With so much shopping to do, who has time for kids?

Demography is a science of many facts but surprisingly little accuracy. In the 1960s and 1970s demographers worried about the dangers of over-population. Spaceship Earth was going to be so crowded with people that it would surely crash without some form of population control. What actually happened? Today we face an ageing crisis – there is a dearth of young people in most developed countries.

More than half the world currently has sub-replacement fertility. In other words, couples are not bringing enough babies into the world to replace themselves. The replacement rate is a Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of about 2.1. But nearly all Western countries have TFRs far below that. The only significant exception is the United States, which has an estimated TFR of 2.1, mostly due to the children of Hispanic immigrants.

Even in Middle Eastern countries fertility has fallen dramatically. In Iran, which is reputed to be a land of Islamic mysogynists, the TFR has fallen to 1.77 in the swiftest decline ever seen in history.

In Eastern Europe the figures are particularly sobering. Russia is facing a catastrophic demographic decline. There, deaths exceed births, even though, acting both as President and Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin has set raising the birth rate as a national priority. The country’s TFR has risen in the past decade, from 1.19 in 2000 to 1.44 today. But even so, simply maintaining the population level of that vast country will require immigration, much of it from neighbouring Muslim countries. This has prompted fears that Russia will become a Muslim nation or that Chinese will swamp its sparsely populated eastern territories. In other former Communist countries, the TFR has been hovering around 1.3 or 1.4.

Recently there came some good news from the European Union: a birth bounce. Overall, the TFR of member states rose from1.47 in 2003 to 1.60 in 2008-09. Lowest-low fertility, ie, below 1.3 children per woman, has ended throughout the EU. The UK and France are actually approaching replacement fertility, with TFR of 1.83 and 1.97. The best news comes from Russia, where the TFR has risen from 1.19 in 2000 to 1.54, 1.42 in urban areas and 1.90 in rural areas.

So far, so good.

But is this just a dead cat bounce, as they say in the markets – a quick recovery followed by another decline?

It’s unhealthy to be unduly pessimistic,but sometimes you have to look at worst case scenarios to avoid falling into complacency. This is particularly the case with population statistics. Few people appreciate the world’s glacial, almost unstoppable advance towards depopulation. If the only news they hear is a small uptick in a severe decline, they may become unduly optimistic.

The name of the worst case scenario is the “low fertility trap”. This is the intriguing theory of Wolfgang Lutz, of the Vienna Institute of Demography. He is one of the world’s leading demographers and has published articles in journals like Science and Nature.

Why we should assume that people will yearn for replacement level birth rates, he asks in the journal Ageing Horizons. “People will always want to have children,” Winston Churchill reportedly said. But is this true? Once upon a time, demographers wondered whether the TFR would ever sink below replacement level. It did. They thought that it would recover once it hit 1.5.It didn’t. It has sunk below 1.0 in some areas, like Hong Kong or Moscow. In Beijing and Shanghai it is about 0.7 – one third of the replacement level. Why should we assume that it will rise? With so much shopping to do, who has time for kids?

Take one astonishing case: China.

After 40 years of a draconian one-child policy, Chinese officials are beginning to realise that demographic disaster looms. China is on course to become old before it becomes rich. By the year 2040, the median age of Chinese will be higher than Americans, but they will have only one-third of Americans’ per capita income. “There are tremendous demographic crises pending, unprecedented in Chinese demography,” Wang Feng, of the Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing, told the New York Times.

A recent article in the journal Asian Population Studies paints a frightening picture of China’s future:

“China is increasingly becoming a '4-2-1'society, in which one child must support two parents and four grandparents.China will be a society in which most adults have few biological relatives.More and more children will have no siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles, but only parents, grandparents and perhaps, great grandparents. If birth rates remain unchanged, China will join the ranks of Japan, Germany, Russia, Italy and Spain, which stand to lose 20-30 per cent of their population over the next 50 years. “

There are signs that the enigmatic Chinese hierarchy is considering relaxing the one-child policy to allow population growth. But – surprise, surprise – its people may not respond. “The one-child culture is now so ingrained among Chinese that the authorities may not be able to encourage more births even if they try,” says the Times.

Japan, South Korea and Singapore are facing similar problems. In Japan there is no national consensus on how to boost the birth rate in a country which has already begun to decline in population. Its TFR has stayed at about 1.3 for a decade or more.

For decades South Korea promoted one or two-child families. But now that the TFR is about 1.29, it has discovered that it may not even have enough men to maintain the strength of its army. But getting Koreans to have children is proving difficult. Similarly, Singapore introduced draconian laws in the 1970s which made life very difficult for families with more than two children. Now its TFR is stuck at 1.25, despite tax breaks, subsidies, cash bonuses and goofy government match-making services for public servants.

The chilling possibility is that it may be impossible to raise birth rates once they have fallen to the lowest low-fertility rate. If this is true, the future looks grim for these countries.They will have a growing number of unproductive elderly supported by a shrinking number of young workers. Tax rates will rise and young people will leave.

It is true that France and the Nordic countries have managed to maintain relatively high birth rates because of generous taxpayer-supported pro-natalist policies.  But these are relatively wealthy countries whose policies have been in place for decades. Handouts are not a quick fix. Nor have their TFRs risen above the replacement level.

Lutz argues that there is no known reason why fertility cannot continue to sink – even below 1.0, improbable as that may seem. He says that there are three “powerful forces toward still lower fertility in countries which already have very low fertility”.

The demographic force is a kind of implosion. “Fewer and few women enter the reproductive age,and, hence the number of births will decline, even if fertility instantly jumps to replacement level.” The number of births spirals downwards.

The sociological force reflects the power of public opinion to shape a child-unfriendly culture.“The norms and in particular the family size ideals of the young generation are influenced by what they experience around them. If their environment includes few or no children, children will figure less prominently in their own image of a desirable life.” Having children is no longer a desirable life project.

The economic force sets people’s ideal family size at a level determined by their aspirations for consumption and for expected income. If they want to consume more than they can earn, they have fewer children. Thus, a generation which sees a bleak economic future ahead will not raise the TFR. This reinforces a downward spiral. Competition for exports depresses wages.The tax burden on the working population grows in order to fund welfare payments for the elderly. There are fewer jobs at an entry level for young people locally, creating an incentive for them to migrate elsewhere. And with the welfare budget already squeezed to pay for the elderly, there is little left over for policies which might encourage higher fertility.

The implications of these dry theories are terrifying for countries like Taiwan (a TFR of 1.1), Slovakia (1.27) or Italy (1.38). Those countries, and many others, could disappear, swamped by immigrants who flow in to fill the gaps left by young natives who were never born, or absorbed into a more powerful neighbour.

But the point that Lutz makes is that we are looking ahead into demographic darkness when we contemplate the declining fertility of the developed world. “The social sciences as a whole have yet to come up with a useful theory to predict the future fertility level of post-demographic transition societies,” he writes. “How can we meaningfully talk about the future of fertility when there is no consistent theory?”

As I was finishing this article, the United Nations Population Division released its population projections up to the year 2100. It now forecasts that global population will rise to about 7 billion now to 9 billion in 2050 and to 10.1 billion in 2100. The reaction in the press was predictable: “Without Birth Control, Planet Doomed”, was the headline on the National Public Radio website.

But, as usual, if you examine the statistics a bit more closely, there is room for scepticism. “The model incorporated the additional assumption that, over the long run, replacement-level fertility would be reached (a level which, in low-mortality countries is close to 2.1 per children per woman),” the UN notes. In other words, it assumes that countries like China and Russia will reverse the trend towards ever-decreasing fertility. Equally dubious is its assumption that fertility in some countries will decrease. It predicts that by 2100, Afghanistan’s fertility will be lower than New Zealand’s. Is that even remotely credible? Probably not, said a columnist in Nature, Fred Pearce: "a closer look at the assumptions behind this scenario shows it to be perverse and contradictory. In fact, it looks more like a political construct than a scientific analysis."

The news of the recent uptick in European fertility rates is encouraging. But it is unlikely to be a sign of a trend. Professor Lutz pointed out in an email to MercatorNet that it is probably due to the “tempo effect” – that many women who have delayed having children suddenly given birth towards the end of their reproductive life.

The only really convincing sign would be the conversion of an entire generation to the belief that life is wonderful, that children are a delight and that the future is full of hope. But such spiritual changes lie outside the power of demographers to predict and governments to mandate. 

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.


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