As we, in the developing countries like Pakistan, worry about perennial population explosion, the situation in the developed countries is taking a reverse direction. It is declining worryingly sharply—a highly desirable benefit of development which is now threatening to turn into a great loss for the rich world which for the time being is helped out by immigration from the developing countries. But in the longer run even in the global South population growth rate is expected to decline.
A paper published last year in medical journal the Lancet predicted that the world’s population will peak at 9.73 billion in 2064, and then decline. By the end of the century, this figure will stand at 8.79 billion (two billion fewer than the UN had previously forecast), while 23 countries can expect their populations to have halved.
The world will certainly become greyer, because if the Lancet’s projections are accurate, by 2100 the number of people aged over 65 will outnumber the under-twenties by 670 million.
Meanwhile, the horror and uncertainty of the pandemic has had a dramatic contraceptive effect: the monthly fertility rate in England and Wales in December 2020 and January 2021, around nine months after Britain shutdown, fell by 8.1 per cent and 10.2 per cent year-on-year, respectively. In the US, the fertility rate fell by 4 per cent in 2020, to the lowest on record. Italy’s birth rate has dropped to its lowest level since unification in 1861. In France birth numbers have dropped to their lowest since the Second World War; in Japan and South Korea there have been record lows. The number of births in China dropped 15 per cent in 2020.
According to Sophie Mcbain, a special correspondent at the New Statesman (The baby bust: How a declining birth rate will reshape the world, published dated July 7, 2021), the global demographic development represent an acceleration in a decades-long trend – one that will completely reconfigure the global economy, the international balance of power, and intimate and personal lives.
“It will require a fundamental social change to accommodate the diminishing size of the tax-paying, economically productive population, as well as the rising number of older people requiring pensions and social care.
“Even before the pandemic, the UK birth rate had fallen to record lows. Across most of the Global North, the fertility rate has for decades remained below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman; were it not for immigration, the population of almost every rich country in the world would begin shrinking.
“Policymakers have long grasped the unsurprising and yet world-changing truth that, if you give women control over their bodies and opportunities beyond the home, and if they have the resources they need to ensure their children survive infancy, they will have fewer children. And so, as women are emancipated and economies develop, countries undergo a “demographic transition”, in which life expectancy rises and family sizes fall. The unexpected part is how few children most women then choose to have.”
In wealthy countries, birth rates have stabilised at much lower rates than anyone anticipated. The fertility rates in the US, UK and Nordic countries are relatively high at between 1.5 and 1.7 children per woman. It is much lower across southern Europe, and parts of Asia. South Korea’s fertility rate is less than one, the lowest in the world.
Why have birth rates fallen this low? Demographers speak of a “fertility trap”, in which decline becomes self-perpetuating. This is partly a mathematical phenomenon: as populations age and shrink, so too does the number of people of childbearing age. It’s partly an economic one, because of the financial burden borne by taxpayers in a country with many pensioners. It’s partly sociological: most people have a similar number of children as their peers. And then there is an elusive element: our reasons for wanting children, or not wanting them, can be mysterious even to ourselves. Why would you start a family in the middle of a plague? Why wouldn’t you?
Some fear that falling fertility will bankrupt welfare states and depress economic growth. Others hope the world will become greener, healthier and more prosperous, with fewer mouths to feed and fewer people burning through our finite natural resources.
Birth rates tend to fall in the immediate aftermath of crises – flu pandemics, recessions, natural disasters – but many features of the coronavirus pandemic are unique. Extended lockdowns have made it hard for single people to find partners, or for long-distance couples to meet. The strain on working parents who have been home-schooling or looking after small children has been immense, making it more likely that these families will abandon or postpone plans to have another child. Some will find that, by the time they feel ready, they are no longer able to conceive. Fertility treatments such as IVF have been delayed. The stress and unhappiness of pandemic parenting can have diffuse effects.
The pandemic is threatening to reverse decades of progress towards gender equality, and it has had a crushing effect on mothers, who have taken on the bulk of extra care responsibilities. When the pandemic first hit the UK in the spring of 2020, mothers were 1.5 times more likely than fathers to have lost their job, and many are suffering chronic stress and burnout.
Interestingly, people in Western industrialised countries tend to see themselves as a “finished product”: they don’t need children to feel “complete”, or to find meaning in their lives; they are less invested in the idea that they are merely one link in an unbroken ancestral chain. “Capitalism encourages us to think of ourselves as individual, detached units. Its spiritual trajectory is parallel to that of low fertility.”
When the New York Times ran a front-page story on the US pandemic baby bust in May, it referred glancingly to the costs of raising a child in a country where medical care, childcare and higher education are all eye-wateringly expensive, yet the women interviewed all framed their decision to postpone motherhood in terms of responsibility. “I’m far too young to be responsible for a child,” one 25-year-old health researcher told Mcbain she interviewed. “Everybody in my friend group is saying, ‘When is the right time to let go of that selfishness?’” a 29-year-old IT professional agreed. “We are all putting it off.” The article ignored how decisively these apparent choices are shaped by cultural, political and economic circumstances. No doubt young people are delaying parenthood partly for positive reasons: they want to enjoy their freedoms. But the “responsibility” of parenthood becomes much less daunting in countries with low-cost childcare, family-friendly work policies and strong social safety nets, and where there is not a culture of intensive parenting and maternal self-sacrifice. We have a tendency to privatise these problems, so that the blame remains on the woman who will not “let go of that selfishness”, rather than on the economic and social realities that make parenthood – and especially motherhood – unthinkable for so many.
To have a child, or not to have a child, is an intimate matter; it will alter the trajectory of a person’s life, and for a woman it is a matter of bodily freedom. Yet these choices are vulnerable to political influence: when having children is framed either as a social obligation or an act of narcissism, women’s choices are more easily undermined. Across the US and Europe reproductive freedoms have already been eroded, in both blatant and subtle ways. In May the US Supreme Court, now dominated by conservative judges, agreed to hear a challenge to American women’s constitutional right to abortion – a warning of the reversibility of feminist gains. Earlier this year, Poland’s right-wing government implemented a near-total ban on abortion. Some activists in Hungary fear its far-right, pro-natalist government will follow suit. “We want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender,” Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, has said. He has devoted around 5 per cent of GDP to boosting the birth rate, made obtaining an abortion more difficult and co-sponsored a pro-life declaration signed by more than 30 countries.
Japan has tried and failed to boost the birth rate through various non-coercive measures and yet maintains strict limits on migration, even as the dearth of young people drags down growth and reshapes society in momentous and hard-to-measure ways: an older country may become less innovative and creative, for instance. Or countries can open their borders to migration from low-income, high-fertility countries, and in effect import a working-age population (until, presumably, the Global South transitions to low-fertility, too) – in which case politicians ought to start talking more honestly about why immigration should be welcomed.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021