Commentary: Birthrates in Decline
Statistics Indicate Societal Decline
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Given 26-Jun-21; 12 minutes
Among my favorite side-studies is to catch myself up on the latest statistics dealing with demography. Demography is “the science of vital and social statistics, as of the births, deaths, diseases, marriages, etc., in and among populations.” After population totals, perhaps the best-known demographic statistic is that a nation’s or ethnic group’s population needs to maintain a 2.1 births/woman average to maintain itself. This is called the “replacement rate.” Each woman in a given country or given jurisdiction, if they want to maintain their population, has to have 2.1 children. I always fear for that .1 child. But, no, it is just an average that covers those women who either don't have children because of infertility or die before they do have children. So they have to make it up with that .1.
For several decades, demographers have expressed a great deal of concern about the fertility rate because over the whole of the Western world, birthrates have plummeted. Many nations are well below the replacement rate of 2.1. I should mention here that the rate over the entire world is still 2.5, so the population is growing. But over the Western world, it is shrinking very quickly. The U.S. fertility rate for 2020 was recently released, showing a drop of 4%, the largest single-year decrease in nearly 50 years. It is kind of funny, because everybody expected that during the pandemic and everybody was home that the rate would rise. But it did exactly the opposite. People were scared—they did not want to bring another child into the world because they thought the world was going to end because of COVID-19, so they actually had fewer children, not more. The U.S. birth rate now stands at 1.64 per woman. By the way, the American fertility rate has been below the replacement rate of 2.1 since 1972, when it was 2.132, just above the replacement rate. So the fertility rate has been declining for about 50 years now.
Except for the state of Israel—which is kind of interesting, which has one of the world’s highest fertility rates (2.976) among industrialized nations, most of the nations on the positive side of the fertility rate (over 2.1) are smaller, less-advanced African, Asian, and Central and South American nations. Those who are basically in the same boat as the United States are nations like New Zealand, France, Sweden, Ireland, Australia, UK, Iceland, Latvia, Belgium, Norway, Lithuania, The Netherlands, and Trinidad. They are all at or just above 1.64.
But some nations are flirting with fertility rates that are nearing the point of no return. No human society on record has ever recovered from a fertility rate lower than 1.3, which demographers call the point of “lowest-low” fertility. Hong Kong, Japan, Spain, Italy, and Portugal are hovering just above this rate, while Greece (1.28), Singapore (1.23), Taiwan (1.2), and South Korea (1.09) have dipped below it.
There are multiple factors for why this is occurring in any given country, but a startling factor is that low-fertility is a negative result of what we consider a net-positive: education, particularly of women. Educating girls is a good thing, but one of its negative side effects is that it actually decreases the birth rate. As women advance in higher education levels and thus make a well-paying career a priority, they are significantly more likely to delay having children, some well into their 30s or even into their 40s before trying to have kids. Thus, they will likely have only one child or perhaps two—and many will have none because as they age, their ability to have a child decreases.
This used to be something only upper-middle- and upper-class women did, but the attitude has filtered down into the lower classes to become a full-societal issue. Everybody wants to go to college; a lot more women from the lower classes now, and they are able to. And so, they make a career a priority, and they have fewer children because they are pursuing either their education or a career.
In recent years, women under 30 in all classes across society have become much less likely to have children. Since 2007, the birthrate for women in their 20s has fallen by 28%. Women in their 30s and 40s have had increasing birthrates, but they have not offset the decline in those in their teens and 20s. Thus, we have a falling birthrate—and have had for half a century.
I’m not blaming women. That is not my purpose in saying all of this. They want what is best for themselves and their families, so focusing on their careers in these days of high inflation to make more money to live well in this culture seems to be the route most take. They believe they can have children later, if they desire them. Individuals must make such decisions on their own.
What is disturbing is that America and Britain and some other Western nations think this fertility decline is a good thing because they believed all the hype about overpopulation, all the environmental concerns, whether these numbers are "sustainable." (I hate that word. I hear it like every other sentence: "No, this isn't sustainable; that is sustainable, so you have to use this thing that will degrade and not this other thing that won't degrade. But that's another thing.) But what makes this attitude in the Western nations so disturbing is that other nations like China realize the consequences of a low birthrate and are doing something about it. The Chinese Communist Party—of all organizations on the face of the earth—seeing China’s plummeting birthrate, has mandated that its party members have three children, and it is expected to make it a nationwide policy soon. Remember that this is the same nation that brutally enforced its one-child policy just about a decade ago. Now they are allowed two, and they are going to say, "You must have three!" It realized its error and is working to correct it because it sees the societal imbalance in its own population.
Listen to these other countries that are doing similar things: Russia, Iran, Japan, Singapore, France, Finland, South Korea, and a handful of other countries are incentivizing having more children because they realize their nations could go the way of the dinosaur without replacement-level births. However, it has been found over the years that there is little evidence that such policies work. For instance, South Korea spent about $120 billion between 2005 and 2018 to incentivize births, but its birthrate continued to fall.
Declining birthrates are something to watch in the years ahead. As demographers like to say, “Demography is destiny.” The numbers tell the tale of decline, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to reverse it. Personally, I think that this birth rate decline is a result of the secularization of the West, as Bible-believing Christians know that God says in Psalm 127:3, “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb is His reward.” They take it seriously, and Christians tend to have more children. Take Christianity out of the mix, and you have a secular society that puts other things as priorities above that. If our congregation can be taken as an example, what this world needs, as usual, is Christianity to turn society around!