Population decline has been grabbing headlines in recent years in response to low fertility rates in Europe and East Asia. Fred Pearce, author of The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet’s Surprising Future, writes, “The population bomb that I remember being scared by 40 years ago as a school kid is being defused fast.” Mike Nahan of the Herald Sun concludes, “The population bomb has turned into a dud.” Ben Wattenberg, who coined the term “birth dearth,” says the world population is in “free fall.”
Low fertility presents economic and cultural challenges that undoubtedly make for a good story. But in reality, the global population continues to grow by about 80 million people every year. In fact, the population is careening toward 9.3 billion by 2050—from 7 billion today—and that’s assuming that fertility rates will decline in countries with weak family planning infrastructures and persistently high fertility. If country fertility rates don’t change from where they are today, by 2050 the population will be close to 11 billion and still growing rapidly.
Population decline due to low fertility (rather than famine, war, or disease) is a new phenomenon. As a result, we do not yet know what consequences it may bring or whether the trend will reverse.
Only a few countries have shrinking populations— most of them in the former Soviet Union. Germany, Italy, and Japan have also recently entered the stage of population decline. Although population growth rates are slowly falling in several countries, on the whole, the European and Asian populations are still growing, and will continue to do so for many years.
What’s Behind the Trend?
High child rearing costs are partially responsible for low fertility in wealthy countries. A two-parent, two-child family spends, on average, $226,920 raising each child to age 18 in the U.S. In some states in the U.S., the cost of childcare for two-parent, middle-class families averages 16 percent of their annual incomes.
Competing interests are another factor: women complain of the difficulty of raising children while working in the formal sector. In Germany, poor childcare options and the fact that the school day ends several hours before the work day finishes means that “many German women have to stop work and end their careers if they want to have kids,” according to Steffen Kröhnert, a social scientist at the Berlin Institute for Population Development.
These very real concerns point to solutions that have been implemented with the intended results in other low fertility countries.
In France, fertility rose from 1.71 in 1995 to 2 in 2012. Although some claim that immigrants have superficially inflated this figure, France’s National Institute of Demographic Studies concluded that immigrants account for only 5 percent of this increase, and that fertility of the “native” population was largely responsible. Sweden’s fertility rate has increased as well, from 1.56 in 1998 to 1.9 in 2012.
Both countries have made concerted efforts to promote family-friendly policies regarding parental leave and flexible work schedules, allowing women to pursue motherhood while remaining in the workforce. “In Mediterranean countries and Germany, it’s work or children,” says Marie-Therese Letablier, research director at the Center for Employment Studies. “In France, its work and children.” French mother Maylis Staub agrees, “In other countries, maternity leaves are seen as a handicap for mothers who want to have a career. It’s different in France.”
The experiences of France and Sweden suggest that low fertility is not inevitable in industrialized countries. The 2011 Eurobarometer Survey reported that women would ideally like to have two or more children. With strong social support, women in countries with progressive parental policies are able to attain their desired family sizes more easily than women in countries that force them to choose between career and motherhood. Therefore, statements like that of Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson—who claims that “By not having children, people are voting against the future—their countries’ and perhaps their own”—are misdirected.
Another factor at work is the tempo effect. As women delay childbearing until later in their lives, there is naturally a period when birth rates decline. Once these women start their families, the birth rate rises. Indeed, the U.S. saw its fertility rate fall to a low of 1.79 in 1975 before rising back to about 2 in the 1990s, where it has remained since. John Bongaarts, Vice President of the Population Council, reports that the tempo effect typically understates total fertility rates by about one quarter of a birth.
Smaller tempo effects can also be observed during tough economic times. The recession that began in 2007 has caused young American couples to postpone parenthood due to unemployment and general financial insecurity. “Certainly economic calamity does cause a significant decline in fertility,” said Steven Martin, senior research associate for the Institute of Human Development and Social Change at New York University. According to surveys by the CDC, American woman want an average of 2.3 children. Over the next five years, the U.S. birth rate is expected to increase, as the economy recovers and women in their prime childbearing years start families. Samuel Sturgeon, president of the demographic forecasting company Demographic Intelligence, says, “We’re sort of in uncharted territory given this economic downturn. We expect a mini baby boom as the number of women of childbearing age increases and so does pent-up demand.”
Benefits of Low Fertility
One reason to celebrate low fertility is that our current population is already stressing earth’s resources. Ecological Debt Day—the day each year when humanity’s consumption of natural resources begins to exceed the regenerative capacity of the planet—falls weeks, if not months, before the end of each calendar year. A slight population decline—which even alarmists are not forecasting until near the end of the century—would help bring humanity back to a sustainable level.
Low fertility has resulted in myriad social, economic, and environmental benefits from Europe to East Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Between 1960 and 1980, the fertility rate in East Asia fell from 5 to 2.5 children per woman. During the same period, the economy grew at 6 percent a year per capita. As parents have fewer children and more time and money to invest in each child, countries are able to raise the human capital—or “quality”—of their populations. People in low fertility countries are more highly educated, economically productive, and physically healthy, on average, than people in high fertility countries. Life expectancy is a potent indicator of a population’s health. In the developed world, where the fertility rate is 1.71, life expectancy is 78 years. In the 48 least developed countries, where the fertility rate is 4.1, life expectancy is only 58.8 years.
Although population issues may seem difficult to address, the best way to confront them is simple: trust women. Women who have access to family planning and who are able to become mothers when they are ready, while maintaining their careers, generally have the number of children they desire. This number tends to hover around replacement level (about 2.1 children per woman in the developed world).
Studies examining the discrepancies in fertility rates between different European countries show that those in northern Europe generally have higher fertility (1.9) than those in the south (1.4), east (1.5), or west (1.6). One explanation for this is that the northern countries boast more support for mothers. “In Europe, many countries with greater gender equality have a greater social commitment to day care and other institutional support for working women, which gives those women the possibility of having second or third children,” writes New York Times reporter Russell Shorto.
Pronatalist policies that ignore women’s right to make their own reproductive choices are dehumanizing and counterproductive. Australia introduced a monetary “baby bonus” in 2004 to address the aging population. “If you can have children it’s a good thing to do—you should have one for the father, one for the mother and one for the country, if you want to fix the ageing demographic,” says Australian Treasurer Peter Costello. The scheme has had little, if any, effect. According to Nick Parr, Associate Professor in Demography at Macquarie University, “Australia’s total fertility rate rose from 1.76 births per woman at the introduction of the baby bonus to 1.96 in 2008, before falling back to 1.89 in 2010. However, the beginning of the upward trend in the birth rate in 2001 predates this policy initiative. Most (79 percent) of the increase between 2004 and 2008 can be accounted for by increases in fertility rates among women aged over 30.” In other words, the slight increase was a tempo effect.
Even in societies in which the cost of raising children seems prohibitively high, women want an average of two children. They have a better shot at achieving that outcome when they have access to all the tools available, including affordable contraception, quality childcare, and flexible employment options.
Rather than bemoan the slowly shrinking populations of a few countries, we should use every available resource to ensure that every woman, regardless of where she lives, can achieve her ideal family size.