May 13, 2011


With so much shopping to do, who has time for kids?: Some countries may be caught in a low-fertility trap which dooms them to declining populations. (Michael Cook, 5/13/112, MercatorNet)

The name of the worst case scenario is the “low fertility trap”. This is the intriguing theory of Wolfgang Lutz, of the Vienna Institute of Demography. He is one of the world’s leading demographers and has published articles in journals like Science and Nature.

Why we should assume that people will yearn for replacement level birth rates, he asks in the journal Ageing Horizons. “People will always want to have children,” Winston Churchill reportedly said. But is this true? Once upon a time, demographers wondered whether the TFR would ever sink below replacement level. It did. They thought that it would recover once it hit 1.5.It didn’t. It has sunk below 1.0 in some areas, like Hong Kong or Moscow. In Beijing and Shanghai it is about 0.7 – one third of the replacement level. Why should we assume that it will rise? With so much shopping to do, who has time for kids?

Take one astonishing case: China.

After 40 years of a draconian one-child policy, Chinese officials are beginning to realise that demographic disaster looms. China is on course to become old before it becomes rich. By the year 2040, the median age of Chinese will be higher than Americans, but they will have only one-third of Americans’ per capita income. “There are tremendous demographic crises pending, unprecedented in Chinese demography,” Wang Feng, of the Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing, told the New York Times.

A recent article in the journal Asian Population Studies paints a frightening picture of China’s future:

“China is increasingly becoming a '4-2-1'society, in which one child must support two parents and four grandparents.China will be a society in which most adults have few biological relatives.More and more children will have no siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles, but only parents, grandparents and perhaps, great grandparents. If birth rates remain unchanged, China will join the ranks of Japan, Germany, Russia, Italy and Spain, which stand to lose 20-30 per cent of their population over the next 50 years. “

There are signs that the enigmatic Chinese hierarchy is considering relaxing the one-child policy to allow population growth. But – surprise, surprise – its people may not respond. “The one-child culture is now so ingrained among Chinese that the authorities may not be able to encourage more births even if they try,” says the Times.

Japan, South Korea and Singapore are facing similar problems. In Japan there is no national consensus on how to boost the birth rate in a country which has already begun to decline in population. Its TFR has stayed at about 1.3 for a decade or more.

For decades South Korea promoted one or two-child families. But now that the TFR is about 1.29, it has discovered that it may not even have enough men to maintain the strength of its army. But getting Koreans to have children is proving difficult. Similarly, Singapore introduced draconian laws in the 1970s which made life very difficult for families with more than two children. Now its TFR is stuck at 1.25, despite tax breaks, subsidies, cash bonuses and goofy government match-making services for public servants.

The chilling possibility is that it may be impossible to raise birth rates once they have fallen to the lowest low-fertility rate. If this is true, the future looks grim for these countries.They will have a growing number of unproductive elderly supported by a shrinking number of young workers. Tax rates will rise and young people will leave.

It is true that France and the Nordic countries have managed to maintain relatively high birth rates because of generous taxpayer-supported pro-natalist policies. But these are relatively wealthy countries whose policies have been in place for decades. Handouts are not a quick fix. Nor have their TFRs risen above the replacement level.

Lutz argues that there is no known reason why fertility cannot continue to sink – even below 1.0, improbable as that may seem. He says that there are three “powerful forces toward still lower fertility in countries which already have very low fertility”.

The demographic force is a kind of implosion. “Fewer and few women enter the reproductive age,and, hence the number of births will decline, even if fertility instantly jumps to replacement level.” The number of births spirals downwards.

The sociological force reflects the power of public opinion to shape a child-unfriendly culture.“The norms and in particular the family size ideals of the young generation are influenced by what they experience around them. If their environment includes few or no children, children will figure less prominently in their own image of a desirable life.” Having children is no longer a desirable life project.

The economic force sets people’s ideal family size at a level determined by their aspirations for consumption and for expected income. If they want to consume more than they can earn, they have fewer children. Thus, a generation which sees a bleak economic future ahead will not raise the TFR. This reinforces a downward spiral. Competition for exports depresses wages.The tax burden on the working population grows in order to fund welfare payments for the elderly. There are fewer jobs at an entry level for young people locally, creating an incentive for them to migrate elsewhere. And with the welfare budget already squeezed to pay for the elderly, there is little left over for policies which might encourage higher fertility.

The implications of these dry theories are terrifying for countries like Taiwan (a TFR of 1.1), Slovakia (1.27) or Italy (1.38). Those countries, and many others, could disappear, swamped by immigrants who flow in to fill the gaps left by young natives who were never born, or absorbed into a more powerful neighbour.

Now suppose that these places started to have a few more kids....why would they stay in these dying nations and work like dogs to support the elderly?

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Posted by at May 13, 2011 6:42 AM

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