Birth dearth is worth skepticism

THERE'S nothing wrong with futurology that the future won't cure. Population trends, scientific developments, and major human needs are the basic building blocks from which futurologists build the platforms for their intuitive leaps. As we have progressed in recent generations of the Age of Reason from romantic imaginers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells to harvesters of technical news like Herman Kahn, Alvin Toffler, and John Naisbitt, the solid base of demography and technology is increasingly emphasized.

Think tanks sieve the news from laboratories and offices like factory ships harvesting krill. When they go wrong, it is in trying to tell us that several thousand krill pressed together equals the whole fish of the future.

In his belated trumpeting of the Western ``birth dearth,'' the usually sensible American author Ben Wattenberg may be leading politicians, business and labor leaders, not to mention husbands and wives, into wasteful overreaction to the trough that follows the baby wave.

Of the three building blocks mentioned above, population projections have long seemed the most dependable.

It's difficult to forecast what scientific ``breakthroughs'' loom around the corner. Who knows when fusion power will come on line. Or whether moving sidewalks will become common; fire ants and killer bees will be halted short of the snow belt; wristwatch phones will leave us never out of touch; and kitchens will have automatic garbage sorters and composters?

By comparison, forecasting population, and its effects, for a decade or two seems easy. Look at present population. Look at fertility rates. Do actuarial work on mortality rates. Voila! You have year-by-year population figures, plus or minus a bit. From those you can project food consumption, the labor force, classroom space needs, consumer buying, and social security funding needs. Of course, we haven't always hit the bull's eye. Demographers in the late 1930s forecast a US population leveling off at about 150 million. Postwar Vienna was declared dying: a city of the elderly. So was Berlin. Both rejuvenated. The present so-called birth dearth didn't reach public notice until sometime in the 1970s. We were still too fascinated by the baby boom to grasp that that boom might beget a birthrate reversal.

Demographers and sociologists cannot always predict changes in human attitudes that instinctively compensate for depressions, war, food supply, and oversized swings of the birth pendulum. Nevertheless, population forecasts that limit themselves to a generation ahead are usually the most reliable of the futurists' tools.

Careful analysts have known since at least the late 1970s that there would be a potential for labor shortages in the last decade of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. Business and government planners in the US, Western Europe, the Soviet bloc and Japan have long since grasped the implications of such labor shortages. But suddenly, 10 years later, the Wattenberg book and a spate of magazine articles have created anxieties about what is as much an opportunity as a problem.

The Wattenberg analysis implies a declining civilization, less able to compete with populous, low-labor-cost, innovative Pacific Rim and other third-world nations. It implies, also, declining productivity, higher consumer costs, a falling standard of living. It does not take enough account of advancing manufacturing technology, or of the wisdom of the public in altering family size and educational goals to fit opportunity.

There are many reasons for advances in factory and office technology. Worldwide competition is one. An era of innovation is another. But conscious anticipation of a shrinking labor force in many of the most technologically advanced nations should not be ignored as a further driving force. Entrepreneurs, computer scientists, engineers, CEOs, conglomerate restructurers, and union leaders who are shaping flexible manufacturing systems and other labor-saving techniques may not keep pace with the reverse baby boom. But they have certainly provided a good blueprint. It shows how automated productivity increases can compensate for labor declines. We need to follow that blueprint and be sure education systems in the affected nations produce enough high quality engineers, managers, and general innovators to supplant the missing labor.

No society can rest on its oars and assume such efficiency will automatically fall into place. Nor can it be assumed that what the prophets of robotics, and on-line education foresee will be free of glitches. Remember earlier waves of automation that were going to result in the three-day workweek, decentralized work-at-home, and a blue-collar leisure class. They didn't happen. Even with some glitches, though, innovations already available for both manufacturing and service industries should allow us to take our fingers off the panic button.

The Western countries, including Japan, don't need to buy into the argument that tax subsidies are needed to stimulate larger families. China shouldn't be relaxing its effort to slow population growth because the first-generation result has been too many spoiled ``only children.'' There certainly is no reason to react to the reverse baby boom in the West (read North) by refusing to support population control efforts in the South of the world. Not when more than 900 out of every 1,000 children born on Earth for the rest of the century will arrive in the third world. countries.

The decision to support birth control in poorer lands and to resist birth subsidy in richer ones should not be racist or ethnocentric. Both restraints are good for the human family - for trade, education, housing, employment, productivity, ultimately improved international relations.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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