Two point one

By David Grima | Mar 14, 2019

I am sorry there was no column in the paper last week, but apparently I was overcome with a severe case of cabin fever and had also eaten a whole box of Girl Scout cookies. Not a good combination.

They tell me the search party found me late Wednesday night at the far end of the breakwater, collecting moonbeams and talking to a large zebra-striped iguana which, so I am told, only I could see.

The journey back to the mainland on the stretcher was rather bumpy, and I can vaguely remember several voices discussing whether under the circumstances it would be more humane to put me in a sack weighed down with rocks and slide me quietly into the harbor.

But in the end I made it back to the concrete towers at the foot of Mechanic Street, where I am forced to live, with no serious damage done other than to my poor ego.

* * * * *

Concerning my recent ramblings about Rockland Ford not being in Rockland these days, reader Donald Herrick has mentioned that it used to be in buildings adjacent to the state ferry terminal – in Rockland.

This explains a lot, and I feel that a sense of balance is slowly returning to my world. But slowly.

* * * * *

Speaking of balance, I recently read the new book called “Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline,” by Canadian writers Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson. It is remarkable for three things.

First, despite being about population growth and having several numbers in it, it is almost completely understandable.

Second, not only is it understandable, but it is also noteworthy in its assertion that Earth’s population is not simply going to go on increasing, but will actually start to decline.

Third, the reason given for the foreseen reduction in population that the writers provide is also completely understandable.

The essence of the argument is as follows:

“The United Nations forecasts that our population will grow from seven billion to eleven billion in this century before leveling off after 2100. But an increasing number of demographers around the world believe the UN estimates are far too high. More likely, they say, the planet’s population will peak at around nine billion sometime between 2040 and 2060, and then start to decline… By the end of this century, we could be back to where we are right now, and steadily growing fewer.”

I cut a few words from that quotation because they contain a joke the writers make; however, to understand the joke you would have to read more. And it’s not really that funny, anyway.

The reason given by the authors for this decline in human numbers is fairly simple: increasing urbanization of the human population. The more people live in cities instead of the countryside, the less they will be inclined to have children. In the country, poor people can produce cheap labor for the family farm by having more children. In the city, the need for this labor goes away, and the cost of kiddies is no longer offset.

The mechanism by which this is supposed to take place involves girls. In cities, girls are much more likely to get an education, and the numbers suggest that educated women always choose to have fewer children. This pattern can be followed across the globe, even in Africa, say the writers.

The human fertility rate needs to be at 2.1 babies per woman in order to remain stable. The one tenth of a baby included in this number represents the need for slightly more babies than parents, to cover the unhappy fact that some babies die. So this book is also remarkable for having a single and easily remembered number at its heart: 2.1.

If the human fertility rate falls below 2.1, the population declines. If it rises above, populations grow.

According to an article in Pacific Standard Magazine online, dated Jan. 11 this year, the U.S. fertility (or birth) rate is just not up to it:

“The fertility rate in the United States has been falling for years, dipping so low that the nation's population would be declining without immigration, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This marks the seventh straight year that the fertility rate has dropped.

“In 2017, the nationwide fertility rate was 1,765.5 births per 1,000 women” (i.e., a rate of 1.76) “of childbearing age — well below the rate of 2,100 births per 1,000 women” (i.e., a rate of 2.1) “necessary to keep the population stable. There were major regional differences: South Dakota, for example, had the highest rate in the nation, with 2,227.5 births per 1,000 women, while Washington, D.C., had the lowest with 1,421. Only two states — South Dakota and Utah — had birth rates above replacement levels.”

So that’s it. We’re done for. Maine, too.

According to in a 2013 article: “The number of deaths in Maine now exceeds the number of births, according to a new report released by the Governor's Office of Policy and Management (OPM).

“Last year, there were 103 more deaths than new babies. The state's birth rate has steadily fallen over the last 23 years, from 14.1 live births per 1,000 women in 1990 to 10.2 per 1,000 women today.”

There are those numbers again. Two weeks ago I listened to a presentation about a new initiative to increase the number of Maine workers who have a professional or occupational credential, and it included this information.

Maine, which already has the oldest population in the U.S., expects to see its 65-plus population increase by 166,000 between 2003 and 2032. Meanwhile, its population under 65 is expected to shrink by 177,000.

The declining fertility rate is already having a negative effect on life in Maine. You’ve heard me talk about labor shortages before. This is why.

It is beginning to mean that some places of business are not opening, or are open for reduced hours.

It already means that many Maine employers cannot find enough younger workers to replace all the people who are graying out and retiring. As they retire, so they take a lifetime of skills and knowledge with them without having the opportunity to pass them on to another generation, and I’ve heard that from some of Rockland’s manufacturers. It’s not merely somebody else’s story.

Whole occupations are facing the so-called retirement cliff; for example, the truck drivers who haul our food to supermarkets and our mail to post offices, etc. Just as unfortunately, and with its own special twist, another of those many threatened occupations is the nursing profession. Earlier this month, WGME posted the following news story:

“Few professions face a workforce shortage like nurses. Maine’s population is the oldest in the nation and nurses mirror the demographic challenge within their ranks: they are retiring at a quick rate while the programs sustaining their replacements have been hampered.

“’If we stay in the pattern that we have today of graduating approximately 850 new license-eligible nurses every year, we will have a shortage of 2,700 registered nurses by 2025,’ said Lisa Harvey-McPherson, Co-chair, Maine Nursing Action Coalition.

“The core problem is a severed pipeline in nursing education programs. Unlike most other parts of the country, nursing educators say aspiring nurses in Maine want to work — and with a median salary of $61,000 — they are competing in an ultra-tight labor market unable to support a mass influx of health professionals.

“’We turn away over 200 qualified applications a year because we simply don't have enough capacity [i.e., college classes] to put them into programs,’ said Harvey-McPherson.

“And with already-tight classroom space, educators are going away, too. Twenty-four percent of nursing school faculty are 60 or older, according to Maine State Nursing Board data.”

This sort of thing hits home. Penobscot Bay Medical Center is the largest employer in Knox County, according to the Maine Department of Labor. But we have plenty of nursing homes, too. What happens to a community like ours when more and more of us are aging, rusting out, needing extensive repair and maintenance, yet at the same time the people trained to do this essential work are also rusting out?

And old nurses will need nursing, too.

Furthermore, what happens when fewer and fewer young people, who will eventually be the minority among us, are working overtime to provide the very Social Security and other benefits we majority oldsters hope to scrape by on?

How many schools have we torn down or repurposed in Knox County alone this past decade, because there are fewer children to fill them? When was the last time the streets of the South End rang to the sound of kids playing baseball in the summer?

Does anybody think about such things, or is it just too difficult to face? I certainly understand. If only there were some way to shore up our declining population to sustainable levels, and bring things back to an even keel. Well, we can dream.

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Comments (2)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Mar 18, 2019 16:39

David, David! You have undone yourself. This is the saddest of your long monologues. At first I read into this that  you were condoning abstinence to show decline of population and then I re-read and thought you were advocating for more births. But for sure I know in your heart that you are a good soul and try not to mislead some of your slow readers like me!

Mary "Mickey" (Brown) McKeever

Posted by: Donald Mills | Mar 15, 2019 19:06

Great to have you back! However, possibly you should spread your support of the Girl Guides over a longer period of time :-)

Best regards, and stay healthy.

Don Mills

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