These catchy, if unhelpful, terms are often used to describe the unprecedented phenomenon of low fertility that Europe and East Asia are experiencing, and that some fear the United States will experience if our country’s fertility rate doesn’t continue to hover around the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman.
It’s true: 83 countries have fertility rates below replacement level. Yet almost all of those 83 countries have populations that are still growing or remaining stable, due to population momentum. Japan’s population is one of the few that has begun to shrink—it has been declining for nine years now, with a reported net loss of nearly 300,000 in 2015.
Politicians are frantically trying to increase Japanese fertility, suggesting cash bonuses, flexible work arrangements, and more government-run day care programs. But that’s all likely in vain, at least at the macro level, as there is no country in the relatively short history of fertility estimates that has gone to very low fertility and then risen again. Once small families become the norm it is difficult, if not impossible, to encourage couples to have more than one or two kids, on average.
Many writers who wish to incite panic and prompt pronatalist policies would leave the story there and let people’s imaginations run wild.
What they would be overlooking, however, is that there are more than 100 countries with fertility rates above replacement—mostly in the poorest parts of the world (see Pop Facts on pages 4-5 for a depiction of the data). In about 40 of those countries—almost all in sub-Saharan Africa—women have an average of four or more children. In those countries there is no need to worry about “running out of people” now, or any time this century (which is as far as most population projections go).
Japan would have no trouble attracting immigrant workers from other parts of East Asia and elsewhere, but people there don’t want to disrupt their country’s homogeneity (99 percent of people living in Japan are native Japanese). They would rather develop robots to do jobs that Filipino or Indonesian immigrants could do if given the opportunity. Which is their prerogative. But it’s disingenuous to make people believe that encouraging Japanese women to have more children than they want is the only way to keep the economy from tanking.
My first trip overseas was to Japan when I was 13 years old. I’ve returned twice since, and am still in touch with my host family from 22 years ago. I hope to return again someday because I love the food, the landscapes, the kind and generous people, and the incredible sense of order and efficiency (which is often attributed to the aforementioned homogeneity). I don’t begrudge them their cultural preferences. But I do take issue with anyone who tries to guilt women into having additional, unwanted children for the sake of the state’s GDP.
There are plenty of ways to manage a transition to low fertility, many of them outlined in the feature articles within. In the meantime, we’re still adding another billion people to the planet every dozen years. That doesn’t sound like a baby bust to me.