The world’s industrialized nations are now facing a spate of crises that were barely anticipated just a few years ago, from war and inflation to supply-chain breakdowns and energy shortages. But the developed world is also on the cusp of a foreseeable crisis it has been unable to forestall: the “demographic time-bomb” of sub-replacement fertility. Plummeting birth rates in wealthier countries guarantee decades of population decline. This, in turn, ensures an economic downturn and budget shortfalls as a shrinking tax base makes it harder to fund the state.
There are plenty of reasons this looming catastrophe has been met with paralysis among policymakers and indifference or resignation among academics and commentators. Demography is a slow-moving train, so its effects won’t be felt during the mandates of most governments—or even the 30-year careers of academics and journalists. But as much as we might fault elites for their shortsightedness, there is also a genuine dearth of proven solutions.
A recent Financial Times column by Janan Ganesh seems to exemplify the cheery obliviousness of the chattering classes on this looming disaster. He argues that declining family formation is “good, actually,” because it represents an expression of maximized individual freedom. “A shift in mores in the 1960s removed the social pressure to settle down,” giving people the freedom to do it all later, if ever. These are our revealed preferences.” In the face of this reality, he avers, no “technocratic fix” is going to make much of a difference. Ganesh brushes aside the idea that we can “pin all this on the property bubble, childcare costs, and other material barriers.”
For any parent or prospective parent who has struggled to afford these things, it may seem callous to dismiss their importance. But the evidence from countries that have tried—and failed – to increase birth rates by boosting social provisions suggests Ganesh may not be totally off the mark. It isn’t that material factors don’t matter, but that they aren’t decisive for providing the conditions for above-replacement birth rates. Recent history bears this out.
In the United States, there were consistent and noticeable drops in birth rates after the recessions of the 1980s, 1990-91 and 2000-01. But birth rates recovered following these shocks and remained above replacement in the United States until 2007. The Great Recession of 2008 was different. Even as the economy recovered, birth rates fell another 20 percent until 2019, and then the pandemic drove another, still-ongoing decline. It’s a mystery as to why. For instance, in a recent study, three distinguished economists failed to find a convincing correlation between declining birth rates and lower wages, increasing student debt, and child-care expenses.
In contrast to the United States, which has done nothing to incentivize childbearing, Hungary under the leadership of Viktor Orbán has taken ambitious steps on this front, such as offering generous cash outlays for married parents to purchase homes as well as subsidizing their mortgages. This makes it a useful case study on the effect of material incentives in raising birth rates above replacement. While births per woman have gone up in the 10 years since Orban’s introduced this pro-natalist approach, they remain below replacement level, and only time will tell how effective they are in the long term. Fertility shot up in the years after the new policies were implemented, but has plateaued since 2018.
The biggest blow to the materialist thesis comes not from modern-day America or Hungary, but out of the ruins of Communist countries. Throughout much of their existence, the USSR and the Warsaw Pact nations deployed myriad policies and subsidies to boost birth rates. Yet like their capitalist neighbors, few were able to achieve above-replacement levels. The German Democratic Republic, despite a slew of pro-natalist policies, barely kept its birth rate above that of its capitalist counterpart, the Federal Republic of Germany. By the time of reunification in 1990, their birth rates had reached near parity, both well below replacement levels.
Communist Albania was one of the few Eastern European nations that maintained above-replacement birth rates throughout its history—but this may have had more to do with the traditional Islamic culture that persisted across much of the country than its policies. In any case, Albania’s birth rate declined as the country industrialized, from a high of 7 children per woman to down to 3 by the end of Communism. It now has the fifth-lowest rate in Europea, but may have continued declining even if it had stayed Communist. After all, two remaining Marxist-Leninist regimes, Cuba and North Korea, have declined to sub-replacement birth rates.
Perhaps industrialized economies as a whole militate against reproduction. This was the theory of Alexandra Kollontai, the Bolshevik revolutionary who became welfare commissar under Lenin’s government. She believed the key factor was that industrialization created work conditions that prevented women from taking care of children and working at the same time. (Peasant women, in contrast, could “have it all”). If this is the main reason for lower birth rates, it should follow that they would dependably correlate with higher workplace participation rates for women.
However, an examination of European countries has suggested the correlation between female employment and fertility turned positive in the 2000s. On the flipside, lower employment rates among women often fail to bring about above-replacement birth rates. For example, Sicily’s female participation rate is only 40 percent, but the region’s birth rate stood at a paltry 1.3 percent as of 2018.
Lacking effective policy responses, countries with an attractive enough profile have long turned to increased immigration levels to maintain population growth. But regardless of one’s views on this approach, it may soon offer diminishing returns, even for the “nation of immigrants,” the United States. Despite ongoing controversy on immigration and concerns about record unauthorized border crossings, net migration into the United States has been decreasing since 2016.
At a loss for other solutions, governments on all sides of the political spectrum may attempt to reverse the birth rate’s decline by limiting women’s access to birth control and abortion. Attempts to limit access to abortion in the United States are usually justified on moral grounds. In contrast, China moved to restrict abortion last year, explicitly citing the need to increase fertility.
Here, too, the history of the Communist bloc holds lessons. In 1967, Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaușescu imposed one of the world’s strictest bans on abortion and contraception with the aim of raising the birth rate. Despite having the country’s secret police at its disposal for enforcement, the Ceaușescu regime failed to meet its goals: Birth rates shot up for a few years before reverting to inexorable decline, aided by underground abortion and contraception networks. Women, it turns out, take risks and self-harm rather than bear an unwanted child. Whatever one’s view on the moral case for such restrictions, the Romanian case suggests that the practical case for using them to increase fertility is unsupported, and that China’s measure will likely fail, too.
The economist Nicholas Eberstadt has found that the best predictor for national fertility rates is the desired family size as reported by women. To that point, he looks to Israel as a possible path forward. Though some of Israel’s high birth rate can be ascribed to its religious community, it is high enough at 3 births per woman to indicate that secular women are having babies, as well. Eberstadt says Israelis, unlike other nationalities, are optimistic about their country and would like to see their children be a part of its continuation.
Women need to want to have larger families and must choose to have them voluntarily—and not because they have been induced to do so by subsidies or bans, which whatever their intent, undervalue women’s agency and autonomy. In other words, women in industrialized nations need to believe in the future. Perhaps we have reached a stage in history where a woman’s humanity, shaped by her responsibility to carry and bear children, must be incorporated into the cultural and political fabric of any modern society that wishes to thrive.