The fertility rate (birth per 1,000 women) and birth rate per woman in the Western world started falling in the 1960s after the post-WWII baby boom.
See the data for the United States here.
Most notably, this largely happened before the loss of full employment and job security in the neoliberal era.
But once we take a longer-run historical view, we can see that birth rates have been falling since the late 19th century. For example, look at the Canadian birth rate per woman here.
I’m sure there must be a vast technical literature on this subject, but I regret I haven’t bothered to look at it.
Intuitively, it seems to me that the explanations are essentially as follows:
(1) the wealthier people become and as infant mortality falls with modern science-based medicine, the less children people have;However, as we have seen, it is also clear that the birth rate was dropping even from the 1870s to 1914 in the Western world.
(2) as cultural attitudes to birth control (condoms and the pill) changed, and such birth control become readily available and cheap, this has been a major cause of falling birth rates;
(3) education of women, women entering the workforce and the influence of feminism which encourages female reproductive choices reinforce (1) and (2).
And, in an even broader historical sense, all the social and economic consequences of industrial civilisation mean a falling birth rate (see here and here).
It seems to me that – in reality – the post-WWII baby boom was a sort of aberration: a short-term reversal of a long-run falling trend.
The long-run falling birth rates have also happened in the Third World, and even in socially and religiously conservative Third World societies. See here, here, here.
This can be seen even in Muslim societies, where a Pew Research Center report notes the following:
“– Fertility rates in Muslim-majority countries are closely related to women’s education levels. In the eight Muslim-majority countries where girls generally receive the fewest years of schooling, the average fertility rate (5.0 children per woman) is more than double the average rate (2.3 children per woman) in the nine Muslim-majority countries where girls generally receive the most years of schooling. One exception is the Palestinian territories, where the average fertility rate (4.5 children per woman) is relatively high even though a girl born there today can expect to receive 14 years of formal education.”And even a country like India isn’t immune to the trend.
“The Future of the Global Muslim Population,” January 27, 2011
India is a highly rural society with a rural population percentage of 68% of total population.
India also has a large socially and religious conservative Hindu population, but despite all this the fertility rate per woman has dropped from 4.8 in 1981 to 2.4 in 2014.
We must remember that a birth rate of 2.1 is the replacement rate needed to create a stable population. So even the birth rate in India has fallen towards a merely replacement level rate.
All in all, falling birth rates seem to be a civilisational thing.
Do we in the West need to get our birth rate back up to replacement level?
Maybe we don’t at all, and all the doomsday predictions about falling populations are hysteria. In any case, open borders and mass immigration most decidedly are not the answer either (see here, here, here, here).
But assume – for the sake of argument – that it would better to get the Western birth rate back up to 2.1 or something like 2.5.
It would be far better to do the following
(1) end neoliberal policies;Unless it’s tried, you can’t know if it would work.
(2) return to full employment and a high wage economy, where people have job security;
(3) bring down the price of housing and fix the problem of excessive private debt;
(4) shift to family-friendly policies by governments and encourage young people of working age to have more children, by a combination of methods, e.g., tax breaks, subsidies, housing grants, etc.
And, frankly, if we had a baby boom in the post-WWII years because of economic and social reasons back then which was basically an exception to a long-run trend, why not a mini-baby boom again by the 2020s and 2030s? For example, maybe when many more men have secure jobs and high-wages, the female labour participation rate might fall too, and the economy and society more conducive to larger families.
And, in any case, even it fails there is reason for optimism.
The Illusionist in the comment below correctly points out that this has a lot to do with culture. I partly agree.
But culture is malleable.
What’s more, it’s not possible just to blame “Western individualist culture and the demise of religion” for supposedly convincing “people that they should live for themselves and not for their species.” As we’ve seen above, the Western birth rate was falling even in the 19th century when our societies we’re basically religious conservative.
As I have pointed out, this trend of falling birth rates is happening in the Third World too in highly religious and even fundamentalist societies.
Take Iran. The Iranian fertility rate (births per woman) fell from 6.5 in 1981 to a stunning 1.7 in 2014, which is below replacement level.
In fact, it is lower than Sweden’s birth rate of 1.9 in 2014!!
Yet Iran is a country in the grip of fundamentalist theocracy – but their birth rate has still plunged! Did Western individualism and atheism cause the plummeting birth rate in Iran?
Clearly not. Something else did it.
It’s absurd to lay the blame for falling Western birth rates mostly on the collapse of conservative religion.
But to return to the cultural issue. No doubt this is partly to blame in the West.
But culture is malleable. I don’t see why governments – if they want higher birth rates – can’t try to shift cultural attitudes.
Recently the Danes are trying to shift cultural attitudes and get their people to have more children, and as part of this a private company (obviously for reasons of its own) came up with this amusing ad.
Of course I bet people will immediately laugh this off. But not so fast: see here and here.
As I said, people’s social and cultural attitudes can change. If people are encouraged to have more children for their nation’s future as a civic virtue on a big scale and given the economy and social programs to do it, I’m not convinced this couldn’t have a bid impact.
In that spirit, enjoy another one of those Danish ads.
And for the Danes – do your duty for Denmark!