A Clear-Eyed Look at Our Demographic Future

Pro-immigration activists rally near the U.S. Capitol calling for immigration reform in Washington, D.C., May 12, 2021. (Photo by Aurora Samperio/NurPhoto /Getty Images)

Dear Capitolisters,

Frequent readers of this newsletter and those who know me IRL—two somewhat mutually exclusive groups for reasons we need not explore today—know I’m a pretty optimistic guy. Eco-doomerism, economic declinism, authoritarian hegemony, and other trendy pessimisms rarely find my warm embrace. But there are exceptions to my generally sunny outlook (beyond daylight saving time, expiration dates, and sloppy nachos, I mean), and last week’s U.S. Census Bureau projections definitely hit on one: 

Projections out this week from the Census Bureau see America’s long streak of expansion grinding to a halt by the 21st century’s end. Indeed, the US population could be shrinking by as early as 2080, after peaking at 369 million, in the bureau’s central scenario. … This marks the first time that the bureau has forecast a decline for the coming decades — with the only other recorded population decline in the US occurring in 1918, amidst a deadly Spanish flu outbreak and a World War. By contrast with 2015’s and 2018’s optimistic outlooks, the stark shift in 2023’s projection reflects a decline in birth rates, higher death rates (due to an increasingly aging population, as well a COVID-related spike), and a reliance on immigration as a driving factor for growth.

It isn’t exactly news that developed economies around the world will face various demographic challenges in the decades ahead, as their populations get older on average. Still, the new Census Bureau estimates are notable in showing just how the United States’ already aging population has combined with new fertility and mortality (especially COVID-19) issues to further crimp the future U.S. population and workforce—and in showing how U.S. policy could affect that future.

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