Thursday, June 9, 2016

Falling Birth Rates: Quick Thoughts

I recently had a conversation about this, and some important points seem to emerge from looking at the data.

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;

(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).
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.

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.”
“The Future of the Global Muslim Population,” January 27, 2011
And even a country like India isn’t immune to the trend.

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;

(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.
Unless it’s tried, you can’t know if it would work.

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!


  1. 1. There is no such thing as an 'anomaly' in demographics space.

    2. There is no evidence that countries with better social welfare and family friendly policies have higher birth rates. The Scandinavian countries are world leaders and they are dying off with fertility rates WAY below the replacement rate:

    The fact of the matter is that this is cultural. Western individualist culture and the demise of religion has convinced people that they should live for themselves and not for their species. (Note that the baby boom takes place after a strong sense of community is instilled by the Second World War). That is unlikely to change. And so Western culture will likely rot and be replaced with something more fertile.

    And a curiosum for the Keynes types out there... Here's some great letters between Roy Harrod and Joan Robinson on the question:

    Here is Harrod's pamphlet that is being referred to:

    1. What about the relatively high fertility rate in France? France has a policy of giving a higher child benefit per child, for families with 3 or more children, then for those below 3 children. That seems to be working.

    2. (1) I don't understand point 1. All I am saying is there was a short term reversal of a long run trend.

      (2) given you an addendum above.

      (3) "And so Western culture will likely rot and be replaced with something more fertile."

      No, I totally disagree. Once the general people and elite see the demographic problems in Europe, the situation will massively shift so fast it will stun you. You can see signs of it now.

      Extreme multiculturalism was only ever a delusion of the elite left -- normal people never bought into it, not even your average left-wing voter.

    3. 1. France has a low fertility rate. See: World Bank data linked to above.

      2. LK, your speculations are not based on evidence. They are simply what you WANT to believe. All the evidence runs contrary to this. Western civilisation is in decline unless it undergoes a massive cultural shift - probably back toward religious modes of living. This is highly unlikely to happen. And if it remains secular or becomes increasingly secular it will decline much faster.

      What I am saying is based on evidence. What you are saying is based on hope - like the libertarians you criticise on here all the time.

    4. "All the evidence runs contrary to this. Western civilisation is in decline unless it undergoes a massive cultural shift - probably back toward religious modes of living"

      A **culture shift of some kind** back to having more children doesn't need religion.

      And putting the blame on secularism for the Western decline is clearly refuted by the collapse of birth rates in *highly religious rural Hindu India* and in Muslim nations.

      OK, you can dismiss Iran. But the decline in Saudi Arabia and other societies that are basically in the grip of fundamentalism is right there in the data.

    5. Check for anti-natalist policies in these countries.

      I'm surprised you're not aware of the Indian anti-natalist policies. They were vicious and disgusting and... pursued by Westernised social democrats - you know, the ones that always turn out to be savage eugenicists behind their caring masks.

    6. Here is more killer evidence: how is the religious fundamentalist revival doing in Turkey?:

      They are set to hit replacement rates in about 20 years.

    7. Turkey's anti-natalist policies started in 1962.

      Read up on this stuff. Please.

    8. "Check for anti-natalist policies in these countries."

      But that makes nonsense of the idea that conservative religion is the answer.

      Wait: we need conservative religion, but even a conservative religious country like Iran promotes lower birth rates because it sees advantages in it???

    9. There is no contradiction. If you see one then you are confused.

    10. "Turkey's anti-natalist policies started in 1962."

      That is NOT the issue.

      The issue is:

      Turkey has had a religious fundamentalist revival since the 1990s, and has not stopped their birth rate from falling to replacement level:

      1991 3.0
      1992 2.9
      1993 2.8
      1994 2.8
      1995 2.7
      1996 2.7
      1997 2.6
      1998 2.6
      1999 2.5
      2000 2.5
      2001 2.4
      2002 2.4
      2003 2.3
      2004 2.3
      2005 2.3
      2006 2.2
      2007 2.2
      2008 2.2
      2009 2.2
      2010 2.1
      2011 2.1
      2012 2.1
      2013 2.1
      2014 2.1

    11. These countries TRY to drive down their birth rates. That may or may not be desirable - overpopulation may be a problem in some circumstances.

      Like interest rate policy, natalist policy can work if the aim is to decrease births. But it does not seem to work very well when the aim is to increase births.

      This should be intuitively obvious. Forcing contraception down peoples' throats is not hard. Telling them to stop using it is very hard.

      Likewise, forced sterilisation has occurred in lots of places. 20th century social democrats were much enamoured with this sick violation of human rights because of their dubious philosophy of the dignity of human life. The idea, on the other hand, of forced natalism where women are forcibly impregnated and forced to carry to term is, on its face, absurd. I know of no instances where this has ever occurred.

      Conclusion: high birth rates or even robust birth rates require a culture of childrearing and carrying on the species. There is strong statistical evidence that religion is a key determinate of this. Therefore it is likely that religious groups will outgrow non-religious groups.

      That is a scientific prediction. I will watch it happen over the course of my life. I am as confident in that as I am with any statistically derived scientific result.

      You can ignore the evidence and continue to Believe that some non-religious cultural shift is coming. But I'll bet my shoes I end up being correct.

      And that, as they say, is the end of that discussion. Let's wait and see. Shall we?

    12. It's not about a falling world population. That is not happening. It is about which groups will replace which other groups. At this rate religious groups will replace non-religious.

    13. Also, I see no natalist policy in Saudi Arabia.

      If anything, it has only been in the last 2 years that they suddenly have considered it:

      This extreme religious fundamentalist society has nevertheless seen its birth rate plunge:

      1981 7.1
      1982 7.0
      1983 6.9
      1984 6.8
      1985 6.6
      1986 6.5
      1987 6.3
      1988 6.2
      1989 6.0
      1990 5.9
      1991 5.8
      1992 5.6
      1993 5.4
      1994 5.2
      1995 5.0
      1996 4.8
      1997 4.6
      1998 4.4
      1999 4.2
      2000 4.0
      2001 3.8
      2002 3.6
      2003 3.5
      2004 3.4
      2005 3.3
      2006 3.2
      2007 3.2
      2008 3.1
      2009 3.0
      2010 3.0
      2011 2.9
      2012 2.9
      2013 2.8
      2014 2.8

    14. And yet it is still a healthy 2.8.

      6.8 is too high.

      You seem to confuse the statement:

      "In order to have a robust birth rate a religious culture is very helpful"


      "Religious cultures will never see declines in their birth rates"

    15. "There is strong statistical evidence that religion is a key determinate of this. Therefore it is likely that religious groups will outgrow non-religious groups."

      And yet we've seen stunning evidence that religious communities aren't immune at all.

      E.g., Muslims in the West see their birth rates fall to replacement levels only.

      Also, there is a lazy and fallacious assumption in your thinking: that people in these communities will stay religious. That is naïve in the extreme. People are abandoning religion not just in the Western world.

    16. You know what's funny, LK? I've been familiar with this stuff for the past two years and I've built my own models. You became an expert when? An hour ago.

      I am comfortable in my research. If you believe in your rhetoric that's fine. Let's see who proves right. We'll see who is in our lifetimes.

    17. You've factored apostasy rates into your models of long run population growth of religious versus non-religious?

      You say:

      (1) high birth rates or even robust birth rates require a culture of childrearing and carrying on the species.

      (2) There is strong statistical evidence that religion is a key determinate of this.
      "Robust birth rates" being 2.3 to 3 per woman? (1) is no doubt true.

      If religion is a key determinate of it, it is not stopping the fall in birth rates in most religious Third world countries.

      What about Africa? They have the highest birth rates in the world and what religion is driving this?

    18. Why don't you do a study proving that religion is NOT a key determinate of robust/high birth rates? Publish it either on here or somewhere else and we'll compare notes. But do a REAL one.

      Trust me, if you prove this the demographers will be VERY interested. As they will basically all be wrong.

    19. There appear to be good studies by the population researchers:

  2. There is also a review of the book 'Britain and Her Birthrate' by Keynes himself where he despairs of the problem (ironic given his lifestyle). I can't find it anywhere. Do post if you track it down.

  3. Interestengly enough there is western like economy which have reverse trend i am speaking about israel.
    Until the 80-s jewish secular population expierenced decline in birth rate until 2 children per familiy now its already 2.5-2.6 children per familiy

    1. High birth rates in Israel are mainly due to a strongly religious culture. The fundamentalists produce lots of kids, for example.

    2. I spoke about secular jews not about orthodox jews but secular jews and i mentioned secular jews intentionaly

    3. 2.8 is fine. I'd be happy with anything over 2.5. That would be a fairly stable equilibrium. Even 2.3 would be fine.

      There's such a thing as too much, you know. Iran figured that out.

    4. Not always or necessarily true.

      What about Saudi Arabia, Illusionist?

      This extreme fundamentalist theocracy's birth rate plunged from 7.1 in 1981 to
      2.8 in 2014. The long run falling trend is clear. It may fall to mere replacement level or below it.

    5. also the birth rate of religious jews declined from 90-s from something like 8-9 children to 6 children in average.

      while as i mentioned secular jewish birth rates are on the rise.

      i guess its also have something to do with the fact that israel is one of the only countries which fertility treatments of all kinds for free so many women able to get a baby in their late 30-s and 40-s with no big problem.

    6. Secular jews are okay. 2.6. But secular jews are still religious to some extent. They are only 'secular' in comparison to their orthodox cousins.

    7. they are religious in the same extent as secular european religious to some extend and they are relatievely secular compare to religoius members of the socivety of the west.

      but yes secular jews closer to the version of secular italians or spainards than to lets say secular brits or scandinavians but still they are pretty secular.

    8. "High birth rates in Israel are mainly due to a strongly religious culture. The fundamentalists produce lots of kids, for example."

      Implying Israel is a religious nation, SERIOUSLY?

      Irreligion in Israel is common.[1] Jewish atheism is the most common form of irreligion.[2] In Israel, around 50% of Israelis who were born ethnically Jewish consider themselves 'secular' or 'hilonim', some of them still keep certain religious traditions for cultural reasons, but most are immersed within the secular Jewish culture. The number of atheists and agnostics is lower, and stands at 15% and 37% respectively. The 2009 Avi-Chai study found 77% of Israeli Jews believe in a "higher power", while 46% define themselves as secular, of which 8% define themselves as "anti-religious".

    9. Thank you for clearing this out kevin :)

  4. Regarding Iran: they undertook an anti-natalist policy. As in China - although Iran's was less aggressive - these work. It is a lot easier to convince people to stop having kids through political means than it is to convince them to have kids.

    "The family planning program implemented in December 1989 has made an important contribution
    to the continued fertility transition. By mobilizing various government organizations and the mass
    communication network, the program succeeded in diffusing ideas throughout the entire country about the
    value of small families and about methods of family limitation. "

  5. More on Iranian anti-natalist policy:

  6. Here is some pieces on India's social democratic eugeicist death camps:

    Yes Virginia, social democracy has a disgusting history that it will not even begin to recognise.

  7. It's been an interesting discussion, but I don't think we should be fazed by a falling population. That helps the planet out no end.

    China was a bit brutal with its one child policy that has left a couple of generations lob-sided. It's probably better if it is done naturally.

    People living longer and healthier lives mean that they contribute for longer. Something that just isn't picked up by 'economics'.

    1. yes but still it will be better if the population will just stabilize instead of declining or growing.