October 17, 2021

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How a declining birth rate will reshape the world

In the days when we were still disinfecting our groceries and stockpiling loo roll, there was speculation that lockdowns might produce a baby boom: couples were stuck at home – what else was there to do? Instead, as the pandemic has worn on, maternity wards have become quieter. Birth rates have plummeted across much of Europe, the US and Asia.

Provisional data for England and Wales suggests the number of births fell by 3.9 per cent in 2020 and the first quarter of 2021, which would put the fertility rate at an all-time low. It turns out – and it seems obvious now – that the horror and uncertainty of a pandemic has a dramatic contraceptive effect: the monthly fertility rate in England and Wales in December 2020 and January 2021, around nine months after Britain shut down, fell by 8.1 per cent and 10.2 per cent year-on-year respectively. A record number of women in England and Wales had abortions last year.

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; together with a high Covid-19 death toll, this has caused a drop in population equivalent to a city the size of Florence. 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; after decades of maintaining a one-child policy, replaced with an allowance for two in 2016, the government announced in May that women could now have three children.

These figures are striking taken in isolation, but represent an acceleration in a decades-long trend – one that will completely reconfigure the global economy, the international balance of power, and our intimate and personal lives. It will require 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.

A paper published last year in the 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. One of the report’s authors, Christopher Murray of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, described the findings as “jaw-dropping”.

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.

[See also: Surrogacy snaps the mother-baby bond in two – we should not celebrate it as progress]

This is the “jaw-dropping” bit, Murray told me. “There’s been an article of faith in the demographic community, and it’s still largely there, that somehow women will end up choosing two children and that therefore low fertility is just a temporary phenomenon. But there’s never been any basis for that.” Instead, 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?

It’s hard to overstate how completely the world will be transformed if birth rates continue to decline. For now, immigration from lower-income countries with higher fertility rates can help wealthy countries rebalance – though, as Murray pointed out, fertility rates are eventually expected to fall almost everywhere. 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. 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. We are, several experts told me, entering the unknown.

 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. The harrowing experiences of pregnant women who have had to labour or miscarry alone, and the isolation experienced by new parents may have caused some onlookers to delay their plans to start a family – certainly, some have told me as much. 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. I spoke to a woman in her mid-twenties who said that witnessing these struggles second-hand had convinced her that she never wanted children: she didn’t want to take the risk that there would be another pandemic and that she’d end up as miserable as her friends with kids.

***

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. Covid has amplified an economic and cultural system that punishes women for having children and then deems them “selfish” if they don’t want them. Even before the pandemic, parents in Britain were burdened with the second highest childcare costs in the OECD. A punitive “motherhood penalty” means women can expect their earnings to have dropped by 40 per cent by the time their child reaches the age of ten, according to a study published last year by the American Economic Association.

 Then there is the wider economic crisis. A government briefing published in June described the magnitude of the UK’s recession as “unprecedented in modern times”: GDP shrank by 9.8 per cent in 2020, having dropped 25 per cent between February and April. “In a pandemic that most affects the poorest people living in cities, to the point at which they are thinking, ‘How am I going to survive and carry on?’ – well, you do not plan to have a baby in those circumstances,” Danny Dorling, a professor of geography at the University of Oxford, told me. “If you were deliberately economically targeting age groups most likely to give birth – the way we did lockdowns and so on did just that. We protected the old, but we damaged the young.” Even Dorling, who has studied inequality for decades, said that he had been “shocked” by just how badly the pandemic had impacted young people, particularly the poorest.

The exorbitant cost of housing has played a role, too: house prices rose by 10.2 per cent between March 2020 and March 2021. Data analysis by the New Statesman has shown that the average price is 65 times higher than in 1970, while average wages are only 36 times higher. “The government has done all it can to make housing as expensive as possible,” said Dorling. He cites the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s relaunch of Help to Buy, in which the government underwrites the mortgages of first-time buyers who can scrape together a 5 per cent deposit. “Help to Buy is a policy not to help people to buy. It’s a policy to keep house prices really high by letting a few people buy so that house prices don’t go down,” Dorling said. You are less likely to start a family if you are living with your parents, or trying to save your way out of the costly rental sector.

[See also: Long-distance love: The couples torn apart by Covid]

Even more than poverty, precarity is a decisive factor. Eva Beaujouan of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital in Vienna told me the word “uncertainty” comes up repeatedly in her research. “That’s something central, and it’s something that already came up before the pandemic. The way the economy is constructed today is creating lots of uncertainty, particularly for young people.” She pointed to rising youth unemployment across Europe. According to EU figures, around 3.1 million EU citizens aged 15 to 24 are currently unable to find a job. European fertility rates have not recovered since the 2008 financial crash, and demographers have been studying the effects of perceived uncertainty: the less tangible ways in which young people’s confidence in the future is undermined by a deep recession.

Compounding this have been more pervasive, global uncertainties. When will the pandemic end? How much more will climate change impact our lives, whether through forest fires, extreme weather events, new zoonotic diseases, choking air or rising seas? Social media conversations around the decision to remain “child-free” reveal how individual fears can become entangled with bigger anxieties about the pandemic, the economy, the environment. “This global crisis has just made me more convinced that’s the right choice,” reads one such post on Reddit. “I really chose not to have kids over climate change because I couldn’t handle the pain of seeing them face an uncertain future and worrying about them in crisis.” Another post reads: “I think choosing parenthood requires a leap of faith that things will all work out OK… I know that if I was responsible for a tiny human and something devastating happened, my anxiety would be unbearable.”

Birth rates often recover quickly after dipping in the immediate aftermaths of crises, and a baby boom is not uncommon. Trent MacNamara, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University and the author of Birth Control and American Modernity, told me that this may be because such crises force people to re-evaluate their lives. After a war, for instance, citizens might feel more closely bound to their country or community, which means they might decide to have a child knowing they have the support of strong social networks; they might feel that raising a child – a future citizen – is a patriotic or prosocial act. Yet MacNamara thought it unlikely that this would happen after the pandemic. The virus has, after all, acted as a social divider. It has kept people physically apart, and exposed and widened vast economic and political rifts: people have been living different pandemics, and some have not been living through a pandemic at all, as far as they are concerned, but in a great government hoax.

Other, broader cultural changes have occurred that make it less likely the pandemic will be followed by a baby boom, MacNamara argued. The longer-term trends all point in the direction of small family sizes. It has been suggested that low fertility is a product of what the Atlantic journalist Derek Thompson called “workism”, the transformation of work into “a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence and community” – but this ignores the great many people in unfulfilling jobs who don’t feel this way.

Instead, MacNamara observed that 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,” he said. Then again, MacNamara has four children – an unusually high number, he acknowledges, for a man who has described himself as an erstwhile “vegetable-blending free spirit” who is not “conventionally religious”.

***

I didn’t know how much I wanted children until I thought I couldn’t have any. After a year of trying and failing to conceive, I visited a fertility clinic in Cairo, where I was living at the time. In the waiting room I sat opposite two women, one older than the other – a mother and daughter perhaps. They both wore black robes and headscarves, suggesting they were from a conservative family, the kind that might expect a wife to produce children and would question her worth if she could not.

It is a great privilege to be a woman in a country, or a culture, where having children is a choice (of sorts) rather than an inevitability. The Egyptian government maintains a billboard-sized electronic counter in the capital that tracks the size of the population. Last year it reached 100 million. The state has been trying for decades to keep population growth under control – around 40 per cent of the population is under 18, and there are not enough jobs – but because it has failed to fully emancipate women, its family planning efforts fail, too.

Even if I could never have children, I tried to remind myself in that Cairo clinic, I would travel the world, throw myself into a job I found enjoyable and rewarding, find meaning and love through my friendships and family. But I wanted a baby so badly that my life was starting to reorganise itself into monthly cycles of brittle hope and all-consuming disappointment. I was beginning to glimpse the desperation felt by couples who remortgage their homes and spend tens of thousands on fertility treatments. And still, in the months before I started trying for a baby, I had debated my options casually with friends. Was the timing right? How much would it hurt my career? Should I travel some more first?

It is hard to remember, now that I have two children, what I was expecting from motherhood. I could never have understood the universe-expanding love I would feel for my daughters, or how completely they would reorient my life. Was it some deep-seated, evolutionary desire, or a socially acquired one?

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 said. “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.

There is another factor: people in wealthy countries are having fewer children than they say they want. This so-called fertility gap is small but not insignificant. It suggests that if people in the UK, the US and Europe had the number of children they wanted, the fertility rate would be just over two children per woman, or above the replacement rate. Perhaps, as the American journalist Anna Louie Sussman has argued, falling birth rates are “less a choice than the poignant consequence of a set of unsavoury circumstances”. “What we have come to think of as ‘late capitalism’ – that is, not just the economic system, but all its attendant inequalities, indignities, opportunities and absurdities – has become hostile to reproduction,” she observed.

Those in the wealthy, industrialised West have never had so much freedom to choose what their families will look like. We are no longer as burdened by the assumption that you simply must have children; the legalisation of gay adoption and advances in reproductive technologies have opened up more options for same-sex couples. And yet the flip-side of this freedom is that millennial and Gen-Z lives are characterised by instability: insecure employment; expensive, short-term housing; impermanent relationships (they are more likely than previous generations to stay single).

Even the most economically secure will puzzle over how parenthood can fit into their lives. The world of work remains structured on the assumption that each worker is buttressed by a housewife who can deal with all the inconveniences of being a human being – the cooking and shopping and cleaning. This leaves working parents struggling to organise childcare, when every option costs so much and the short school day in no way maps on to a work day. It is rarely acknowledged that these are structural problems rather than evidence of some personal failing. I don’t feel ready, people say instead. Not yet.

***

The political right is the most likely to express – and weaponise – concern about falling birth rates, which can stir racist fears of white demographic decline, ethno-nationalist anxiety over dwindling power, and reactionary unease over the demise of “traditional family values”: all those young people too high on freedom, too scared of responsibility to become parents. Ironically, those on the right are also the least likely to support open immigration policies to offset falling birth rates, or to back pro-family policies such as subsidised childcare and enhanced parental leave and pay.

On the left, meanwhile, many will argue that shrinking populations are a marker of progress, that we should celebrate that people are living longer, that women have control over their reproduction, that everyone is free to have as many children as they want or to have none at all. Many environmentalists welcome falling birth rates as a means of reducing pressure on the world’s fast-depleting resources.

Does that mean it is selfish to have children? The discussion of fertility is often framed in these terms. “Is it OK to still have children?” the democratic socialist congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked her Instagram followers a few years ago. (She doesn’t answer the question – how could she tell parents that it is not OK? – but says it’s “legitimate” to question the morality of having children when they will suffer the effects of climate change.) “Given the state of the world, is it irresponsible to have kids?” pondered the New York Times Style Magazine’s ethics column (that question is unanswerable, it concluded wisely, “because only by some mysterious, variable quotient is the desire to have a child even rational”.) “What is more selfish: having kids or not having kids?” one confused user asked the website Quora. (More readers decided that having kids was selfish.)

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.

While right-wing populist movements may try to coerce women to have more children, other forces are acting, in less obvious ways, to place limits on family sizes. Families in the UK are hit with a two-child benefits cap, a policy that has pushed more children into poverty and stigmatised their parents. According to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, more than half of women who had an abortion during the pandemic and were aware of and likely to be affected by the welfare limits cited them as an important factor in their decision. At the same time, rising awareness of the ecological cost of population growth has led eco-fascist, anti-natalist movements to proliferate online, where they speak with undisguised contempt and misogyny about “breeders”, and aim for human extinction.

***

Where does this leave us? Some countries, such as Sweden, have sought to boost the birth rate in benign ways, by introducing better parental leave, state-provided childcare and stronger re-employment rights – but these policies tend to have a limited impact on fertility. This leaves wealthy countries that have low birth rates with two main options, Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson argue in their 2019 book Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline. They can emulate Japan, which 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. (It could be noted, however, that if Japan is your worst-case scenario, you’re doing pretty well.) 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.

There are other choices, of course, if you’re open to rethinking the economic model that chases growth above all else and is sustained only by an ever-expanding base of new consumers. The fall in family sizes has been linked to rising individualism, as people no longer feel connected to large kinship networks – but it could equally pave the way for new forms of social solidarity. A low-fertility world could prompt a reassessment of the relationship between people and capital, between people and the planet.

“This very strange thing about young people is they get old. And so, you can keep pouring young people into the furnace of consumerism, but they will get old too,” Robin Maynard told me drily. Maynard is the director of Population Matters, a campaign group that encourages people to have fewer children to protect the planet and combat poverty. “We know we are pushing all sorts of boundaries, the boundaries of our ecosystems, the climate, the oceans – and we’re not really increasing the well-being of people generally.” Population Matters opposes any coercive measures to reduce family sizes (this includes the UK’s two-child welfare cap, which Maynard describes as “regressive” and “nasty”). He doesn’t want to “tell people what to do”, he explained; he wants to help others make informed decisions.

Maynard has two children, the youngest of whom is three, and he said it broke his heart to think about the world his daughter will inherit, that the animals that decorate her nursery may no longer exist in the wild when she grows up. “We’re handing on a world that’s not in a better position than when we received it,” he said.

His answer suggests a different, and not entirely contradictory, way of thinking about having a child in an age of crisis. Becoming a parent can be an optimistic act, a personal commitment to a brighter future. When you bring a baby into the world today, what the world might look like in 2100 is not an abstract thought-experiment, but a matter of urgent personal interest. There are many reasons to fear having a baby in the midst of a global pandemic, and many reasons to have one anyway. To have a baby is, after all, always a leap of faith.

This is no consolation if you want so much to have a child but do not see how you could support one, with the economy in tatters and your finances on the brink; if you are single and have spent one of your final reproductive years alone, desperate to meet someone; if your IVF has been delayed so long that it probably will no longer work; if you despair about the planet’s future. You don’t have to be worried about declining fertility itself to be worried by this widespread sense of precarity. You might find yourself believing that declining fertility is ultimately a good thing for this planet, and still feel some sadness for the unknowable, unacknowledged loss this might represent, all those serious, hushed bedroom discussions that end in similar ways: it would be wonderful to have a child – just not now, not yet.

[See also: Mourning and melancholia: the psychological shadow-pandemic]