Fertility decline has been an ongoing trend in the western world. This fact has delighted many westerners, as a recent NYTimes OP-Ed helps to illustrate. In the article entitled “Bye Bye, Baby”, authors Michael S. Teitelbaum and Jay M. Winter tout the benefits of population decline. I wanted to take the time to respond to the op-ed and, in doing so, hopefully bring to light some of the pitfalls of the anti-natalist perspectives so many in the west have taken in their rush to welcome population decline:
NEARLY half of all people now live in countries where women, on average, give birth to fewer than 2.1 babies — the number generally required to replace both parents — over their lifetimes. This is true in Melbourne and Moscow, São Paulo and Seoul, Tehran and Tokyo. It is not limited to the West, or to rich countries; it is happening in places as diverse as Armenia, Bhutan, El Salvador, Poland and Qatar.
Indeed, sub-replacement fertility has spread across the planet. A quick check of statistics indicates that 115 countries (out of the 224 for which fertility rates were estimated) maintain fertility rates south of 2.1.
Though this sub-replacement fertility trend is not limited to wealthy western nations, it is certainly most prevalent in them. The only wealthy western nation with a recorded fertility rate north of 2.1 is Israel. The list of nations below that threshold is dominated by advanced East Asian and European states.
In reality, slower population growth creates enormous possibilities for human flourishing. In an era of irreversible climate change and the lingering threat from nuclear weapons, it is simply not the case that population equals power, as so many leaders have believed throughout history. Lower fertility isn’t entirely a function of rising prosperity and secularism; it is nearly universal.
The authors are not entirely incorrect here. Slower population growth does create enormous possibility for other forms of progress. Demographers and economists have long been well aware of this reality and have even gone as far to coin a term for it: the demographic dividend.
What is the demographic dividend? The term refers to the short-term benefits nations get due to sudden declines in fertility rates (fewer children being born to each woman). These declines create a positive effect because they work to reduce the dependency ratio, which measures the ratio of dependents (children and older individuals of retirement age) against the number of productive workers (generally citizens in the 18-59 age range). When high fertility rates begin a sudden decline, the number of dependents (children in this case) goes down relative to the number of productive, working age citizens.
This is good at first, because suddenly you’re left with unusually large masses of working age people (products of the last high fertility generation that had many children) who are themselves having few children (thus leading to fewer dependents). Because they are not having as many children as their parents did and are therefore devoting less of their time, resources and energy to family formation, they can be highly productive and spend more. This oversupply of working-age labor relative to dependents can do wonders for economic growth. China’s remarkable run of economic progress over the course of the last several decades has largely been due to this.
This demographic dividend is great… for a while. The problem is that eventually that unusually large mass of working age citizens begins to age and leave the working age demographic. Their productivity declines, and in time they become dependents themselves. The fact that they had few children now begins to work against them, as there are not enough working age citizens to pick up the slack and maintain the productivity they once had.
As a result of this, the dependency ratio climbs back up again. Productivity declines, economic growth stalls, and other issues (e.g. high social welfare expenditures, higher costs of labor, low tax revenues, etc) creep up.
China was able to take advantage of the demographic dividend for the past 40-50 years. That dividend is about to run out, and it may do so before China is able to catch the west’s level of economic prosperity. This means that China may be forced to face the same severe demographic issues that the west is facing without the benefit of having achieved western wealth and prosperity. The same potential pitfall faces Brazil and other nations that have seen fertility declines and are beginning to take (or try to take) advantage of the demographic dividend.
It is one thing to talk about the “enormous possibilities” created by population aging and decline, but to do so without a serious consideration of the price that must be paid is to be rather disingenuous. Population decline almost certainly has the potential to create more problems than it solves, especially for nations that do not have western levels of affluence.
Since the authors are celebrating the rise of sub-replacement fertility in some relatively poor, non-western nations, let’s explore that angle a bit more with a comparison. We’ll consider two countries with sub-replacement fertility: Armenia and Canada.
Both have very low fertility rates of around 1.6 children per woman. Both must confront the problems associated with this reality: decreased labor supply, higher labor costs, high entitlement and social welfare expenses, decreased tax revenue and so on. Which of these nations is better equipped to deal with these issues?
Canada is a very wealthy nation by global standards and is well known as such. Many people are anxious to emigrate to Canada, and Canadians are therefore fortunate enough to be able to supplement their labor force with educated migrants from poorer nations across the globe. Though this creates its fair share of issues, it does have the benefit of allowing Canada to fairly easily mitigate the costs associated with the low fertility of its domestic population that could otherwise have the potential to severely cripple the Canadian economy. Canada’s wealth also allows it to do all of this while still sustaining many of the social services its people have come to rely on and consider essential to the well-being of the citizenry. This affluence gives the Canadians more room for error when decreased tax revenues and other pitfalls associated with declining fertility appear.
But what of Armenia?
Armenia is not a wealthy country and cannot count on a steady supply of talented foreign migrants anxious to make it home. Many will say that this is a good thing, but that reality also limits Armenia’s ability to deal with the increased labor costs, decreased labor supply, lower tax revenue and higher social expenditures associated with its below replacement fertility rate. The fact that many of Armenia’s best and brightest young people (the kind of people the nation would need in order to have any hope of making any significant socio-economic improvement) are migrating to nations like Canada and the UK only further complicates matters by exacerbating the issues described above relating to the labor supply.
For wealthy nations like Canada, sub-replacement fertility and population aging are smaller issues than they could be. The most serious and potentially devastating impacts of population decline are mitigated in these nations by their affluence and their ability to draw on more fecund global population pools to offset their domestic demographic declines. For nations like Armenia, however, sub-replacement fertility represents a vastly more dangerous prospect. The phenomenon creates substantial problems that these nations are often ill-equipped to deal with, especially when combined with high rates of migration of their best and brightest to nations like Canada (who, again, count on the arrival of said talent to offset their own demographic issues).
Sub-replacement fertility can represent an insurmountable roadblock for nations like Armenia on the path to western levels of prosperity: they may have a shot at benefiting from short-term demographic dividends, but they do not come anywhere near western levels of wealth as a result of said trends (read: they get old before they get rich) and when the window for the dividend ends and dependency ratios creep back up (halting economic growth), they are left stagnant and unable to close the still massive socio-economic gap between themselves and the western nations they hope to emulate.
Is it responsible to promote the spread of sub-replacement fertility in nations that are really not prepared to deal with the consequences that may come with it and could potentially be doomed to eternal socio-economic inferiority by it?
Rapidly declining fertility — especially if rates go very low — does pose challenges. Yet it also can provide substantial benefits that have received less attention.
First, as noted, fertility decline is associated nearly everywhere with greater rights and opportunities for women. The deferral of marriage and the reduction of births to two, one or none across so much of the world — and, again, in countries that are still far from rich — are broadly consistent with the higher educational attainment and career aspirations of young women. It is no surprise that the hand-wringers over fertility decline are usually men.
These authors do themselves no favors in the credibility department by equating legitimate concerns about sub-replacement fertility to useless, irrational misogyny. The fact is that sub-replacement fertility is an issue. A society in which the reduction of births declines to “one or none” is not a sustainable one. That’s not misogyny, it is fact.
There is also another issue touched on here, one that a couple of users in the article’s comments section astutely pointed out:
Also of interest is quality of childraising. What portion of declining fertility is from single parent households, parents of poverty, parents of low educational attainment and parents of substance abuse.
Lower fertility is not a problem if the children are properly raised. But if they are not, we are setting up a long term problem.
Generally lower birthrates are correlated with higher education, higher earning and generally a better quality of life. Upscale, if you will. The implications of this study appear to be that the burden of the educated and affluent, in terms of support of the poor, development of technology and advancement of the human condition in general, will increasingly fall to a smaller and smaller group.
This is good why, again?
This is an issue that again raises questions about the sustainability and positivity of sub-replacement fertility as a norm in many parts of the world. As the authors of the article noted, lower fertility is correlated with higher education. The better educated and professionally successful women are, the fewer children they have. Is this a good thing?
Think carefully about who we want raising our children: those with higher levels of education and more professional success (and the financial resources that come with that) are generally considered to be more ideal providers of homes for children than those with low levels of education, limited finances and limited professional success. When we think of an ideal environment for children to come up in, we imagine one in which they will have the benefit of growing up with the wisdom and knowledge of well educated, informed parents to guide them and the resources to enjoy all that they’ll need to be successful (money for youth sports, summer camps, quality education, a safe neighborhood, etc). It is the educated woman that is most capable of providing all of this, and yet we see here that it is these women (and their equally well-educated partners) who are in fact having the fewest children.
Is it responsible to promote the spread of sub-replacement fertility if we understand that it will lead to fewer children being born to those who we consider most capable of proper childrearing? Do we want to outsource an increasingly larger share of our childrearing efforts to those who may lack the education and financial resources to do it properly? Keep in mind that this increasing separation of high education and professional achievement from fertility (which, as the authors note, is a natural result of the growing sub-replacement fertility trend) may well create future generations that are less well-adjusted and less well provisioned on average as they grow into adulthood, and perhaps less able to make the great technological and social advances we will need to make in the future in order to create a greener, safer, more equitable world.
Are those who cheer for sub-replacement fertility alright with this outcome? The concept of an “Idiocracy” seemed like a mere satirical comedy at one point, but we could very well be heading in precisely that direction if caution is not taken.
Third, by enhancing the employment and career experiences of young adults, lower fertility can also bring about greater social and political stability. High-fertility societies commonly produce large numbers of young adults who have trouble finding productive employment — many experts have attributed everything from terrorism to the Arab Spring to this “youthquake” of disaffected young adults in the Middle East and North Africa — but this begins to change 20 to 30 years after fertility rates start to decline.
By then, young adults are no longer in great surplus relative to labor market demand; their relative economic value for employers begins to rise and their economic and career prospects improve. Over time, this should facilitate marriage and family formation.
And what if those young adults are being forced to support a much larger older generation above them? The authors are quite right to note the dangers of “youthquakes”, but they again neglect to note the side effects of the solution they promote. When the supply of young adults relative to labor dries up, it is usually accompanied by a massive increase in the number of dependents. These dependents are expensive, and it is the relatively small generation of young adults that will be called on to support them.
Wealthy nations can soften this blow a bit by importing intelligent young people from elsewhere, but even then the price must be paid. For poorer nations, the consequences are far more severe.
The comments on the NYTimes Op-Ed are even more optimistic about the prospects of declining fertility:
I am not an economist, but given that in so many countries we have been unable for years to employ everyone who is already here and needs employment, and that possibly the gravest problem humanity faces is the overconsumption of resources and overproduction of toxic waste products that are destroying our world — I’d say that a falling human population is the best news I’ve heard in some time.
In fact, despite falling fertility rates, the increasing population is something we should still be worried about. Due to population momentum, the population is going to continue to grow by more than a billion people, and that is a problem because of global warming – the earth’s resources are not infinite. Even though fertility rates are declining almost everywhere, there is still a large unmet need for contraception in the remaining countries with high birthrates such as Niger. Those who care about the health of the planet and its people should celebrate falling birthrates, and hope that the human population peaks soon.
These comments indicate where much of the enthusiasm for population decline comes from: the belief that it will save the planet. This belief is based on the assumption that smaller populations with lower fertility rates do better by planet Earth than larger, more fertile populaces.
The problem here is that there is no strong evidence of such a correlation between population size (or growth) and environmental harm. The nations that pollute the most, consume the most and contribute the most to global greenhouse gas emissions are not the largest or most fertile. They are usually the relatively small, relatively infertile nations of the affluent west. Wealthy western Canadians and Australians are not particularly numerous and do not tend to be particularly fecund, but they have more cars, buy more things, travel more often, eat (and waste) more food and use more electricity than their peers in places like Mozambique, Ghana, Uganda or Yemen.
Looking at a country’s total carbon emissions doesn’t tell the full story of a country’s contribution to global warming.
China, for example, is the world “leader” in total emissions (6018m metric tonnes of carbon dioxide) since it overtook the US (5903) in 2007. But all that really tells you is that China is a fast-developing country with a lot of people.
A more useful measurement is carbon emissions per capita (person). Under that measurement, the average American is responsible for 19.8 tonnes per person, and the average Chinese citizen clocks in at 4.6 tonnes.
Examining CO2 per capita around the world also shows us the gulf between the developed world’s responsibility for climate change and that of the developing world. While Australia is on 20.6 tonnes per person (partly because of its reliance on CO2-intensive coal) and the UK is half that at 9.7 (explained in part by relatively CO2-light gas power stations), India is on a mere 1.2. Poorer African nations such as Kenya are on an order magnitude less again – the average Kenyan has a footprint of just 0.3 tonnes (a figure that’s likely to drop even lower with the country’s surge in wind power).
This is why it is folly to assume that one can save the planet by merely decreasing the number of humans on it. You can’t assume that a smaller number of people are going to consume or pollute less.
Everyone is very quick to acknowledge the downsides of population growth, but they’re much slower to recognize the equally acute danger posed by rapid aging and decline. There could be a heavy price paid for that ignorance if we are not cautious.
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