Fri, Dec 28, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Falling world fertility rate should be welcomed, expert says

Declining birthrates should be celebrated in light of global technological advances, and solutions such as migration should be considered, Sarah Harper says

By Nicola Davis  /  The Guardian

Declining fertility rates around the world should be cause for celebration, not alarm, a leading expert has said, warning that the focus on boosting populations is outdated and potentially bad for women.

Recent figures show that, globally, women now have on average 2.4 children in their lifetime — a measure known as the total fertility rate. While in some countries that figure is far higher — in Niger it is more than seven — in almost half of countries, including the UK, Russia and Japan, it has fallen to below two.

Such declines have been met with alarm, with some warning that the “baby bust” puts countries at risk of a depopulation disaster.

However, Sarah Harper, former director of the Royal Institution and an expert on population change, working at the University of Oxford, said that far from igniting alarm and panic, falling total fertility rates should be embraced and countries must not worry if their population is not growing.

Harper added that artificial intelligence (AI), migration and a healthier old age means that countries no longer need booming populations to hold their own.

“This idea that you need lots and lots of people to defend your country and to grow your country economically, that is really old thinking,” she said.

Having fewer children is also undoubtedly positive from an environmental point of view; research has found that having one fewer child reduces a parent’s carbon footprint by 58 tonnes of carbon emissions a year.

Capping our consumption is crucial, not least because countries in Africa and Asia, where the fastest population rises are occurring, will need a bigger share of resources if global inequality is to be curbed, Harper said.

“What we should be saying is no, [a declining total fertility rate] is actually really good because we were terrified 25 years ago that maximum world population was going to be 24 billion,” said Harper, who has three children.

She said that estimates now predict the population should reach somewhere between 10 and 12 billion by the end of the century.

Declines in the total fertility rate have been seen time and again after national economies develop, public health improves and infant mortality falls, and women find themselves raising larger families.

“This is a natural process,” Harper said, adding that drivers for such declines include huge strides in family planning and women’s education — with girls staying at school and entering the workforce — allowing women to delay childbearing and choose how many children to have — if any.

However, there is still a ripple of alarm spreading among countries where total fertility rates have dropped below so-called replacement levels — the magic figure of 2.1.

Desperate to tackle a dearth of babies amid fears of a shortage of workers and carers for the elderly, some countries have embraced incentives hoping to encourage procreation, using various methods, from matchmaking trips in Taiwan to advertising campaigns.

South Korea spent about US$134 billion from 2006 to this year trying to encourage its population to reproduce, and although Italy’s posters in 2016 proclaiming that “Beauty knows no age... Fertility does” were taken down amid cries of sexism and even echoes of fascism, its “fertility day” remains on the calendar, with the populist government recently suggesting families could be rewarded with land for having children.

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