By Karen Malone Wright
Remember the headlines and talk show chatter in 2013 after the publication of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting? Jonathan Last declared there’s a “coming demographic disaster” from “America’s baby bust” and lower fertility rates around the world. I’m old enough to have heard “we’re running out of babies” panic before, and my initial reaction is usually to deem it unwarranted. But, I’m no social scientist, so I had no hard data to back up my gut feeling.
Thank you, New York Times, for publishing a detailed but very readable opinion page essay (4/6/14) by Michael Teitelbaum a senior researcher at Harvard Law School and Jay Winter, a history prof at Yale. Their book, The Global Spread of Fertility Decline: Population, Fear, and Uncertainty, was also released in 2013. They don’t shy away from acknowledging falling population stats, and frankly, it can sound rather disturbing:
“Nearly half of all people now live in countries where women, on average, give birth to fewer than 2.1 babies — the number generally required to replace both parents — over their lifetimes. This is true in Melbourne and Moscow, São Paulo and Seoul, Tehran and Tokyo. It is not limited to the West, or to rich countries; it is happening in places as diverse as Armenia, Bhutan, El Salvador, Poland and Qatar.”
But then these wise guys — dare I say, these social scientists — conclude that “dark prophecies have a long history, and they are as misguided as they are unoriginal.”
Teitelbaum and Winter track worries about population losses as far back as President Theodore Roosevelt, though that wasn’t necessarily the start. They write that “declines in fertility rates stir anxieties about power: national, military and economic, as well as sexual.” Presidents and other world leaders wonder, “Who will fill my Army? Who will harvest my food? How will I sustain my workforce?”
Using India and China as examples, Teitelbaum and Winter show that workers in nations with low-to-moderate fertility rates often achieve higher levels of productivity than do higher fertility societies. They note that by enhancing the employment and career experiences of young adults, lower fertility can also bring about greater social and political stability. An abundance of young, unemployed adults can lead to violent unrest and revolution.
They also link to a 2013 United Nations report that hasn’t received much attention, predicting India will pass China and become the world’s largest country around 2028. The UN also says Nigeria could surpass the United States in population by 2050.
For anyone who cares about the women behind all these statistics, Teitelbaum and Winter emphasize that “fertility decline is associated nearly everywhere with greater rights and opportunities for women”. Education. The right to vote. A fulfilling job and a decent salary. In some nations, the first generation of women are able to imagine a new future for themselves and they delay marriage and babies or choose not to have them at all.
I’m still not a social scientist, of course, but now I can easily quote two sentences by Teitelbaum and Winter to keep the fear mongers at bay: “Humanity has many legitimate problems to worry about. Falling fertility is not one of them.”