Froma Harrop: Stop obsessing over America's population numbers (2024)

Americans have this big obsession over population numbers. One reason is that reports related to population come with numbers. Numbers give politicians and journalists something concrete to either agonize or crow over.

Froma Harrop: Stop obsessing over America's population numbers (1)

The problem with this approach is that the numbers don't necessarily reflect the living reality of the people being counted. Americans felt OK with their country in 1960, when the population totaled 179 million. But with birthrates falling and population growth flattening, we allegedly face a crisis even though the number of Americans today, 336 million, is almost double that of 1960.

The Boston Globe frets that cities such as Omaha, Nebraska, and Bakersfield, California, are producing far more babies per capita than Boston and Seattle. The reason is that highly educated workers are more likely to delay starting a family until their 30s. About 53% of Bostonians aged 25 and older have at least a college degree, compared with just under 40% of Omahans in the same age group.

Needless to say, Boston and Omaha are both wonderful cities, each in its own way.

This counting also fails to consider land area. Older coastal cities have tight city limits whereas the newer ones in the interior tend to have large land areas. Omaha has about 500,000 people living in an area of about 145 square miles, while Boston's 675,000 residents squeeze into 90 square miles. Thus, one can more easily live in a suburban-type setting -- where many families prefer to raise kids -- in a place such as Omaha than in Boston. Boston has huge far-flung suburbs outside the city limits that don't make it into this kind of count.

Many people attach problems to fewer babies. They argue that falling birth rates combined with rising life expectancy will lead to economic crisis as fewer young people are available to support growing numbers of retirees.

But another word for problem is challenge. One reason for higher life expectancies is that Americans are healthier at older ages. It's undeniable that for many, 65 isn't what it used to be.

Picturesque rural areas such as Sevier County, Tennessee, are now growing rapidly as older Americans, who once hiked there on vacation, now want to hike there in retirement, The Wall Street Journal reports. Long-time locals may resent the heavier traffic, but robust younger retirees need relatively little health care, and they tend not to have kids in school. So they go light on use of public services.

Furthermore, retirement is not what it used to be. The older workforce -- defined as Americans 65 and up -- has nearly quadrupled since the mid-1980s, according to The Pew Research Center. Those 75 and older are the fastest-growing age group in the workforce. Their participation has more than quadrupled in size since 1964.

Of course, these numbers also reflect an increase in older people. And many have not saved enough for a long retirement and must continue working. But many healthy "retirees" simply want to stay engaged.

Today's older Americans tend to have higher educational levels than their parents. Their jobs are less likely to require heavy physical labor, which can wear out a body. That brings us to "phased retirement," a trend whereby a worker stays with the same employer but puts in fewer hours.

A related phenomenon is "bridge jobs" -- jobs in the same industries that involve a different kind of work or fewer hours. An example would be a manager moving into a sales position.

In the last century, the global population nearly quadrupled from 1.6 billion to 6 billion. Continuing that trend would have led to environmental catastrophe. Today's flatlining birth rates should be far preferable.

They come with challenges, yes. But it can all be worked out.

Harrop, who lives inNew York City and Providence, Rhode Island, writes for Creators


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Froma Harrop: Stop obsessing over America's population numbers (2024)
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