Ohio’s Continuing Population Shift

When our family moved from Akron to Columbus in 1970, Cleveland was the largest city in Ohio by a wide margin, and Cuyahoga County, Cleveland’s home county, was by far the most populous county in the state.  Franklin County, where Columbus is located, had less than half of the population of Cuyahoga County, and it wasn’t even Ohio’s second most populated county.  That status belonged to Hamilton County, thanks to Cincinnati.

94oh_-_columbus_-_birds_eye_view_1But in the years since then, population forces have worked inexorably in favor of Columbus and Franklin County.  With its stable mix of white-collar jobs — from employers like the state, county, and city government, the Ohio State University, hospitals, and insurance companies — and a culture that visitors see as friendly and welcoming, Franklin County has steadily grown since the days of the Nixon Administration.  Many people who’ve come to the city for college, or a hospital residency, or a graduate degree, have liked it and decided to stay and raise their families here.  Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, on the other hand, have seen both the departure of blue-collar jobs and employers and ongoing population loss.

And now the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Franklin County has passed Cuyahoga County and become the most populous county in Ohio, with more than 1.2 million residents.  CFranklin County isn’t one of the fastest growing counties in the United States — no counties in the Midwest are — but its consistent growth, year after year, has produced a long-term result that would have surprised anyone who lived in Ohio in 1970.

Actually, I shouldn’t say that, because at least one person saw the trends.  I took a class in investigative reporting at Ohio State in the late ’70s, and the professor, Marty Brian, gave us the project of writing about the growth and future of Columbus, given its business attributes and employment stability described above.  The would-be Woodward and Bernsteins in the class groaned at the project, which didn’t have much sex appeal, but it turned out to be an interesting assignment that required us to delve into public records and other nuts and bolts aspects of investigative reporting.  And now the gist of the assignment has been proven in the population data.

One Country’s Slow-Motion Suicide

The “replacement rate” a society must achieve to maintain its population is a matter of cold actuarial statistics:  an average woman must bear 2.1 children during her lifetime.  If that fertility rate is exceeded, a country’s population grows; if the replacement rate isn’t met, the country’s population declines.

According to tables published by the World Bank, fertility rates vary widely.  In Niger, for example, the fertility rate is 7.6.  In Japan, on the other hand, the fertility rate is 1.43 — far below the replacement rate and one of the lowest rates in the world.  And, in fact, Japan’s population is declining.  Last year, 1.27 million Japanese died, and only 1.001 million were born.  Such rates obviously aren’t sustainable long term.  They are particularly troubling if, as in Japan, the current system involves long-lived retirees receiving pensions funded by the tax payments of a shrinking pool of younger workers.  Again, cold statistics dictate that, some day, the financial crash must come if trends aren’t reversed.

Of course, cold statistics really don’t tell us the whole story when it comes to birth rates.  Why aren’t Japanese men and women getting together and having children, as they have since time immemorial?  A recent survey concluded that a big part of the procreation problem is what the Japanese call “herbivorous males” — men who have lost their “masculine confidence,” have eschewed the burdens of high-powered careers, have no interest in girlfriends or families, and are content to work at low-paying jobs and shop for recreation.  The survey also shows that many Japanese have lost interest in having sex and that even young married couples routinely go weeks and even months without it.

Why is this so?  It’s not a question born of prurient interest, but ultimately one of national survival.  After countless generations of human history in which a desire for intimacy has been a principal focus of personal interaction, why are people in countries like Japan losing interest in an activity that is essential to the survival of the species?  And how can the country change the dynamic?  It’s a crucial issue, because If the demographic trend isn’t reversed, Japan will continue to commit slow-motion suicide.