed countries birthrates have been far below the “replacement rate” since about 1970.

From 1990 to 1995, 37 of 39 European nations saw an overall further decline in fertility rates of 16 percent, from a base already lower than any in recorded history. The continental rate is now 1.6 children per woman. Japanese fertility rates have plummeted as well. The Less Developed Countries (LDCs) are going through an exceptionally rapid free-fall in fertility rates, albeit from a substantially higher base. 29 LDCs already have below-replacement fertility. (See charts.)

The Grandchild Gap goes on-location in France and Italy (a country with a fertility rate of 1.2, the lowest in the world.) According to Antonio Golini, demographer at the University of Rome, “If Italy’s fertility will remain at the same level for thirty to forty years, the Italian population will be reduced by one-third.” (That is the proportional equivalent of 90 million missing Americans.)

The Grandchild Gap is produced by BJW Inc. in association with New River Media of Washington, DC. Andrew Walworth is executive producer. Robert Schurgin is producer.

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