Saturday, October 21, 2006

300 MILLION and COUNTING

(News-Herald, October 19) We’ve been hitting all sorts of demographic marks lately. First, we’ve apparently turned a family corner, with unmarried citizens now the slight majority over married folks.
That’s right. It’s now normal to be single. Pundits are already rushing to explain the causes and significance of this. Could be that aging boomer spouses are now dying and leaving widows and widowers behind. Could be that divorce is the most likely outcome of marriage. Could be that people simply choose not to get married again, or at all.
What does it mean to society? Hard to say. These milestones are often noted with breathless fanfare, but in fact they represent an arbitrary point chosen on a long steady slide. The unmarried have been gaining on the married for decades; it’s hard to know what it means that we’ve finally caught up.
There are folks who bemoan this shift, saying it somehow devalues marriage and marks a retreat from that traditional family value. They have a point, but at the same time, I think the new statistic actually gives marriage a little more value.
After all, there was a time when marriage was taken for granted. Of course everybody got married, and of course everybody stayed married. Well, maybe it’s better to view it as a real achievement, as something that not just any shmoe can fall into. If successful marriages are more rare, perhaps that will help us see them as more valuable. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
Our other demographic milestone is even more significant. The numbers crunchers figure that this week, US population passes the 300 million mark.
The size of our increase is not quite so amazing as the speed.
Thomas Jefferson was the President of fewer American citizens than now live in the five boroughs of New York City. The nation only hit the 100 million mark around 1915. We hit 200 million in 1967. So for those of us who are middle-aged or older, there have been 100 million citizens added in our lifetime. If some of us live to a full, ripe old age, we will see the country’s population double in our own lifetime.
Of course, no one is really doing an exact head count—that’s just a statistical best guess. Statisticians say we have a new birth every seven seconds and a death every thirteen. On top of that, another immigrant enters the country every thirty-one seconds.
Some census bean counters estimate that about half of those 100 million American newbies are immigrants, legal or otherwise.
The population continues its big shift to the South and the West, which may explain why we haven’t seen a particularly large share of those 100 million newbies here in Venangoland. North Dakota is actually losing people.
There are good and bad parts to this shift. 100 million new citizens is a heck of a boost to the work force. Many other front-line nations (for example, Japan) are showing no-growth or shrinking populations, and anticipate labor shortages in years ahead.
As our population ages and retires and demands their old-age benefits and social security and other goodies, we’re going to need plenty of wage-earning workers to help foot the bill.
At the same time, since many of the 100 million are immigrants with no elderly relatives here, the question of why young workers should be picking up the enormous boomer tab is liable to be a political hot potato. And the Southwest is facing enormous strain on resources as basic as clean water.
A recent report suggests that our own region has a demand for electricity that is running far ahead of production capacities. And while it has been common to complain about oil company greed over the past year, it’s worth noting that 100 million more people added in just thirty-nine years is a heck of a jump in the demand for transportation. Since the days of Henry Ford’s Model T, the population of the country has tripled.
The mushrooming of US population is one of the great undiscussed issues of our age, an issue that has direct impact on energy, health care, education, employment and the economic well-being of the country. Too bad our leaders are busy with partisan squabbling over senatorial misbehavior and finding ways to spin the crisis in Iraq. It’s nice to know that we are still an attractive destination to so many folks in the world. I just wish we had a better idea of what to do with them once they arrived.

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