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SCIENCE NOTES/NEWS IN HEALTH, ZOOLOGY

Retirement planning and the world's baby bust

From Japan to Germany to the United States, puzzled demographers are asking the same question: Why are so few people having babies these days?

Three University of Minnesota researchers think they've found an unexpected answer. They blame the baby bust on the Social Security system, 401(k)s and similar old-age pension and savings plans. Those programs, they claim, have reduced the need for forward-thinking couples to produce lots of kids who could take care of Mom and Dad in their old age.

Increases in retirement benefits are inevitably followed by a corresponding drop in the birth rate; the bigger the benefit system, the bigger the decline, according to economists Michele Boldrin, Mariacristina De Nardi and Larry Jones. In the United States, the fertility rate has dropped from 3.2 children per woman in 1920 to 2.1 children today. In Europe, fertility declined from 2.8 children to 1.5 from 1970 to 2000. M Boldrin and her research team concluded that development of government pension programs accounted for between half and two-thirds of the decline in fertility rates in the United States and developed countries over the last 70 years, they report in a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

- Washington Post

Next hurricane season more active than normal

The early prediction for this year's Atlantic hurricane season: anxiety.

Noted prognosticator William Gray has forecast that the season, which runs from June 1 through Nov. 30, will be considerably more active than normal, with 13 named storms. Seven will be hurricanes, including three intense systems - and one or two of those could easily strike the U.S. coast.

"We expect this year to continue the trend witnessed over the last decade of above-average hurricane seasons," said Gray, saying an average season has 10 named storms, including six hurricanes, two of them intense.

If his forecast holds true, this year would be similar to last year, when 15 named storms, including nine hurricanes - six intense - formed.

Gray and other experts doubt that four hurricanes again will slam Florida because that kind of catastrophe happens once every 100 to 200 years, on average. Yet many of the same ingredients that made last year's season so devastating remain in place, including warm Atlantic waters and reduced wind shear.

Gray, a Colorado State University professor, forecasts a 73 percent chance that at least one major hurricane will strike the U.S. coastline.

- South Florida Sun-Sentinel