By NICK SCHULZ A gloomy mood might seem to be justified at the moment. Unemployment is nearing 10%. We have just witnessed a bitter financial crisis, a series of debt-deepening bailouts and a bruising fight over health care. Conservatives fret that we're running out of time to tackle the entitlement crisis. Liberals fret that we're running out of time to tackle the climate crisis. Roughly 60% of poll respondents say that America is on the wrong track. Meanwhile, China has resumed its torrid economic growth and has become for the U.S. what Japan was in the 1980s—the seemingly unstoppable Asian force that will soon leave America's economy behind.
How to respond? "Declinists have always projected America's imminent demise," the editors of Newsweek wrote earlier this month. "For a change, they're onto something." Joel Kotkin would disagree. In fact, he is in a cheerful mood, in part because he has been thinking less about the present than about the near future, when the news, he says, is likely to be much brighter, at least for America.
"In stark contrast to its rapidly aging rivals," Mr. Kotkin writes in "The Next Hundred Million," "America's population is expected to expand dramatically in coming decades." He points to a slowly rising birth rate and to the continuing in-migration of young workers from poorer countries. Most of America's population growth between 2000 and 2050, he notes, "will be in its racial minorities, particularly Asians and Hispanics, as well as in a growing mixed-race population." No other developed country, he says, "will enjoy such ethnic diversity."
For Mr. Kotkin, population growth translates into economic vitality—the capacity to create wealth, raise the standard of living and meet the burdens of future commitments. Thus a country with a youthful demographic, in relative terms, enjoys a big advantage over its global counterparts. In the next four decades, Mr. Kotkin observes, "most of the developed countries in both Europe and Asia will become veritable old-age homes" because of stagnant population growth. And the economies of these countries, already devoted to a vast welfare-state apparatus, will face crushing pension obligations—but without the young workers to defray the cost.
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The Next Hundred Million By Joel Kotkin
Penguin Press, 308 pages, $25.95
Inevitably, Europe and Asia will decline, Mr. Kotkin predicts, and America will thrive. Indeed, the U.S. will emerge, he says, "as the most affluent, culturally rich, and successful nation in human history." What about the billion-person behemoth across the Pacific? Not to worry. Mr. Kotkin thinks that, by midcentury, China's one-child policy will cause it, too, to suffer from the burdens of an aging population.
If Mr. Kotkin is right about America's "next hundred million" people being the key to its happy destiny, where are these people going to live? In the suburbs, he believes—and why not? For most Americans, Mr. Kotkin writes, the suburbs represent "the best, most practical choice for raising their families and enjoying the benefits of community." He adds that, even with one hundred million more people, the U.S. "will still be only one sixth as crowded as Germany." In short, there is lots of room to grow.
Mr. Kotkin's vision of America's next four decades—expanding, browning, adapting and thriving—is largely convincing. He's no Pollyanna, however. He worries especially that upward mobility is more difficult than it once was and that class polarization is a real possibility, because a knowledge economy like America's tends to widen class divisions. The result is "an expanding affluent class of the highly educated, a stubbornly impoverished population, and a shrinking middle class."
Here is one area where Mr. Kotkin might have said more. The collapse of the family in America's underclass persists—with more families than not headed by single mothers. Mr. Kotkin is delighted to report that the family in America is taking ever new shapes, adapting and "resurging" in different forms. This claim may well be true for the broad middle class. But in that stubbornly impoverished sector, the family isn't resurging at all. America's relatively high birthrate—a source of national strength generally, as Mr. Kotkin says—contains a large percentage of out-of-wedlock births. In some urban neighborhoods, the rate stands close to 70%. The most "successful nation in human history" still has some work to do.
Mr. Schulz is editor of American.com, the Journal of the American Enterprise Institute, and co-author of "From Poverty to Prosperity" (Encounter, 2009).