Eagle-eyed readers may notice we’re dropping “On Parenting” from this newsletter’s title. Don’t worry: I’ll still be analyzing the health, economics and culture of the American family. I’m just expanding my coverage area to include adjacent topics about the way we live now that don’t always involve parenting, like health, wellness, celebrity and internet culture, evolving ideas about etiquette, shiftingworkplace norms and, as we approach a presidential election cycle, a few thoughts on politics. (As always, if you have questions, topics or ideas you want explored, drop me a line here.)
Today, I’m starting a short series about a global concern: the falling fertility rate in developed nations and what, if anything, to do about it.
In the past month, The Times has published several articles about different countries facing the same constellation of issues: a silver tsunami of older citizens in Italy, a falling birthrate among young South Koreans — per the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, South Korea’s is an arrestingly low 0.81 children per woman — and a shrinking population in China.
These three countries aren’t alone in experiencing this demographic crunch. Only two O.E.C.D. countries — Israel and Mexico — have total fertility rates (the average number of children born to each woman) at population replacement levels (the average number of children needed to replace the current population). According to the demographer Jennifer Sciubba’s 2022 book, “8 Billion and Counting: How Sex, Death and Migration Shape Our World,” while globally the population is still increasing because many countries have “young and rapidly growing populations,” by the end of the century, “70 percent of developed countries and 65 percent of less developed countries will have shrinking populations.”
Sciubba, a fellow at the Wilson Center, explained to me that there’s a general pattern societies have historically followed when incomes rise and the quality of life goes up: They move “from lots of births and lots of deaths to fewer births and longer life expectancies.” In the past that often meant dropping from, let’s say, five or six children per family to two or three.
What’s newer is the super-low fertility we’re seeing in wealthier countries because women are starting to have kids later, are having fewer kids overall and don’t want many to begin with, according to Sciubba. As a result, these countries are aging quite rapidly: In Sciubba’s book, she notes, “In 2020, the median age of developed countries was 42,” up from 29 in 1950.
The reason we’re seeing a lot more media attention paid to the topic now, Sciubba says, is that more people are waking up to the fact that this isn’t a fluke or isn’t affecting just a handful of nations; “this is a permanent and global phenomenon,” she argues, though she makes it clear that there isn’t a consensus on the point of permanence.
The fact that the fertility rate among developed nations is falling is often framed as a crisis because of the way many economies are structured. In the United States, fewer working-age Americans paying into Social Security makes our system less sustainable. Fewer working-age Americans also means a potential dearth of caregivers for the aging population. As Sciubba writes, there are four options to fix this problem: “increase immigration, raise retirement ages, cut benefits or get more people already in the country to work.”
Most of these solutions are politically unworkable; ask the French. As a result, many of the articles we read about this “demographic time bomb” suggest that the most feasible solution is for the citizens of these countries to have more babies, and that’s the one I want to talk about here.
Several countries have rolled out family-friendly policies aimed at helping increase the birthrate. Among the most aggressive is Hungary, a nation of around 10 million people, roughly the population of Michigan or North Carolina.
In December, the political director for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán tweeted, “women who become mothers before turning 30 will be exempt from paying personal income tax!” That’s on top of a raft of other initiatives meant to boost the number of Hungarian babies, including allowing mothers of four or more children to be permanently exempt from paying taxes, a mortgage repayment plan for families with two or more children, a subsidy program for larger families buying seven-passenger cars and allowing grandparents to be eligible for payment for caring for their grandchildren.
As the Hungarian diplomat Andras Doncsev explained in a November talk at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service as part of a conference on what it called “the global birth strike,” the Hungarian government is spending over 5 percent of its gross domestic product on family support; it is spending three times the amount on family as it is on its military, he said. It’s worth noting that this approach to family policy is adjacent to an overall political and policy focus that is anti-L.G.B.T.Q. and regressively defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
In her newsletter Sciubba notes that even with the extra benefits, while Hungary raised its fertility rate from 1.2 to 1.5, it still hasn’t boosted its fertility rate to anywhere near population replacement level. As she put it: The country merely “managed to raise its super low fertility to just regular ole low fertility.”
When Sciubba and I spoke, she said it almost seems that when a country falls below replacement level, no matter how many family-friendly policies are enacted, it can’t get back up again. “I think we need to learn a lot more about that, but that’s fascinating,” she said. The reason is probably a complicated mix of social and cultural forces that are unique to individual countries. But at its core, it seems to me that no amount of additional financial support would make a person want to be a parent without an intrinsic desire for children that goes beyond any realistic level of compensation. Some people just don’t want to be parents when they’re allowed to make that choice, and that isn’t something that should be or can be changed.
Where it seems more possible to move the needle is to encourage people who are already parents to have a second or a third child under eased conditions or to start their families earlier, leaving more time to have more children.
That doesn’t mean family-friendly policies — including robust paid leave — aren’t important for functional societies regardless of birthrate considerations, but it may mean we’re looking at their overall benefits the wrong way. In the near term, keeping working-age women attached to the labor force is a pivotal part of allowing our economic system to function. As Sciubba points out, if you’re losing a woman from work when she has a baby because the costs of both working and having a family are too high, she’s not paying into Social Security and you’re “removing significant human capital from the work force.” But if a woman can add to the population and stay in the work force, that’s more of a gain for the entire society. Family-friendly policies also tend to make citizens happier.
That’s just one part of a fix to a changing world that is much bigger than any one country or any individual’s choices. “All of our theories about the economy, about politics, they were all formulated during a time and under conditions of unending population growth. And therefore we came to value as our highest value unending economic growth,” Sciubba said. If global powers are moving toward having shrinking populations and we know that an endlessly growing population is untenable for the health of our planet, how might we shift our thinking about fertility rates, and what is best for each nation and allowing the people in them to flourish?
That’s a question I want to explore in my next newsletter. In the meantime, I want to hear from you: Is there any potential government or workplace benefit that would inspire you to increase your family size? A certain length of paid parental leave? Guaranteed affordable child care? A student loan rebate? A child tax credit? Cold, hard cash? To share what might change your mind about how many children you’d have, you can use the form below. I may select some of your stories for publication in a future newsletter or essay.
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