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be cause for celebration, not alarm, a leading expert has said, warning that the focus on boosting populations is outdated and potentially bad for women.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.
Even in China — famous for its former one-child policy — there are rumbles of concern, with academics proposing couples could be taxed for having too few offspring, while new hurdles are being erected to curb abortion and divorce.
Harper said fears that declines in the total fertility rate would see countries fall behind are groundless.
“A smaller number of highly educated people in the knowledge economy of Europe will vastly outweigh increasing our population, because automation is going to take over many of the tasks,” Harper said, adding that AI and robotics mean that work is moving away from industrial jobs and that effort needs to be directed toward education of the young, not boosting procreation.
She said that changes in the military arena have also undercut fears in some countries that declines in the total fertility rate could leave them vulnerable — concerns that appear to be reflected in the recent rise in the maximum age for new military recruits in Japan.
“We don’t need large numbers of people for armies. Modern warfare isn’t like that,” she said.
As for dealing with an aging society, more babies would not help much there, since children also need to be cared for and would not enter the workforce for years.
“All the evidence is that if families, households, societies, countries have to deal with large numbers of dependents, it takes away resources that could be put into driving society, the economy etc,” Harper said, adding that the “problem” of an aging population also needs to be reconsidered, not least because technology to support dependents is advancing, while people are staying in good health for longer.
“It is much easier to enable older adults to stay upskilled and healthy and in the labor market than it is to say to women: ‘Oh you have got to have children,’” she said.
Indeed, empowering women might do more to change a nation’s total fertility rate than pushing pro-natalism, Harper said, although that would not necessarily cause a baby boom.
“In those societies that enable women to stay in the labor market and have children, they will go from none or one child probably up to two [per woman],” she said.
In rich societies the wealthy might opt for more.
There is also another solution: movement of people — something Harper said has helped Europe and North America cope with aging populations, boosting economies since World War II.
In Germany women now have just 1.4 babies on average in their lifetime.
“I believe that one of the reasons why [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel took the million refugees was because she desperately needed to boost her working population,” Harper said.
It is a point that might enrage right-wing populists, but it is a powerful one.
“Migration is that wonderful balancing act,” she added.
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