Worries about a decline in the birth rate are nothing new, at least in many developed nations. As early as 1909, Hoffman made it perfectly clear that a love for babies was not the reason that some in the U.S. fretted over the declining number of births. Rather, it was concern over the decreasing rate of births among “native white married women” while the “rate of reproduction [was] materially higher among the foreign element” (p. 676). Similar concerns are in evidence today in places such as Israel, where the comparatively high rate of births among the Arab population has been characterized as a “demographic time bomb” the Jewish state must address (Wolman 2012, n.p.). In addition, it is widely predicted that in the near future most Western European nations will be majority Muslim (Hackett, 2016, n.p.) and these predictions are very seldom met with enthusiasm.
Causes of Declining Birth Rates in Developed Nations
While some groups clearly fear the idea of losing what is perceived as their national identity, this fear does not appear to run deep enough to motivate the native-born to have more children. In Western Europe, for example, fertility began to decline in the early 1970s and has continued ever since. In the European Union in 1965, each female had an average of 2.72 children. By 1975 that average had dropped to 1.96, less than the population replacement rate. By 2005 it was just below 1.50. The United States experienced a similar decrease in average family size. In 1965, an American female averaged 2.91 children. In 1975 it was 1.77. In 2005, however, it had inched up a bit to slightly over 2 children per woman. That increase was, however, due to immigrant women having more children, not to any increase from non-immigrants (Leridon, 2006, p. 603).
There are powerful forces at work that encourage low birth rates in developed countries. They include, roughly in order of importance, 1) increased education and empowerment of females (Leridon, p. 613), 2) changing social norms that promote individual self-actualization (Leridon, p. 612), 3) better contraceptives and access to them (Leridon, p. 614), and 4) periodic economic recessions (Sobotka, et.al., 2011, p. 268).
This last force, economic recession, is thought to be short-term and to have its greatest impact when the unemployment rate among males is high, due to “the continued salience of male income for family formation” (Sobotka, et.al., p. 273). Of particular interest when considering economic forces is that the decline in births as a response to recession is due to a delay by couples in having their first child, not to a decision to limit family size in the long term (Sobotka, et. al., p. 274).
The other three forces are long-term and consistent. While it is true that better contraceptives have had an impact, Leridon (p. 610) asserts that, contrary to popular belief, the birth control pill is not the primary driver of lower birth rates in the U.S. and Canada. Instead, it is the entry of women into the workplace, which is a consequence of greater opportunities for women to obtain higher education and thus better jobs. With both parents in the workforce, caring for more than two children becomes unattractive at best and for some it is simply impossible.
Yew (2012, n.p.) supports this idea and points out that similar phenomena are taking place throughout the developed world, including in his native Singapore. Most countries are below replacement rates, which indicates that their populations are both shrinking and growing older. These countries include Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Italy, and even Sweden, which provides “deep support for parents” (n.p.). The only developed nations that maintain a birth rate that is at or near the replacement level of 2.1 children per family are Ireland at 2.1, the U.S. at 2.0, and the UK at 1.9. But here’s the catch: these rates are due to immigration from the developing world (n.p.) and to the higher birth rates among those immigrants.
Accompanying this change in the status of women are changes in social mores and expectations for young adults. It is now common for couples to delay starting a family until each person has had opportunities to study, build a career, and pursue various activities for personal fulfillment. These include things such as travel and participation in sports or the arts.
Leridon (2006, p. 612) cites the work of Berrington (2004), who coined the term “perpetual postponers” to describe couples who were ‘always maintaining either a positive or ambivalent intention to have a child but delaying to some date in the future and ultimately reaching the end of their reproductive years childless’ (p. 10). Reasons such as this for not having children are not directly attributable to contraception. Although contraception made continued delay possible, the direct reason for childlessness is closer to the desire of couples to self-actualize.
Effects of Declining Birth Rates in Developed Nations
Although declining birth rates have occurred gradually over the past 30 or so years, governments have generally failed to do much in response. To be sure, states find themselves in a dilemma, since “[t]o have babies is, of course, a personal decision, but for a nation’s population that decision carries considerable consequences” (Yew, n.p.).
It seems unfair to fault governments for inaction, however, since consistently low birth rates are nearly unprecedented, particularly when those low rates are by choice rather than some calamity. It is not an exaggeration to say that the entire Western civilization is geared essentially to growth. This is most certainly the case in states that practice democratic capitalism. Thus, virtually all political, social, and economic policies and practices encourage and assume growth. It is this assumption that has proved to be the Achilles’ heel of the developed world.
The consequences of below-replacement birth rates fall into four main categories: 1) developed nations now have an aging workforce and an increasingly old overall population, 2) there are not enough younger workers to support the pensions of retirees (Yew, 2012, n.p.), 3) it is more difficult for businesses to recruit young workers and to hire replacements for those who retire, and 4) the nature of healthcare is changing rapidly (Allan, et.al., 2009, p. 1634) and medical costs are soaring (Tokuda, 2008, p. 154).
Obviously, when birth rates fall, there are fewer young people in the general population. When the population of an entire nation ages, systems and services that rely on younger, stronger workers are affected. It becomes difficult for many employers to recruit fresh talent because the best, brightest young workers have their choice among many good jobs. Fewer young workers also means that the burden of paying into pension systems like Social Security in the U.S. is spread across fewer people.
Yew gives a good example of this in the case of Singapore, where in 2011 seven working adults supported one retiree. By 2030, just 2.3 working adults will be supporting one retiree. In that year, nearly one million Singaporeans will be over the age of 65, and slightly over two million will be working adults between the ages of 15 and 64 (n.p.).
More elderly people will create pressures on the healthcare systems of developed nations, which are already stretched thin because people are living longer. The older the patient, the more expensive it is to provide care because costly medications and equipment tend to be required. And complicated end-of-life procedures are far more expensive than the routine, expected types of care needed by children and young adults.
In addition to cost, the so-called “birth dearth” creates other challenges for healthcare systems. One example of this is described by Allan, et.al. (2009, p. 1635). Researchers at the Ottawa Hospital in Ontario, Canada, calculated the chances of identifying an HLA-matched donor for a typical patient in the hospital’s blood and marrow transplant program. Because HLA-matches are far more likely to be found among a patient’s siblings, the reduction in family size has caused the chances of finding a donor match to go from 53.3 percent for patients born between 1951 and 1955—during the baby boom—to just 13.9 percent for patients born between 2001 and 2005.
Responses to Declining Birthrates in Developed Nations
Governments in some countries have taken steps to try to counteract the trend in declining birth rates. These most often take the form of economic incentives offered as a way to encourage young couples to have children earlier in their relationship, rather than delaying the birth of a first child. As noted previously, Sweden provides quite significant supports to young parents, such as free child care, reduced work hours, and ample family leave. Singapore also offers these benefits, as well as outright cash incentives (Yew, n.p.). The government creates bank accounts for every newborn and then matches each dollar that is saved by the child's parents.
The present controversy in the United States over immigration is ironic because it is almost a certainty that the U.S. will manage to maintain population replacement levels due to the fertility rates of immigrant couples. This assumes, of course, that these couples will continue to be allowed to enter the country. The U.S. needs immigrants in order to remain economically competitive and to maintain its place as the world’s sole super power.
Of all the developed nations that have made government-backed attempts to address the issues associated with an aging population, Japan is possibly the most innovative. The country is considering redefining the demographic category of “aged” from its current 65 years or older to a more contemporary 75 years or older (Tokuda & Hinohara, 2008, p. 154). This change is possible because today’s 65 year old is far more healthy than in years past. Assuming that work requirements and public policies were altered to accommodate it, people between 65 and 75 could continue to work and “contribute to society” (p. 154). It would be necessary to transform workplaces, as well as add flexibility in hours and perhaps make other accommodations. This strategy would, however, alleviate difficulties in recruiting employees and managing the burdens of funding pension plans.
The Upside to Older, and Fewer, People
Skeer (2002) is one of the few researchers to note a positive affect of lower birth rates. Fewer people means less overall consumption and thus less pressure on the planet and its finite natural resources. The links between population and carbon emissions are well established (p. 28) and Skeer has come up with a formula to determine the tons of CO2 per capita that could be saved with a smaller population. “Compared with the cost of most other emissions reducing measures, the cost [of providing large scale family planning services] can be regarded as modest” (p.29). What Skeer doesn’t mention is that the people who would use these family planning measures would do so voluntarily. Otherwise, serious ethical dilemmas arise and visions of a dystopia come to mind.
The other benefit that may occur by having an older world population is that older people tend to consume less in the way of durable goods—automobiles, appliances, etc.—and this might alleviate some of the problems associated with waste management. However, as previously noted, older people also consume more, and more expensive, healthcare. The main issue is that, one way or another, it appears that the population of the high-consuming, developed nations is aging, and that necessitates making changes in some fundamental social, political, and economic structures.
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Hackett, C. (2016, July 19). ‘5 Facts About the Muslim Population in Europe’. Fact Tank, Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: <http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/07/19/5- facts-about-the-muslim-population-in-europe/> [Accessed 3 February 2017].
Hoffman, F. L. (1909) ‘The Decline in the Birth Rate’. The North American Review. 189(642). Retrieved from: <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25106352> [Accessed 2 February 2017].
Leridon, H. (2006). ‘Demographic Effects of the Introduction of Steroid Contraception in Developed Countries’. Human Reproduction Update 12(5). doi:10.1093/humupd/dml025 [Accessed 2 February 2017].
Skeer, J. (2002) ‘Links between Cairo and Kyoto: Addressing Global Warming through Voluntary Family Planning’. Ambio 31(1). Retrieved from: <http://www.jstor.org/stable/ 4315206> [Accessed 2 February 2017].
Sobotka, T., Skirbekk, V. & Philipov, D. (2011) ‘Economic Recession and Fertility in the Developed World’. Population and Development Review. 37(2). Retrieved from:
<http://www.jstor.org/stable/23043283> [Accessed 2 February 2017].
Tokuda, Y. & Hinohara, S. (2008) ‘Geriatric Nation and Redefining the Elderly in Japan’. International Journal of Gerontology 2(4). Retrieved from: <https:// www.researchgate.net/publication 240012202_Geriatric_Nation_and_Redefining_The_Elderly_in_Japan> [Accessed 2 February 2017].
Wolman, C. (2012, February 20) ‘A Demographic Time Bomb That the Jewish State Cannot Afford to Ignore’. The Jewish Chronicle. Retrieved from: <https://www.thejc.com/ comment/comment/a-demographic-time-bomb-that-the-jewish-state-cannot-afford-to- ignore-1.31801> Accessed 3 February 2017].
Yew, L.K. (2012, April 25) ‘Warning Bell for Developed Countries: Declining Birth Rates’. Forbes. Retrieved from: <http://www.forbes.com/global/2012/0507/current-events- population-declining-birth-rates-lee-kuan-yew.html> [Accessed 2 February 2017].