I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who is on a committee to save an elementary school (our childhood elementary school) from being closed by the school board. There are simply not enough students to warrant keeping it open, so the board is adjusting school zones to justify boarding up St. Rita’s and sending its dwindling population to two other schools in the city. I suggested that instead of focusing on cost savings and school boundaries that the committee should instead convince local priests and pastors to preach the virtues of large families and (following the advice of Rabbi Yehuda Levin) encourage every couple to have one more child. Of course, this was only partially tongue in cheek; even if every church-going woman of child-bearing age had a child in the next two years, the baby bubble wouldn’t reach school-age for five years, too late to save our old school.

Ottawa Citizen columnist Dan Gardner writes about demography, fertility rates and short- and long-term thinking in public policy. Gardner says:

But the critical fact about demographic change is that it is both powerful and very, very slow.

Imagine, for example, that the Canadian fertility rate suddenly surged to the replacement level tomorrow. That wouldn’t produce a baby boom like the one that happened after the Second World War. But it would mean considerably more babies. And that would make a difference to Canada’s demographics. Down the road. Way down the road.

A surge in births tomorrow would make no difference to the effects of population aging in 2017 because those babies would only be seven years old then. Nor would it make a difference in 2031 because babies born tomorrow would only be on the cusp of entering the labour market then, as Rick Miner noted when I talked to him. The fertility rate is critical, he agreed. But not for the purposes of a 20-year forecast of the labour market.

See the problem? When the fertility rate slipped below the replacement level in the 1970s, policy makers didn’t talk about it because they were only thinking four, five or 10 years out and it’s irrelevant in that timeframe. It’s even irrelevant to a 20-year timeframe.

So part of the problem is that we don’t see very far into the future when thinking about public policy (see the work of Cardus Senior Fellow Jonathan Wellum for more on short-termism in general). All the political incentives are for thinking that goes no further than the next election and even policy experts seldom think about decades into the future.

Yet Gardner has his own blinders on. Andrea Mrozek at PWPL has a criticism/reminder for Gardner and his readers:

You can’t talk about demographics without talking about fertility. And you can’t talk about fertility without talking about abortion. And you can’t talk about any of this without talking about an anti-child culture. And, for good measure, women waiting to have children.

Too many pundits and policy experts dance around the topic of fertility when they address demographics and no one wants to acknowledge the role of abortion in the drastic reduction in fertility rates in recent years. At best there is sometimes a parenthetical point made about how the contraceptive pill and professional employment for women has contributed to delayed child-bearing and smaller families, but then the pundit/expert skips on to immigration or the need to promote having more children by providing universal childcare or family friendly tax cuts. The problem, as Mrozek points out, goes much deeper and requires a much more difficult conversation. The solutions require making some moral judgements, not just economic ones.