The Report of the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future

Population Stabilization

The Commission’s Perspective

0084_rockefeller_commission_report_depopulationSoon after the Commission’s first meeting in June 1970, it became evident that the question of population stabilization would be a principal issue in its deliberations. A population has stabilized when the number of births has come into balance with the number of deaths, with the result that, the effects of immigration aside, the size of the population remains relatively constant. We recognize that stabilization will only be possible on an average over a period of time, as the annual numbers of births and deaths fluctuate. The Commission further recognizes that to attain a stabilized population would take a number of decades, primarily because such a high proportion of our population today is now entering the ages of marriage and reproduction.

As our work proceeded and we received the results of studies comparing the likely effects of continued growth with the effects of stabilization, it became increasingly evident that no substantial benefits would result from continued growth of the nation’s population. This is one of the basic conclusions we have drawn from our inquiry. From the accumulated evidence, we further concluded that the stabilization of our population would contribute significantly to the nation’s ability to solve its problems. It was evident that moving toward stabilization would provide an opportunity to devote resources to problems and needs relating to the quality of life rather than its quantity. Stabilization would “buy time” by slowing the pace at which growth-related problems accumulate and enhancing opportunities for the orderly and democratic working out of solutions.

The Commission recognizes that the demographic implications of most of our recommended policies concerning childbearing are quite consistent with a goal of population stabilization. In this sense, achievement of population stabilization would be primarily the result of measures aimed at creating conditions in which individuals, regardless of sex, age, or minority status, can exercise genuine free choice. This means that we must strive to eliminate those social barriers, laws, and cultural pressures that interfere with the exercise of free choice and that governmental programs in the future must be sensitized to demographic effects. *

*A separate statement by Commissioner Paul B. Cornely, M.D. appears on page 149.


Recognizing   that our population cannot grow indefinitely, and appreciating the advantages of moving now toward the stabilization of population, the Commission recommends that the nation welcome and plan for a stabilized population.


There remain a number of questions which must be answered as the nation follows a course toward population stabilization. How can stabilization be reached? Is there any particular size at which the population should level off, and when should that occur? What “costs” would be imposed by the various paths to stabilization, and what costs are worth paying?


Criteria for Paths to Stabilization

An important group in our society, composed predominantly of young people, has been much concerned about population growth in recent years. Their concern emerged quite rapidly as the mounting pollution problem received widespread attention, and their goal became “zero population growth.” By this, they meant in fact stabilization—bringing births into balance with deaths. To attain their objective, they called for the 2-child family. They recognize, of course, that many people do not marry and that some who do marry either are not able to have or do not want to have children, permitting wide latitude in family size and attainment of the 2-child average.

Some called for zero growth immediately. But this would not be possible without considerable disruption to society. While there are a variety of paths to ultimate stabilization, none of the feasible paths would reach it immediately. Our past rapid growth has given us so many young couples that, even if they merely replaced themselves, the number of births would still rise for several years before leveling off. To produce the number of births consistent with immediate zero growth, they would have to limit their childbearing to an average of only about one child. In a few years, there would be only half as many children as there are now. This would have disruptive effects on the school system and subsequently on the number of persons entering the labor force. Thereafter, a constant total population could be maintained only if this small generation in turn had two children and their grandchildren had nearly three children on the average. And then the process would again have to reverse, so that the overall effect for many years would be that of an accordion-like continuous expansion and contraction.’

From considerations such as this, we can begin to develop criteria for paths toward population stabilization.2 It is highly desirable to avoid another baby boom.

Births, which averaged 3.0 million annually in the early 1920’s, fell to a 2.4 million average in the 1930’s, rose to a 4.2 million average in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, and fell to 3.6 million in 1971.3 These boom and bust cycles have caused disruption in elementary and high schools and subsequently in the colleges and in the labor market. And the damage to the long-run career aspirations of the baby-boom generation is only beginning to be felt.

The assimilation of the baby-boom generation has been called “population peristalsis,” comparing it to the process in which a python digests a pig. As it moves along the digestive tract, the pig makes a big bulge in the python. While the imagery suggests the appearance of the baby-boom generation as it moves up the age scale and through the phases of the life cycle, there is reason to believe that the python has an easier time with the pig than our nation is having providing training, jobs, and opportunity for the generation of the baby boom.

Thus, we would prefer that the path to stabilization involve a minimum of fluctuations from period to period in the number of births. For the near future, these considerations recommend a course toward population stabilization which would reduce the echo expected from the baby-boom generation as it moves through the childbearing ages and bears children of its own.

Our evidence also indicates that it would be preferable for the population to stabilize at a lower rather than a higher level, Our population will continue to grow for decades more before stabilizing, even if those now entering the ages of reproduction merely replace themselves. The population will grow as the very large groups now eight to 25 years of age—the products of the postwar baby boom—grow older and succeed their less numerous predecessors. How much growth there will be depends on the oncoming generations of young parents.

Some moderate changes in patterns of marriage and childbearing are necessary for any move toward stabilization. There are obvious advantages to a path which minimizes the change required and provides a reasonable amount of time for such change to occur.

Population stabilization under modern conditions of mortality means that, on the average, each pair of adults will give birth to two children. This average can be achieved in many ways. For example, it can be achieved by varying combinations of nonmarriage or childlessness coexisting in a population with substantial percentages of couples who have more than two children. On several grounds, it is desirable that stabilization develop in a way which encourages variety and choice rather than uniformity.

We prefer, then, a course toward population stabilization which minimizes fluctuations in the number of births; minimizes further growth of population; minimizes the change required in reproductive habits and provides adequate time for such changes to be adopted; and maximizes variety and choice in life styles, while minimizing pressures for conformity.


An Illustration of an Optimal Path

Our research indicates that there are some paths to stabilization that are clearly preferable. These offer less additional population growth, involve negligible fluctuations in births, provide for a wide range of family sizes within the population, and exact moderate “costs”—that is, changes in marriage and childbearing habits, which are in the same direction as current trends.

A course such as the following satisfies these criteria quite well.4 (The calculations exclude immigration; the demographic role of immigration is reviewed in the next chapter.)

In this illustration, childbearing would decline to a replacement level in 20 years. This would result if: (1) the proportion of women becoming mothers declined from 88 to 80 percent; (2) the proportion of parents with three or more children declined from 50 to 41 percent; and (3) the proportion of parents with one or two children rose from 50 to 59 percent. Also in this illustration, the average age of mothers when their first child is born would rise by two years, and the average interval between births would rise by less than six months. The results of these changes would be that the United States population would gradually grow until it stabilizes, in approximately 50 years, at a level of 278 million (plus the contribution from the net inflow of immigrants). Periodic fluctuations in the number of births would be negligible.

The size of the population in the year 2000 will depend both on how fast future births occur as well as on the ultimate number of children people have over a lifetime. Over the next 10 to 15 years especially, we must expect a large number of births from the increasing numbers of potential parents, unless these young people offset the effect of their numbers by waiting somewhat before having their children. Postponement and stretching-out of childbearing, accompanied by a gradual decline in the number of children that people have over a lifetime, can effectively reduce the growth we shall otherwise experience.

Beyond this, there are persuasive health and personal reasons for encouraging postponement of childbearing and better spacing of births. Infants of teenage mothers are subject to higher risks of premature birth, infant death, and lifetime physical and mental disability than children of mothers in their twenties.5 If the 17 percent of all births occurring to teenage mothers were postponed to later ages, we would see a distinct improvement in the survival, health, and ability of these children.

It is obvious that the population cannot be fine-tuned to conform to any specific path. The changes might occur sooner or later than in this illustration. If they took place over 30 years instead of 20 we should expect nine million more people in the ultimate stabilized population—or 287 million rather than 278 million. Or if the average age at childbearing rose only One year instead of two, we would end up with 10 million more people than otherwise.

On the other hand, suppose we drifted toward a replacement level of fertility in 50 years instead of 20, and none of the other factors changed. In that case, the population would stabilize at 330 million. In other words, following this route would result in 50 million more Americans than the one illustrated above.


The Likelihood of Population Stabilization

Many developments—some old and some recent— enhance the likelihood that something close to an optimal path can be realized, especially’ if the Commission’s recommendations bearing on population growth are adopted quickly.

  1. The trend of average family size has been downward—from seven or eight children per family in colonial times to less than three children in recent years—interrupted, however, by the baby boom.
  2. The birthrate has declined over the past decade and showed an unexpected further decline in 1971.
  3. The increasing employment of women, and the movement to expand women’s options as to occupational and family roles and life styles, promise to increase alternatives to the conventional role of wife-homemaker-mother.
  4. Concern over the effects of population growth has been mounting. Two-thirds of the general public interviewed in the Commission’s survey in 1971 felt that the growth of the United States population is a serious problem. Half or more expressed concern over the impact of population growth on the use of natural resources, on air and water pollution, and on social unrest and dissatisfaction.6
  5. Youthful marriage is becoming less common than it was a few years ago. While 20 percent of women now in their thirties married before age 18, only 13 percent of the young women are doing so now.7 It remains to be seen whether this represents a postponement of marriage or a reversal of the trend toward nearly universal marriage.
  6. The family-size preferences of young people now entering the childbearing ages are significantly lower than the preferences reported by their elders at the same stage in life.
  7. The technical quality of contraceptives has increased greatly in the past 10 years, although irregular and ineffective use still results in many unplanned and unwanted births.
  8. The legalization of abortion in a few states has resulted in major increases in the number of legal abortions. The evidence so far indicates that legalized abortion is being used by many women who would otherwise have had to resort to illegal and unsafe abortions. The magnitude of its effect on the birthrate is not yet clear.8
  9. The experience of many other countries indicates the feasibility of sustained replacement levels of reproduction.9 Within the past half century, Japan, England and Wales, France, Denmark, Norway, West Germany, Hungary, Sweden, and Switzerland have all experienced periods of replacement or near-replacement fertility lasting a decade or more. Additional countries have had shorter periods at or near replacement levels. While much of this experience occurred during the Depression of the 19 30’s, much of it also occurred since then. Furthermore, during that period, contraceptive technology was primitive compared to what is available today.

On the basis of these facts, the nation might ask, “why worry,” and decide to wait and see what happens. Our judgment is that we should not wait. Acting now, we encourage a desirable trend. Acting later, we may find ourselves in a position of trying to reverse an undesirable trend. We should take advantage of the opportunity the moment presents rather than wait for’ what the unknown future holds.

The potential for a repeat of the baby boom is still here. In 1975, there will be six million more people in the prime childbearing ages of 20 to 29 than there were in 1970. By 1985, the figure will have jumped still another five million. Unless we achieve some postponement of childbearing or reduction in average family size, this is going to mean substantial further increases in the number of births.’°

Furthermore, although we discern many favorable elements in recent trends, there are also unfavorable elements which threaten the achievement of stabilization.

  1. For historical reasons which no longer apply, this nation has an ideological addiction to growth.
  2. Our social institutions, including many of our laws, often exert a pronatalist effect, even if inadvertent.” This includes the images of family life and women’s roles projected in television programs; the child-saves-marriage theme in women’s magazines;12 the restrictions on the availability of contraception, sex education, and abortion; and many others.
  3. There is an unsatisfactory level of understanding of the role of sex in human life and of the reproductive process and its control.
  4. While the white middle-class majority bears the primary numerical responsibility for population growth, it is also true that the failure of our society to bring racial minorities and the poor into the mainstream of American life has impaired their ability to implement small-family goals.
  5. If it should happen that, in the next few years, our rate of reproduction falls to replacement levels or below, we could experience a strong counterreaction. In the United States in the 1930’s, and in several foreign countries, the response to subreplacement fertility has been a cry of anxiety over the national prosperity, security, and virility. Individual countries have found it hard to come to terms with replacement-level fertility rates.13 About 40 years ago during the Depression, there was great concern about “race suicide” when birthrates fell in Western Europe and in this country. Indeed, an admonition against unwarranted countermeasures was issued in 1938 by the Committee on Population Problems of the National Resources Committee:


“…there is no occasion for hysteria…. There is no reason for the hasty adoption of any measures designed to stimulate population growth in this country.”14Today, several countries approaching stabilization have expressed concerns about possible future labor shortages. The growth ethic seems to be so imprinted in human consciousness that it takes a deliberate effort of rationality and will to overcome it, but that effort is now desirable.


One purpose of this report and the programs it recommends is to prepare the American people to welcome a replacement level of reproduction and some periods of reproduction below replacement. The nation must face the fact that achieving population stabilization sooner rather than later would require a period of time during which annual fertility was below replacement. During the transition to stabilization, the postponement of childbearing would result in annual fertility rates dropping below replacement, even though, over a lifetime, the childbearing of the parents would reach a replacement level.

In the long-run future, we should understand that a stabilized population means an average of zero growth, and there would be times when the size of the population declines. Indeed, zero growth can only be achieved realistically with fluctuations in both directions. We should prepare ourselves not to react with alarm, as some other countries have done recently, when the distant possibility of population decline appears.

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