image of a newborn baby sleeping in his bed as the twin brothers are looking at him and standing by his side

Anthropology: Global Decline in Birthrates and How We Should Feel About It

The whole world is currently wrestling with global demographic shifts. As one of the years-old concerns in the USA, Europe, and Asia, the decline in the birth rates is a serious issue. The ever-growing urbanization, change in lifestyle choices, women being an active part of the business world, and the hardships of childrearing have been playing significant roles in the decline of the birthrate. The consequences are worth considering. With the increase in senior citizens and shrinking population, countries are concerned about economic sustainment in the long term.

Even though the expectations favored COVID-19 with the potential to lead to a baby boom, the real picture was far away from that. The result was a baby bust, not a boom, affecting the fertility plans of people across many countries due to economic instability and healthcare problems. In the biggest picture, the reasons for the low fertility rate are more or less similar. But for each country, there are some key individualizing elements playing a role. The article is concerned with introducing the current trends in birth rates worldwide and the factors such as social and economic structure, lying beneath them by applying a specific gaze to countries.

Current demographic trends

two grapsh which show the highest fertiility rates and lowest fertility rates
Credit: statista.com

Since the 1950s, there has been a decline in fertility and birth rates globally at all income levels. To take a closer look at the numbers accounting for the global situation, according to the 2021 edition of the World Population Data Sheet, the global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 from 7.8 billion as of 2021. Whereas the global total fertility rate (lifetime number of births per woman) is 2.3, which is above replacement-level (2.1 births per woman) but lower than it was in 1990 (3.2).

As for more country-based analysis, currently, China is the most populous country with 1.4 billion people. Decades earlier, due to an accelerated increase in its population, China had advocated the one-child policy. In 2016, it changed the policy to a two-child policy and then a three-child policy in 2021. Even this might be pointing out that something is off.

Furthermore, it is very likely for Europe to have a lower population at the end of the next 50 years. Likewise, the current rate for the U.S. in 2021 is 12.001 births per 1000 people, a 0.09% increase from 2020, but the fact that its fertility rate is 1.7 and below the replacement rate (2.1), the USA doesn’t seem to be likely to rebound for the population. Analysis indicates that the most populous countries might change their ranking. For instance, China won’t preserve its place as the most populous country. The future scenario demonstrates that India will replace China with an estimated greatest increase in population size between 2021-2050.

What about the other continents?

According to the UN, “the population of sub-Saharan Africa is projected to double by 2050 (99% increase).” In addition to this, “regions that may experience lower rates of population growth between 2019 and 2050 include Oceania excluding Australia/New Zealand (56%), Northern Africa and Western Asia (46%), Australia/New Zealand (28%), Central and Southern Asia (25%), Latin America and the Caribbean (18%), Eastern and South-Eastern Asia (3%), and Europe and Northern America (2%).”

At the tops and bottoms of the lists, we see Monaco as the country with the lowest birth rate, whereas Nigeria has the highest birth rate at over 7. The four tigers of Asia, specifically Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, share similar demographics, with a downward slope of birth rates.

Birthrate vs. Fertility rate

the graph of fertility level going down between 1960-2100
ourworldindata.org

Both terms are very helpful to understand population growth and demographic trends. Let’s start with the following questions: what is the birthrate? And how do you calculate it? To start with, the birthrate refers to the total number of births in a year per 1,000 individuals. It is not age-specific, thus, not considered as refined as the fertility rate.  The crude birth date suggests that there is no age specification, so it just measures the overall birthrate. To calculate CBD,  you multiply the number of live births in a year and divide it by the total midyear population with the ratio multiplied by 1,000 to reach the number of births per 1,000 people.

On the other hand, the fertility rate is age-specific, suggesting that it takes women’s reproductive ages into consideration. Basically, it refers to the average number of children per woman or child-rearing. In a more detailed description, “the children per woman is measured as the total fertility rate, which is the number of children that would be born to the average woman if she were to live to the end of her child-bearing years and give birth to children at the current age-specific fertility rates” ( Nargund 2009).

Another important thing to know is the replacement rate, which refers to a TFR ( total fertility rate) of 2.1. If the TFR is greater than 2.1, the population increases; if it’s less, the population decreases. In other words, it is “the rate needed for the population to replace itself without immigration.“According to Our World Data, the global average fertility rate is just below 2.5 children per woman today.

Why are birthrates declining globally?

graph showing the number of educated woman contrasted to the number of births they give
Credit: ourworldindata.org

Industrialization, urbanization, and advanced technology have changed our lifestyles. Even though they have made our lives easier, everything comes with consequences. Keeping up with a fast life is not easy. Especially with industrialization, exposure to chemicals and pollutants has increased, which has become a threat to male and female fertility. Of course, this is only one facet of a low birthrate. There are many additional factors playing a significant role in the low birthrate, requiring well-considered attention. Below, the factors are given more detailed explanations.

Infertility and subfertility

According to 2017 report approximately, 10–15% of human couples of reproductive age have impaired fertility and the male factor is responsible for 50% of these cases. Lifestyle factors or urban lifestyles in industrialized cities have a great impact on human health and the fragile reproductive system. Smoking, alcohol consumption, lack of physical exercise with an unhealthy diet, obesity, and environmental factors are considered among the reasons leading to male and female subfertility.

To be more specific, there are many studies done on the interrelation between obesity and infertility. They show that the general consensus is that in women, a body mass index (BMI) >25 kg/m2 was associated with a significant reduction in fecundity (Hassan and Killick, 2004). In men, a BMI <20 or >25 kg/m2 was associated with reduced sperm quality (Jensen et al., 2004a). Additionally, high-energy diets poor in nutrition negatively affect semen parameters and fertility.

Furthermore, keeping up with the pace of this world is quite challenging and stressful, which leads to job stress, depression, and anxiety. These issues cause a decrease in male and female fertility. Bigelow et al. (1998) found that there was a significant dose-response relationship between the level of perceived job stress and poor sperm quality. Additionally, for females, psychosocial factors such as ineffective coping strategies, anxiety, and depression are associated with a lower pregnancy rate.

Economy-based reasons

Raising a child requires a lot of dedication, not only time-wise, but it also demands high economic power. For example, in the USA, raising a child costs large numbers. According to the 2015 Consumer Expenditures Survey, a family is likely to spend approximately $12,980 annually per child on a middle-income ($59,200-$107,400), two-child, married-couple family. Middle-income, married-couple parents of a child born in 2015 may expect to spend $233,610 on food, shelter, and other necessities to raise a child through age 17. Plus, in the USA, saving is hard but also a must.  Especially for college funds which are extremely expensive, parents need lots of savings to cover their children’s education costs.

A similar situation exists in South Korea. Living in a social and economic statue-driven country, families want their children to get into prestigious universities. To support their school studies, they send their children expensive after-school classes called hagwon. These additional classes are almost a must, which puts social and economic pressure on the parents.

Women as active members of society

The egalitarian approach in the education system changed the social structure. Women are well-educated, career-oriented, and have their own economic power. Given that, marriage is not a priority for them, which is most likely to happen in their early 30s. In Niger, the country with the highest reported fertility rate in 2010, women of reproductive age had only 1.3 years of education on average.  According to analysis, secondary or tertiary education makes a huge difference in the number of births women give.

COVID-19

Recently, COVID-19 has been one of the biggest reasons. In June 2020, 3 months after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Brookings wrote a report suggesting that the public health crisis and associated recession would result in 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births in 2021.

Urbanization

Another reason is urbanization, the ever-increasing population that lives in the urban areas, leaving the countryside. Countrysides mean more reproduction, more children to work in the fields as free labor. They also don’t have accessibility to contraception pills as much as in urban areas. According to studies, the age interval for giving birth in rural areas is 25-29 (164,4 per 1000 women). In urban areas, women are more likely to give birth after their 30s (30-34;101.7 births per 1,000 women).

Birth rates in the USA

graph of children per woman that falls from 3.5 to 1.8 in 2020
Credit: ourworldindata.org

2020 has been the sixth consecutive year that witnessed a decline in the birth rates in the USA. According to the Vital Statistics Surveillance Report (May 2021), first, “the provisional number of births for the United States in 2020 was 3,605,201, down 4% from the number in 2019 (3,747,540)”. Secondly, “from 2019 to 2020, the provisional number of births declined 3% for Hispanic women, 4% for non-Hispanic white and non-Hispanic black women, 6% for non-Hispanic AIAN women, and 8% for non-Hispanic Asian women. The decline in birth rates happens across racial and ethnic groups. Thirdly, “the provisional total fertility rate (TFR) for the United States in 2020 was 1,637.5 births per 1,000 women, down 4% from the rate in 2019 (1,706.0), another record low for the nation (3,9,10).”

Additionally, according to a Brookings analysis, “U.S. fertility rates are likely to be considerably below replacement levels for the foreseeable future.” Yet, this has been a situation that has been going on for years, not necessarily a direct result of COVID-19. As mentioned before, raising a child costs a lot in the USA. Therefore, women delay childbearing for years and even if they do, they have fewer births.

Birthrates in Canada

the graph of Canada's fertility rate dropping from 3.0 to 1.0
Credit: ourworldindata.org

Canada is facing a downward trend with 10.224 births per 1000 people, a 0.74% decline from 2020, and a TFR of 1.5. This is the 5th consecutive year that Canada has experienced another decline in birth rates.  Housing and childrearing costs feel like a real threat. Reports show that Canadians are losing their grip on job security and economic stability.

Birthrates in Europe

a graph showing fertilityrate in EU with a pregnant woman on the left,
Credit: ec.europa.eu

With 27 member states, Europe holds a population of 445 million people as of 2020. With gender equality-based pro-child policies, paid maternal leaves, and tax incentives, the EU keeps the fertility rates as high as possible and encourages families for childbirth. For instance, Swedish parents have 480 days of paid parental leave shared between men and women, with men taking 30% of all leave.

In the EU, fertility rates vary from country to country. While France is the member state with stabilized high fertility rates, Malta, Italy, and Spain have the lowest birth rates in the EU. Romania, with 1.77 live births per woman, follows France. Then come Ireland, Sweden, and Czechia with 1.71 live births per woman.

Despite all the incentives, the graph of birth rates goes down in Europe too. Between the 1950s- 2020, the birth rate fell from 2.8 to 1.6. Given that, concerning issues in Europe are an aging and shrinking population and life expectancy. What keeps Europe more stable is the immigration it is receiving because of the high-standard living opportunities, but the inflow of immigrants raises other concerns that pertain to the nation’s social structure and identity.

image of a table which shows the fertility rate in Europe
Credit: ec.europa.eu

France

France has one of the highest birth rates in the EU. It owes this to tax incentives, cash bonuses, paid maternal leaving, and low childcare costs. Maternity leave is 16 weeks, whereas paternity leave is 28 days. Put another way, the social welfare system in France helps families raise children without worrying too much about education and childrearing costs.  The birthrate for France in 2021 is 11.042 births per 1000 people, a 0.59% decline from 2020. So, the numbers show that France’s high birth rate is falling too, sharing a similar trend with the rest of the world.  France calls this period “baby blues.” Though it still preserves its place as Europe’s champion in childbirth.

Germany

“Germany births jump 10% in March to the highest in 23 years.” Reuters 

The August 3, 2021 press release indicates that “approximately 315,000 children were born from January to May 2021 according to provisional results from the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis). The number of births rose slightly by 1.4% in the same period of the previous year” despite COVID-19. Based on that, we can argue that in Germany, we see a different trend; a slight rise.  A marked increase in the number of births comes with 3.700 babies more born than in March 2020.

Actually, what has saved Germany until now from a shrinking population is the immigration it receives, especially economic migrants recruited for their labor work. This really helped Germany to compensate for the birthrate deficit, especially in previous years. Other factors in achieving more stable fertility are family-friendly policies, tax incentives, and 14 months of paid parental leave ( two months for fathers).

Despite all the pro-natal policies, Germany faces discrepancies between having 3 + children and the cost-management of childrearing. Women prefer to give birth early in their 30s, but there is also a certain percentage preferring no children. According to Deutsch Welle, just 16% of German families have three children or more, which is average for the EU. Germany would need a birth rate of 2.1 children per woman to offset deaths and stop the population from shrinking. Currently, Germany has a 1.60 fertility rate.  Still, Germany’s current trend is more positive when compared to other developed countries.

Russia

Russia is the 9th most populous country with 142.8 million, battling with significant demographic shifts with high rates of abortion and death rates. According to marcotrends, “the current birth rate for Russia in 2021 is 11.905 births per 1000 people, a 2.37% decline from 2020” whereas it was 12.194 births per 1000 people in 2020. And the fertility rate is 1.823 births per woman, the same as in 2020.

The analysis finds the natural population fell by 997,000 between October 2020 and September 2021 – with COVID-19 cited as the principal cause. Even vaccinations couldn’t do much to help. It is also said that “Russia’s population could drop by more than 12 million by 2035.” Increasing mortality rates in the age of working-men linked to alcoholism, and other non-natural causes such as rising violence, homicide, and suicide are some of the reasons indicated which lie beneath the high death rates (Rand 1997).

However, Russia seems to have one exceptional situation: women with higher education give more births. Permanent incomes that come as a benefit of higher education might be one explanation for this. With a stable income, women are less concerned about how much childrearing costs (Rand 1997).

India

the graph of fertility rate of India and the world , both lines go down but India's rate increases slightly as the world's goes down
Credit:ourworldindata.org

India is the second most populated country with 1,392,700,000 million people and a 1.1% of growth rate as of 2020. And the current birth rate for India in 2021 is 17.377 births per 1000 people, a 1.22% decline from 2020. According to ourworldindata, India reached its peak in childbirth in 2007. Since then, the number of births has been falling. Additionally, “the number of Indians under 15 years old peaked slightly later (in 2011) and is now also declining. These are landmark moments in demographic change.” As a result of population momentum, the total population will reach its peak in the following decades. According to PRB’s 2021 data sheet, “India is projected to have the greatest absolute increase in population size of any country between 2021 and 2050, rising nearly 246 million to 1.64 billion.”

South Korea

graph which shows South Korea's dramatic fall from 1950s to 2065 , becoming less than 45 million
Credit:bbc.com

As we move further towards east Asia, the picture is not changing much. Asia’s fourth-largest economy, South Korea’s population fell for the first time in history with 0.84 TFR in 2020.  To play the record back a bit, in the 1950s, the Korean war was over. South Korea had a baby boom, which increased the population drastically. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the 1950s, Korea’s developing economic prosperity clashed with the family planning policy. And this has resulted in low birth rates.

When it is combined with the increased divorce rate, postponed marriage-life, the costs of childrearing, and private education fees, especially in a competitive society like South Korea, it caused a serious decline in the birthrate. In the 1960s, the birthrate was 6.8 children per woman, which decreased to 1.6 by the 1990s. This even resulted in empty schools which now function as community centers. According to insider,

  • South Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, and it’s resulted in hundreds of schools being abandoned.
  • These schools have been slowly emptying out over the past four decades.
  • Some provinces breathing new life into empty schools, repurposing them as galleries and community centers.

Japan

graph that shows the deaths, births marriages and divorces by year in Japan as they go down and deaths and divorces go up
Credit: nippon.com

Sharing a very similar trend with South Korea, in 2020, Japan, the third-largest economy in the world, witnessed the lowest birthrate. Carrier-oriented citizens, stressful business life, decreasing interest in marriage and sex lead to a low birthrate. Especially with the post-COVID effects on the unstable national economy, people postpone fertility plans. According to Independent , Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister from 2012-2020, previously described the low birthrate as a “national crisis” and promised a series of reforms aimed at helping alleviate burdens on families which discourage them from having children.

Should we worry about the decline in the birthrate?

Actually, there are many different opinions on this subject. Some worry that there will be fewer people to maintain economic stability. Some consider it as an opportunity and a celebration for environmental reasons. For instance, one study indicates that having one fewer child reduces 58.6 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. Also, as stated in the Guardian, “it is much easier to enable older adults to stay upskilled and healthy and in the labor market than it is to say to women ‘oh you have got to have children.'” Yes, it’s very likely to have 80+ aged people by 2050 due to increasing life expectancy. It is also a fact that the definition of aged is also changing, as a result. This suggests that people could be more productive at their late ages, too.

As another example,  the professor of gerontology at Oxford University, Sarah Harper’s ideas on low birth rates challenge the former reasoning on economic stability. She rejects the major concerns such as “public spending on pensions, high dependency ratios between workers and non-workers, increases in health-care costs, declining availability of family-based care, and a slowdown in consumption due to an increase in older people and a decrease in younger people” (Harper 209) as the real problems. The mindset that approaches that seems more of an issue. A related example to this could be the expected Medicare crisis in the USA linked to the aging population. Yet, for Harper, the real problem stems from “increasing per capita health-care expenditures, combined with a policy framework which makes these a public liability” (214).

What can governments do to stabilize the situation?

image of cartoon-like people which represent different age groups populating a wide white background
Credit:healthitanalytics.com

Governments should think of fundamental changes to provide long-term solutions to demographic challenges.  Pro-birth campaigns will continue to fail unless the government finds a sound solution. Most importantly, these issues should address the gender, cultural and economic barriers. Educative programs can be another way to inform people about subfertility and infertility and their causes.

Above all, elderly people aren’t a burden, women’s being active parts of the business world is not a problem.  If we leave outdated stereotyping against aged people and stop putting pressure on women as if they were birth machines, then perhaps we could find more productive solutions and new perspectives.

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