There was nothing fancy about it: a bit of cardboard, hand-lettered in felt-tip pen and propped in a shop window in Bar Harbor, Maine. Its message echoed hundreds of signs up and down America's East Coast this summer: Help Wanted. But behind the message stands a new reality. The United States is running out of teen-agers. Employers, accustomed to a ready pool of labor during the school-vacation months, have had to comb the landscape for workers: The news this season has been full of accounts of $7-an-hour jobs slinging hamburgers.
What has yet to dawn on the public, however, is the bigger picture. These ``Help Wanted'' signs are tiny portents, no bigger than a man's hand, of a deeply disturbing trend. They may be the first ripples of what demographers call the ``birth dearth'' - the collapse of the birth-rate among Western nations.
In a book published this week by Pharos Books in New York, Ben J. Wattenberg argues with great persuasion that ``The Birth Dearth'' (as he titles his study) is an unprecedented phenomenon. So relentless has been what he calls the ``free fall'' of birthrates in the Western industrial nations - and so serious are the consequences for economies dependent on an ever-expanding market and work force - that the West risks putting itself, quite literally, out of business. Most important, it risks producing a world in which the Western values of democracy, freedom, and equality will be held by such a tiny fraction of the population (see chart) that they may not prevail.
But how on earth, ask the wide-eyed baby-boomers now in their childbearing years, can this be so? Hasn't it been pounded into us, ever since we all gasped at Paul Ehrlich's ``The Population Bomb'' in 1968, that we're about to crowd one another off the planet? Aren't we being warned that in this very month - July 1987 - the world's population will pass the 5 billion mark? (See related story, Page 16.) Didn't we Americans do what was right by slicing our fertility rate from 3.77 births per woman in 1957 to 1.8 in 1986? And now you're telling us that at this rate the nation will dwindle away - since we're well below the magic 2.1 figure needed just to replace each couple? How has this happened?
Very quietly and with great complexity, replies Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. He reminds us that, although most Western nations are still growing slowly, West Germany is already experiencing an absolute decline in population - and may well be the bellwether for the rest of the West.
Immigration, according to his carefully marshaled numbers, will come nowhere near closing the gap. The population implosion, he warns, will be felt everywhere from fast-food counters to the housing industry, as markets dwindle and nations age.
Causes of the birth dearth? Urbanization, education, higher incomes, more working women, better contraception, easier abortion, delayed marriage, increasing divorce, the higher costs of children - these and other factors all conspire, he argues, to depress fertility. Result: The nations most able to provide leadership and economic support for the growing populations in the less-developed countries (LDCs) may be handicapping themselves just when their assistance is most needed.
Wattenberg's thesis, as he regularly reminds us, is speculative - and the reader will want to subject some of its assumptions to tough scrutiny. First is the assumption that today's LDCs will still be LDCs in 2100 - that the next 113 years, in other words, will see no progress at all in the spread of Western values. Second is the apparent assumption that, while most demographers view the ``baby boom'' itself as a wild aberration, the current birth dearth (which may be no more than a reaction to it) is inevitable and irreversible.
Third is the notion, so common among economists, that markets are measured by warm bodies - as though the size of a population, rather than the magnitude of its ideas and inventiveness, were what mattered.
That said, however, the book remains a forceful, readable, and much-needed awakening - especially when, at the very end, Wattenberg puts his finger on the fundamental issue. ``Our central problem,'' he concludes, ``is in the realm of spirit.''
``If our young people remain a generation that can be characterized as `me-oriented' or `self-actualizing,' they probably will continue to have few children.
``But suppose we could re-enspirit this generation to understand and take pride in the fact that they are part of a remarkable, potent, productive, humane, beneficent culture.... Suppose it was explained that only they can preserve it and that there is something real to fear if they don't.''
Does that sound rather grand? So it is. The effort to ``re-enspirit'' the West is the real ``Help Wanted.'' Nothing less will do.