Our population conundrum. Falling birthrates and demographic decline

China has recently announced that it is ‘relaxing’ its long- standing one child policy. The government of Viet Nam has made a series of recent announcements urging families, especially those in the south of the country where the birthrate has been falling precipitously, to have more babies. A recent article noted that in Japan, couples are not only not having babies, but also not getting married. Furthermore, many young people there have said they are losing interest in sex, as work has now taken a higher priority in their lives.

The government of Singapore is looking with deep concern over the country’s plummeting birthrate and taken measures to make the country more ‘child and family friendly’ with a series of tax measures and decrees to nudge young couples to make more babies. The situation is similar in Malaysia. A few years ago in Russian, Vladimir Putin went on television and literally begged the Russian people to have bigger families, as the death rate continued to exceed the birth rate, a deeply worrisome trend for any government concerned with it’s country’s survival.

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These are just a few examples among many. Indeed, all over the world this phenomenon of falling birthrates is seen.  Social scientists have a term for the replacement rate of a population, or how many babies each woman must have to maintain the population. This figure is called the ‘Total Fertility Rate’ or TFR. Generally speaking, this number is 2.1. Each woman needs to have 2 children to replace her and her husband. And since not all women have children,  and some children die before reaching adulthood, the number rises to slightly above 2.

Japan and South Korea have a current TFR of 1.2. In Singapore, it is 1.89. In Western Europe, the figures are also startling: Portugal is 1.49, France is 1.99, England is 1.66.

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Italy is a disaster. In the first four months of 2013, 8,000 fewer children were born in Italy than in the same period of the previous year. Its TFR is 1.41, which ranks it 203rd in the world. Deaths are outstripping births. For 2012, Italy had 12,000 fewer births than in 2011 and 19,000 more deaths.  The only factor that is keeping Italy’s population from shrinking rapidly is immigration.

In my country, the USA, the situation is similar. Birth rates have been declining for many decades. The U.S fertility rate fell to a record low in   2012 with only 63 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44. This was the fifth year in a row in which birth rates have declined. Births in the U.S. have been below replacement level since  2007. Our population would have started declining many years ago if it were not for immigration. The U.S. has for a long time accepted around 2 million legal immigrants per year, and an unknown number of illegal immigrants, mostly from Mexico.

During my travels , I have often asked young women in their 20s about their future family plans . The answers I received were similar in South America and Asia. Most of the girls replied that they wanted one child. Some replied ‘none’ and some said ‘two’. When I inquired how many children their great grandmothers, grandmothers, and mothers had , they often told me: 6, 4, and 2. The trend is clear and unmistakable.

Governments and social scientists who study these trends and in many cases try to modify or reverse them look at economic causes. And many young people themselves often point to the economy and their uncertain economic status as the reasons for delaying having families or forgoing children altogether. The skyrocketing cost of private and higher education and the out-of-reach dream of owning a house are mentioned frequently. And yet, there appears to be something deeper and more profound happening here, something which nobody – neither scientists, nor bureaucrats-  has a handle on. It may be nature herself, working her plan thru unwitting humans who feel, mistakenly, that they are making rational, well-thought-out decisions based upon reason and study.

The world I grew up in during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, when the term ‘overpopulation’ was talked about incessantly and Paul Ehrlich’s  books about the ‘Population Explosion’ sold in the millions, is now over. Yes, we have surpassed 7 billion people, but the rate of increase is slowing way down  and  it seems our problem is no longer an over-populated world, but a soon- to -be underpopulated one.