Is the fact that fertility is falling around the world good news? You would certainly think so if you agree with the analysis cheerily offered by The Economist. That very respected journal of economic analysis recently offered a cover story that celebrated falling human fertility as “changing the world for the better.”
“Sometime in the next few years (if it hasn’t happened already) the world will reach a milestone,” the magazine predicts, adding that “half of humanity will be having only enough children to replace itself.” In other words, for half of the world the fertility rate will have dropped to 2.1, considered the replacement rate for couples. This milestone, the magazine declares, “is one of the most dramatic social changes in history.”
Predictions about falling fertility rates have become commonplace. In much of Europe, falling fertility has been a fact of life for decades. In many countries on the continent, falling fertility is already leading to social pressures as the workforce ages quickly and schools see falling enrollments. In Russia, the army fears that it will be unable to deploy adequate troops in coming years — there are simply not enough boys to become the next generation’s soldiers. In Japan, falling fertility rates point to dramatic changes in the society. As one observer noted, the nation is on its way to becoming a giant geriatric ward with fewer and fewer young people.
The Economist sees all this as good news. Looking at the picture with a rosy economic view, the magazine offers that falling fertility rates mean a “Goldilocks moment” for some economies, when the demographics of falling fertility mean a time of optimal economic growth and decreased economic dependence. Of course, the magazine has to acknowledge that this “Goldilocks moment” will almost certainly be followed by dramatic problems brought about by an aging population. For now, The Economist congratulates these economies for their temporary “demographic dividend.”
The magazine also suggests that falling fertility leads to an increase in women in education and women in the workforce. It states: “Educated women are more likely to go out to work, more likely to demand contraception and less likely to want large families.”
Shamelessly, The Economist even offers a thankful nod to China’s notorious “one child only policy.” As the magazine reports:
China’s one-child policy…began nationwide in the early 1970s. China’s population is probably 300m-400m lower now than it would have been without it. The policy (which is one of population control, not birth control) has had dreadful costs, including widespread female infanticide, a lopsided sex ratio and horrors such as mass sterilisation and forced abortions. But in its own terms, it has worked—20m people enter the workforce each year, instead of 40m—and, to the extent that China is polluting less than it would have done, it has benefited the rest of the world.
So, despite its “dreadful costs” including female infanticide, mass sterilization and forced abortions, “it has worked.” Furthermore, by reducing pollution through the reduced fertility rate, China’s “one child only” policy “has benefited the rest of the world.”
Finally, The Economist argues that the falling fertility rates just might put the brakes on population growth, alleviating fears of a “population bomb.” But look closely at this:
A further reduction of fertility would be possible if family planning were spread to the parts of the world which do not yet have it (notably Africa). But that would only reduce the growth in the world’s numbers from 9.2 billion in 2050 to, say, 8.5 billion. To go further would probably require draconian measures, such as sterilisation or one-child policies.
Do the editors of The Economist support or defend these “draconian measures” for the sake of economic gain? We must hope not, but the final words of the magazine’s essay are not reassuring:
The bad news is that the girls who will give birth to the coming, larger generations have already been born. The good news is that they will want far fewer children than their mothers or grandmothers did.
Do they really mean what they say here? The fact that these girls have already been born is “bad news.” The good news is that they are likely to want fewer children, offers the essay.
The economic effects of falling fertility may offer a temporary “Goldilocks moment” for specific economies, but the long-range costs of a rapidly aging and numerically shrinking population are really frightening. Does The Economist care about anything beyond the immediate future?
In the end, the economic calculations and forecasts are less important than the moral concerns raised by this cover story. The assumption of the article seems to be that human beings are primarily economic agents, who should be moved into the workplace as soon as possible. This is a sadly deficient understanding of human nature and what it means to be human. The depreciation of family life (and specifically of motherhood) found in this essay reveals a great deal.
A society that celebrates a falling fertility rate is a society that is trading maternity wards for nursing homes. There is something very troubling and very sad about that exchange. Not least among the troubling questions is this: Just who will come visit and care for the aged when the aged outnumber all the rest?
“Go Forth and Multiply a Lot Less,” The Economist, October 29, 2009.
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