Steven Philip Kramer
Foreign Affairs, May/
For most of human history, high birthrates and high mortality rates tended to balance each other out. That began to change in the nineteenth century, when better sanitation and nutrition lengthened life spans. The world's population surged from about one billion in 1800 to seven billion today.
Although overpopulation plagues much of the developing world, many developed societies are now suffering from the opposite problem: birthrates so low that each generation is smaller than the previous one. Much of southern and eastern
At the same time as women are having fewer children in developed countries, life expectancies there have reached record highs. As a result, the dependency ratio -- the ratio of the working population to the nonworking population -- has become increasingly unfavorable, and it is projected to get even worse. In many countries, the age distribution will someday resemble an inverted pyramid, with a bulge of the elderly perched precariously on a narrow base of the young. With fewer working-age people to tax, governments will have to choose from among several unpleasant options: cutting benefits, raising the retirement age, or hiking taxes. Making matters worse is that economic growth gets harder to achieve as workers age and their ranks dwindle; aging societies will have a tough time succeeding in an era of rapid technological change, which requires flexible employees.
Low birthrates threaten not only the viability of the developed world's welfare states but also developed countries' very survival. In many parts of
Low birthrates are also changing the world's population balance, with poorer countries dwarfing richer ones. The population of
Population decline poses a grave danger to the developed world. Yet there is nothing inevitable about it. History shows that governments can raise birthrates close to replacement levels -- if only they adopt the right kinds of pronatalist policies. This means making available high-quality and affordable child care, offering families financial support, and supporting mothers who pursue careers.
Making Motherhood Work
If developed countries with low birthrates want to raise them, they should look at what has worked for others in the past. Countries that have not addressed gender inequality or provided adequate social services, such as
After World War II, French leaders blamed the country's defeat in 1940 on its stagnating demographic, economic, and social development. If
These postwar policies were aimed at strengthening the "traditional" family. But by the late 1960s, that model was falling out of favor. The baby boom was ending. Women were joining the work force in increasing numbers, and French economic development required their participation. Instead of viewing women's careers as a threat to birthrates, pronatalists began to advocate reconciling work and family.
That approach had worked in
Because children were a crucial invest-ment for society but an economic burden for individual families, the argument ran, the government needed to redistribute wealth from households with few or no children to those with many. It had to eliminate the obstacles preventing ordinary people from following their wishes to marry and procreate, such as the sheer cost of raising children. Unlike conservative pronatalists, the Myrdals supported the right to contraception. It was good that families should want children, but they should have only the children they wanted.
Both the French and the Swedish systems eliminate much of the financial burden on parents and, above all, the stress of struggling to balance work and family. As a result, both countries enjoy healthy birthrates: near replacement level in
Gone Babies Gone
Many other factors have kept
The results are ominous. By 2011,
The Japanese government has pursued policies aimed at increasing the birthrate, but these have been too halfhearted. Employers are part of the problem, forcing women to choose between a family and a career. Women who have children are often unable to return to professional-level jobs, and businesses resist reducing long working hours. Although there are many laws on the books that purport to remedy this situation -- for example, the 1994 Angel Plan, the 1995 Child Care and Family Care Leave Act, and the 1999 New Angel Plan -- they often go unenforced. And so more women are marrying later (or never), and those who are married are having fewer children.
Demographics and Destiny
Policymakers in these countries also fail to act because they hold misguided views about population. Some still fear overpopulation or argue that lower populations will help preserve the environment. (That they would admittedly do, but environmental degradation is a lesser threat than depopulation.) Others insist that the government cannot and should not intervene in a domain regarded as private. Still others incorrectly assume that the problem will take care of itself; many of the countries affected by falling birthrates, such as
But demographics are not self- regulating, and successful population policies require governments to make long-term investments in encouraging childbirth. This means a great deal of financial support, even in times of austerity; when it comes to population policies, there is no such thing as short-term success. In order to bear fruit, the policies must be consistent and predictable, so they have to be based on broad national consensus.
Gender equality is also an important ingredient, as are carefully managed immigration and the acceptance of non-traditional family structures, such as unmarried cohabitation. After all, the countries most committed to the traditional family, such as
Governments trying to institute pro-natalist policies will face an uphill battle. In the past, such policies were closely related to the rise of the welfare state, which came into being at a time of sustained economic growth in the developed world. But the welfare state in the West has been embattled for a long time, threatened by neoliberal economic thinking, the rise of cheap foreign labor, growing inequality, and the recent global economic crisis. Meanwhile, young people are having a harder time finding steady, well-paying jobs. They are likely to postpone beginning families -- or never have any children.
Public policy can narrow the gap between the number of children women say they want and the number they actually have. But the right kind of programs, such as those in
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