FERTILITY IN AMERICA has been declining for years. According to the Pew Research Center, the nation's birth rate hit an all-time low in 2011 – just 63 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age. It was almost twice as high – 123 births per 1,000 women – at the peak of the Baby Boom in 1957.
As babies and children disappear from a society, what takes their place? One answer, as journalist Jonathan V. Last observes in a forthcoming book, "What to Expect When No One's Expecting," is pets.
In surveys taken from the 1940s to the 1980s, fewer than half of Americans said they owned a pet. Today America's 300 million humans own 360 million pets. Last puts that in perspective: "American pets now outnumber American children by more than four to one." Often those pets are pampered to a degree that quite recently would have been thought eccentric. The average dog-owning household's spending on pet grooming aids, for example, more than doubled between 1998 and 2006. Last notes that when a kids' clothing store in the suburban Washington neighborhood where he used to live went out of business, it was replaced by a doggie spa – leaving the neighborhood "with six luxury pet stores and only two shops dedicated to clothing children."
A mania for pets isn't all that materializes when the birth rate sinks. So do economic stagnation, dwindling innovation, a declining lifestyle, the exploding health and pension costs of an aging population, and the ever-heavier taxes needed to maintain the government safety net when there are fewer workers and entrepreneurs. Optimism, booming markets, and technological dynamism recede, supplanted by intergenerational conflict and loneliness.
Many people, it's true, are still in the grip of the Malthusian fallacy. The superstition that that the Earth is already too full, and that more human beings will mean more hunger, misery, and environmental despoliation, is a popular one. But serious demographers, economists, and others have been warning for years that declining populations lead to shortages, misery, and upheaval.