The Demographic Case for Investing in our Children, or Why We Should Have Listened to Whitney Houston

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“I believe that children are our future.
Teach them well and let them lead the way.”

I am a child of the 1970s, and was twelve years old when Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All was released in 1985, when perhaps more adults did believe that children were our future. Yet, many of us adults today may be unaware of how much truer these words are now than they were when I was a child, as we currently face a demographically-borne crisis that can only be addressed if we heed Whitney Houston’s words.

Many of us are aware of the aging Baby Boom generation: my own parents are on the leading edge of that cohort, in their early 70s today. While they are in relatively good health, they will likely need assistance in the coming years. And as advancements in science and public health have extended our life expectancy from 71 years when I was born, to nearly age 79 today, I can expect to be caring for my parents while also caring for my school-aged child (World Bank, 2015). Many of us are in this same situation, and we are becoming increasingly aware of the impact that this massive Baby Boom generation is exerting on the working-age population as they (and we) age.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the lifespan spectrum, fewer of us may be aware of the state’s and this country’s continuously declining birth rate. Fewer of us still, are aware of the growing impact that this declining birth rate will have on us, the current working-age population, and on generations coming of age in the near and distant future to come.

As illustrated in the figure below, following the Great Recession of 2007, fertility rates declined precipitously, and have remained well below the replacement rate of 2.1, at which population size would be sustained at a constant.

California State Total Fertility Rates, Historical and Projected

Source: Demographic Research Unit, California Department of Finance December 2014.

As such, smaller and smaller cohorts of children will be coming of age into the foreseeable future, meaning fewer and fewer people will be available to support aging cohorts, who are living longer and longer.

I’m not talking here about the individual level, where aging individuals will be able to depend less on their fewer (or nonexistent) children, although that is indeed true. I’m referring to the decreasing reserve of children who will come of age and enter the workforce, shrinking our future pool of   physicians, nurses, sanitation workers, teachers, scientists, builders, and welders that will sustain our future infrastructure. We are also witnessing a dwindling of the numbers of people who will be contributing to consumer demand, tax revenue, social security, and indeed to our Gross Domestic Product. As the Baby Boomers enter into retirement and fewer younger people are available to replace them in the labor market, we will see a reduction in our labor supply and an associated decrease in our economic growth.

Demographer Dowell Myers, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Southern California calculates an index that compares the economic and social responsibility a cohort is expected to carry when that cohort reaches age 25. Based on his calculations, at prime working age, those born in 2015 will bear twice the economic and social weight carried by those born in 1985 or earlier (Myers, 2013).

The wise bet is on cultivating the future skills of the children we do have [...]
Investing in our most vulnerable, most under-resourced children
will be where the greatest gains and returns on investments can be made

So what’s to be done about this state of affairs? Should we just have a ton more babies? Immediately? Well, we could, but by the time these mythical myriad babies were to be born and come of age, we will already be far past the point of critical need to address these imminent issues. Solutions need to come much sooner than that. As Dr. Myers’ work suggests, the wise bet is on cultivating the future skills of the children we do have; investing more and earlier in the fewer resources we have (i.e., our children), so that we can ultimately do more with less, because we will have to (Myers, 2017). Moreover, investing in our most vulnerable, most under-resourced children will be where the greatest gains and returns on investments can be made.

Indeed, children are our future. If Californians hope to prosper in the years to come, it is clear that every child must have the supports necessary to optimize opportunities for maximal contribution to a society that will increasingly require more from them.  

Every child must have the supports necessary to optimize opportunities

Teach them well and let them lead the way. It’s the only way that we as a society – indeed, as a state – and as a country –can hope to thrive. Future post in this series will highlight some efforts in the areas of early care and education, housing, and health/well-being that ASR and our partners are engaged in, as well as some ways you might take action to help improve the life outcomes of our youngest Californians.

Stay tuned! Upcoming posts in this series will explore how this topic pertains to education, health, and housing. 

References

Myers, Dowell. (2013). California’s diminishing resource: children. Retrieved from: http://popdynamics.usc.edu/pdf/2013_Myers_Californias-Diminishing-Children.pdf

Myers, Dowell. (2017). The new importance of children in America. Retrieved from: http://popdynamics.usc.edu/pdf/2017_Myers_New_Importance_Children.pdf

World Bank. (2015). Life Expectancy in U.S. Retrieved from: https://www.google.com/search?q=life+expectancy+in+us&oq=life+expe&aqs=chrome.2.69i57j0l5.3863j1j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

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