February 10, 2006


The fertility bust: Very low birth rates in Europe may be here to stay (Charlemagne, Feb 9th 2006, The Economist)

[G]ermany tells you that reversing these trends can be hard. There, and elsewhere, fertility rates did not merely fall; they went below what people said they wanted. In 1979, Eurobarometer asked Europeans how many children they would like. Almost everywhere, the answer was two: the traditional two-child ideal persisted even when people were not delivering it. This may have reflected old habits of mind. Or people may really be having fewer children than they claim to want.

A recent paper [pdf] suggests how this might come about. If women postpone their first child past their mid-30s, it may be too late to have a second even if they want one (the average age of first births in most of Europe is now 30). If everyone does the same, one child becomes the norm: a one-child policy by example rather than coercion, as it were. And if women wait to start a family until they are established at work, they may end up postponing children longer than they might otherwise have chosen.

When birth rates began to fall in Europe, this was said to be a simple matter of choice. That was true, but it is possible that fertility may overshoot below what people might naturally have chosen. For many years, politicians have argued that southern Europe will catch up from its fertility decline because women, having postponed their first child, will quickly have a second and third. But the overshoot theory suggests there may be only partial recuperation. Postponement could permanently lower fertility, not just redistribute it across time.

And there is a twist. If people have fewer children than they claim to want, how they see the family may change too. Research by Tomas Sobotka of the Vienna Institute of Demography suggests that, after decades of low fertility, a quarter of young German men and a fifth of young women say they have no intention of having children and think that this is fine. When Eurobarometer repeated its poll about ideal family size in 2001, support for the two-child model had fallen everywhere.

Parts of Europe, then, may be entering a new demographic trap. People restrict family size from choice. But social, economic and cultural factors then cause this natural fertility decline to overshoot. This changes expectations, to which people respond by having even fewer children. That does not necessarily mean that birth rates will fall even more: there may yet be some natural floor. But it could mean that recovery from very low fertility rates proves to be slow or even non-existent.

A people who believe only in the self have no reason to bear and raise children.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 10, 2006 2:35 PM

Fools! They thought the goombahs would do the right thing without Father Guido Sarducci telling them what was right and what was wrong.

Now they are paying the price of being sheep without shepherds.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 10, 2006 2:58 PM

I have a question about the per-woman measure of fertility: it seems that it ignores the impact of timelinesss.

Taking a 105-year horizon, if couple A and progeny have two children per at 20 and couple B and progeny have two children per at 35, it would seem that, A's initial couple would have 2x2x2x2x2 = 32 progeny, and B's initial couple would have 2x2x2 = 8 progeny.

A has four times more offspring than B after 105 years. So, even given equal nominal birth rates, the timeliness of having children would appear to also matter significantly.

1 child at 35 is much less reproductive over time than 1 at 20. Or is my math wrong?

Posted by: Jorge Curioso at February 10, 2006 3:11 PM

To paraphrase Joe Frazier, "Kill the soul and the body will fall."

BTW, don't you find the detached, clinical tone of the piece, given the enormity of the topic, both chilling and oh so right?

Posted by: Luciferous at February 10, 2006 3:54 PM


Why should he care?

Posted by: oj at February 10, 2006 4:12 PM

Mr. Curioso;

Your math is wrong. OJ, you can stop reading now.

The better way to think about it is, people die. You need new people to replace them. To do so, it takes (statistically) 2.1 births for every female in the population. In your example, the A and B populations will reach a steady state where As and Bs are dieing as fast as they are born. Because As have a shorter generation time, there will be more As than Bs, but there will be no long term growth of either population. Note that more As means not only more births but more deaths as well. Presuming every one lives the same amount of time, an A will be born and one will die every 10 years while a B will be born and one will die every 17.5 years. Neither grows.

Timeliness of births can have an indirect effect but that is covered by the fertility rate. For instance, if in your example A type people have more children and B fewer, then the increasing number of A types will mean a growing population because there are more A than B -- but -- this will be reflected in the fertility rate because more As will boost the average.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at February 10, 2006 4:25 PM

Jorge Curioso:
Taking the 105-year horizon, sort of, but probably more people from group A would die, so not quite. Also, it's not really an exponential growth in this case (i.e., it's not 2x2x2x2x2). Two parents have two children, four grandparents have four grandchildren, eight greatgrandparents have eight greatgrandchildren, etc., which is more a one-to-one mapping, not exponential growth.

Either case (descendents of A versus descendents of B) would hit a steady state at which the births and deaths would match (assuming 2 children per women average, with exactly half the population being women). It is true that group A would have a larger steady state population, perhaps much larger, depending on life expectancy.

Posted by: Bret at February 10, 2006 4:27 PM

Regarding the title of the article: "Very low birth rates in Europe may be here to stay."

Low birth rates! Here to stay!! Forever!!! Doomed, I tell you, DOOOOOMMMED!!!!

A wee bit alarmist.

Just like markets adjust to new information, so do birthrates. Things will change, so will birthrates.

It's crowded in Europe and Japan. If they lose 1/2 or 3/4 of their population, they'll be better off in the long run. We have lots of space here in the United States (especially in Red American), so we just don't get it.

Posted by: Bret at February 10, 2006 4:33 PM

Jorge - Yes, you're right.

AOG & Bret - Jorge was taking the case of 2 children per adult, i.e. 4 children per woman. So there's a 2-fold increase each generation. You're right that in the case of 2 children per woman there's a steady state in which it doesn't matter what age the woman has her children. But if the number of children per woman is more than 2, the sooner she has them, the better for population growth.

Posted by: pj at February 10, 2006 4:35 PM


Bingo. The problem isn't birthrates but the information (the culture).

Posted by: oj at February 10, 2006 4:45 PM

OJ, it ain't the culture, it's the living space. Despite the fact that Europe and Japan are wealthier than ever before, no amount of money will buy you elbow room. Japan especially is an over crowded rabit warren, large areas of Europe are the same. And when the cost of real estate climbs into the stratosphere (due to the basic law of supply and demand), wealth gets gobbled up.

People stop having children for rational economic reasons. They can't afford large families in a high population density urban environment. It's a pocket book issue, not a moral one.

For example, my nephew has married a wonderful Japanese woman who decided to live in Colorado instead of Tokyo (her home). Though she misses her familty, she is amazed by how cheap housing is and is grateful for a chance to have a large family, something she could not afford to do back in Japan.

After the population falls to the point where declining real estate costs allow for a large family, people will start having kids again. Why do you have trouble with this concept?

Posted by: bplus at February 10, 2006 5:05 PM


No, they don't. They stop because they're spiritually dead and dependent on the state.

Y'all keep predicting rising rates and they never come.

Posted by: oj at February 10, 2006 5:11 PM

so bdaniel, you are saying that 100% of the land mass of japan is populated ? i think the actual figure is somewhere around 10%.

Posted by: toe at February 10, 2006 5:12 PM

Thanks, AOG, Brit and PJ.

I think I've got a way to think about it: as compounding interest. At any non-zero rate, the shorter the compounding period, the greater and more rapid the increase in value.

Posted by: Jorge Curioso at February 10, 2006 5:19 PM

Actually, Japanese rural population has been falling for a while without any increase in family size. There are, as well, areas of the world where population density and fertility are both higher than they are in the developed world. So I doubt that population density is the whole story.

Moreover, as the population ages its ability to recover declines.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 10, 2006 5:31 PM

No they want to live a middle class life style, something not posible with a large family in high density urban areas. Evil and selfish, I know.... Anyways, I never realized that the hyper-capitalistic Japanese were so dependent on the state. I mean if what you are saying is true, heavily free market societies like Hong King, would have very high birth rates. But HK doesn't.

Toe, yes, the available land has been built on, the rest is either too mountainous and too expensive to build on or is needed for farms. Next time you're in Japan and have yourself crammed into a commuter train, you'll see what I mean.

Dave, the population of the heart of Red America, the Great Plains, has also been falling like the rural population of Japan, and for many of the same reasons. In both cases young people flee the rural areas for greater economic opportunities in the cities, leaving behind a declining and graying population (do a Google on "Buffalo Commons").

BTW, any of you guys ever read "Stand on Zanzibar"?

Posted by: bplus at February 10, 2006 6:01 PM


Large families have been the norm in urban areas right up until secularization and statism.

It sounds like you could fill books with what you don't realize about Japan.

Posted by: oj at February 10, 2006 6:10 PM

+ (I hope you don't mind if I call you +), I take it we're agreed then that the answer is not population density. The answer seems to be wealth factored through culture, which is not going to change in time to be fixed naturally.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 10, 2006 7:30 PM

David Cohen wrote: "So I doubt that population density is the whole story."

Of course it's not the whole story. But I think that it's a big part of the story. Virtually everywhere in the world, rural birth rates are higher than urban birth rates. Urban areas have always been more of a demographic sink than rural areas (can't find the link I'm after right this second), with people moving to urban areas for opportunity, then having fewer children, and in past centuries being much more likely to have been wiped out by disease.

I think that for a given culture with a given level of wealth and technology, there is a population equilibrium point. Europe is currently above that point, so the population will decline for a while. It won't go to zero. And it will take decades to decline significantly.

David Cohen also wrote: "Moreover, as the population ages its ability to recover declines."

As long as there is one last fertile female (and male) able to crank out children, the population can recover. Besides, you can always import new breeding stock.


I'd be interested in seeing a link. I woulda bet that the decline in family size would have been more closely timed with advances in birth control (and the wealth to buy birth control). It's still my belief that population growth (or lack of population decline) has always been higher in rural areas.

Posted by: Bret at February 10, 2006 7:34 PM

No OJ, cities have NEVER been havens for large families. Since the first cities, urban populations have ALWAYS filed more graves than cribs each year and have always relied upon immigrants and peasants coming in from the surrounding countryside to keep their populations from falling. This true of ancient Babylon, Athens, Rome, medieval Constantinople, Paris, Baghdad and modern London, New York and Tokyo. Though immigrants tend to have large families in the first generation they arrive (European immmigrants to America a century ago and Muslim immigrants to Europe today) it doesn't last. Within two gnerations, immigrant birth rates decline to the surrounding norms.

So where exactly am I wrong about Japan? From the CIA Factbook: Japan's population density has helped promote extremely high land prices. Between 1955 and 1989, land prices in the six largest cities increased 15,000 %. Urban land prices generally increased 40 % from 1980 to 1987; in the six largest cities, the price of land doubled over that period. For many families, this trend put housing in central cities out of reach. The result was lengthy commutes for many workers; daily commutes of up to two hours each way are not uncommon in the Tokyo area.

Posted by: bplus at February 10, 2006 8:20 PM

OJ, have you ever met a real live Euopean? If you did, you might find out that they really aren't so bad after all.

Posted by: bplus at February 10, 2006 8:24 PM


Yes, Europeans and Japanese needn't destroy themselves--that's the tragedy.

Posted by: oj at February 10, 2006 8:44 PM


Then why did population grow when man urbanized?

Posted by: oj at February 10, 2006 8:46 PM

And why pick on the Japanese? Every country other than the US is below replacment birth rates (http://www.japanesestudies.org.uk/images/papers/Chapple_Files/chapple_table_1.html) Hong Kong (hyper capitalist to the point of being libertarian) has a measly 0.91 TFR (http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/hk.html.

The birthrates in Muslim countries(far more religious than those evil secular Europeans) are also declining, and their population collapse will be will be the worst of all since their societies are not near rich enough to care for a large elderly population (http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Front_Page/GH23Aa01.html):

Although the Muslim birth rate today is the world’s second highest (after sub-Saharan Africa), it is falling faster than the birth rate of any other culture. By 2050, according to the latest UN projections, the population growth rate of the Muslim world will converge on that of the United States (although it will be much higher than Europe's or China's).... Urbanization, literacy, and openness to the modern world ultimately will suppress the Muslim womb, in the absence of radical measures.... In short, the Muslim world half a century from now can expect the short end of the stick from the modern world. It has generated only two great surpluses, namely people and oil. By the middle of the century both of these will have begun to dwindle.

Communist Hong Kong shows that declining birthrates are not the result of statism and declining Islam shows that it is not the result of secularism. Maybe its population density and basic pocket book economics? Actually the real reason is increased female literacy. The only women having large families are those kept barefoot, pregnant and uneducated. So if you want to maintain that high TFR, deny education to women.

Start with your own wife, OJ, the doctor.

Posted by: bplus at February 10, 2006 8:56 PM

Population growth and urbanization were both enabled at the same time by the following steps:

1. Man beat famine and especially infectious disease which enabled rapid urbanization without the previous historical decimation of the population due to disease, again especially in the urban areas.

2. Once the death rate is brought down (i.e. longevity increased), you get a large growth spike until steady state is reached again. Basically, if everybody starts living twice as long, the population doubles, all else being equal.

3. In the case of Europe and Japan, the large growth spike exceeded (in my estimation) the natural steady state equilibrium point for their respective populations. People began to adjust their family size and now are headed back toward the equilibrium.

The longer people live, the fewer of them can live over a given time period with the same amount of space per person. That's potentially a serious issue if the biotech folks make it so we all live till 200 or more. We most likely won't see that age, but I wouldn't be surprised if my children saw 100, and their children live substantially longer than that.

Posted by: Bret at February 10, 2006 9:02 PM


Of course, since it's just a function of crappy culture it's hardly unique to the secularized ones.

Your mistake seems to be the belief that anyone is saying that religion generically will counteract the trend. It won't.

We're distinct specifically because of our Judeo-Christianity.

Posted by: oj at February 10, 2006 9:02 PM


Doubtful, but they'll easily see a United States of over half a billion people in just about the only nation that will be above replacement rate.

Excellent refutation of the asinine notion that urbanization and population growth are incompatible though.

Posted by: oj at February 10, 2006 9:04 PM