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The West's Fertility Crisis
Our situation raises an interesting question: How low can TFR get in a country? My grandchildren will be around to find out. Will yours?
Written by Russell T. Warne.
In the late 20th century, many leaders and intellectuals expressed concerns about overpopulation. From Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb to the United Nations Population Fund, the era was rife with efforts to control the growth of the human population. However, in the 21st century, concerns have shifted, and a growing number of voices have raised the alarm about the collapsing birthrate in many parts of the world.
To maintain a constant population, each woman must give birth to an average of 2.1 children over her lifetime (a measure called total fertility rate, or TFR). According to World Bank data, nearly every country in the world met this threshold in 1960. A generation later (in 1990), much of Europe, along with Australia, Canada, Japan, and South Korea had a TFR below 2.1. In the latest data (from 2021), the birthrate had collapsed throughout much of the world. Low birth rates are not just a European phenomenon anymore. Countries on every continent, except Africa, are below replacement levels of fertility. Even nations that two generations ago had astronomical birth rates now struggle reach replacement levels, including Ecuador (6.72 TFR in 1960; 2.03 in 2021), Thailand (6.25 TFR in 1960; 1.33 in 2021), and Brazil (6.06 TFR in 1960; 1.64 in 2021). At the extreme, South Korea today has a TFR of only 0.81, meaning that a majority of women in that country will never give birth if current trends continue.
A falling birth rate is not necessarily a bad thing for a country. Nations that struggle to feed, educate, and provide clean water and medical care for all their citizens might benefit from a decreasing birth rate. Indeed, the list of countries with a TFR equal to or higher today than in 1960 is not an enviable club: Chad (6.26 TFR in 2021), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (6.16 TFR in 2021), and the Central African Republic (5.98 TFR in 2021). Reducing the birth rate may be a crucial component to reducing extreme poverty and increasing a country’s standard of living.
But for most middle- and high-income countries, the problem is that birth rates are too low. A low birth rate has consequences that reverberate for generations. For example, social safety nets and entitlements become strained when a population skews older. In the United States, there were 5.1 workers for each recipient of Social Security benefits in 1960. By 2023, that ratio had fallen to 2.7, and the federal government expects it to be 2.3 in 2035. With a shrinking ratio of workers to recipients, the government has two main options, neither of which are politically palatable: cutting benefits to recipients or raising taxes on workers.
A stagnant population also slows economic growth. Japan—where adult diapers outsell baby diapers and 10% of the population is over 80 years old—has not had a TFR above 2.1 since 1973. This fact meant that a declining number of people were entering the workforce precisely when the country was hit by a regional economic crisis in the late 1990s. This has made it hard for Japan to revive the portion of its economy based on consumer spending, thereby hobbling the country’s economic recovery for many years. China (TFR 1.16) is likely facing a similar economic stagnation in the future, and its declining and aging population will make overcoming future economic headwinds more difficult.
One popular method among economically developed nations of dealing with a low fertility rate is to import new people through immigration. This has been the strategy that the United States (TFR 1.66) has adopted. With the exception of two brief years (2006 and 2007), the TFR of the United States has been below 2.1 since 1971. Currently, over 75% of population growth in the United States is due to immigration. Because immigrants tend to be younger than the general population, this increases the worker-to-beneficiary ratio for Social Security and other entitlements. However, even the United States, which has experienced high levels of immigration for longer than any other country, has failed to import enough immigrants to compensate for a low birth rate. To bring its worker-to-beneficiary ratio for Social Security back up to 3:1, the United States would have to import nearly 20 million working immigrants who contribute as much in taxes to Social Security as current workers. If the immigrants are disproportionately low-skilled and/or low-earning, then even more would be required.
Beyond economic considerations, there are other downsides to a birth rate below replacement levels. One problem is that a society with few children is an older, less vibrant society. In the United States (and many other countries), older citizens are more likely to vote, and that can make necessary economic or political reforms more difficult because they tend to benefit from the status quo. Another problem is that creative productivity decreases with age after the early 40s, which means a society that does not produce enough children will have less creativity. That means fewer people to solve problems, make scientific discoveries, or advance the culture.
Another consequence arises from the mass importation of immigrants to compensate for wealthy countries’ low birth rates. If countries do not assimilate their immigrants well, then this creates large, alienated subcultures. A native group’s decreasing share in the population under these circumstances means that there are fewer people in the future to preserve the native culture. That means that in future generations, a country’s culture, landmarks, and values may be neglected.
In 2017, Turkey’s authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told Turks living in Europe, “Make not three, but five children. Because you are the future of Europe.” If they follow his suggestion, it is hard to see how future Europeans—with an average TFR in the European Union of 1.53—would perpetuate their culture in a democratic system forever. (Then again, maybe the baby making should start at home. Turkey’s TFR in 2021 was 1.89.) Countries such as the United States and Australia have been more successful at assimilating immigrants, but it is legitimate for countries where national identity is based on a shared culture, ancestry, or history to ask if their values can survive the importation of large number of immigrants.
At the personal level, smaller families mean fewer strong relationships. A family is a natural social network that lasts a lifetime. Having fewer children results in smaller families and a less effective support system. Elderly people with few or no children and grandchildren are more likely to experience loneliness or have no one to care for them. For most people, a sibling is the person they will have the longest relationship in their life. But if fewer children are born, there are fewer lifelong relationships. And those people’s children (if any) are less likely to have cousins and other family relations that enrich their lives.
People want more children. In a recent Gallup poll, over 90% of American adults stated that they either had children or wanted to have them. When asked how many children is ideal, the average response is 2.7—far above America’s current TFR of 1.66. The “overwhelming” response to a program subsidizing egg freezing for unmarried women in Seoul shows that even South Korea’s low birth rate is likely not from a lack of desire to have children. So why are there so few babies?
One common suggestion is that people do not have children because they cannot afford them. Some data seem to support this. A 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that American parents spend an average of $233,610 on each child from birth through age 17. However, this is probably an overestimate. For example, the calculation assumes that most children do not share a bedroom, and so it includes the cost of parents either buying a larger house or expanding their current home when expecting a baby. Regardless of the exact cost of a child, it is still a major expense for many adults.
Given the assumption that financial constraints deter potential parents from having children, some nations have implemented generous policies to subsidize childbearing. In Hungary, parents can receive loans of $36,000, which are forgiven upon the birth of a third child. Mothers who give birth to four children can forgo paying income tax for life. In South Korea, parents are given a monthly subsidy of $770 for each child, which is nearly one-fourth of the average salary. Other governments have implemented similar policies.
These policies have, quite frankly, failed. Hungary’s TFR trends are nearly identical to those in other Eastern European countries, and South Korea has the lowest TFR in the world. In general, the hypothesis that people cannot afford to have children does not make much sense anyway. If it were true, then the wealthiest nations would have the highest birthrates. As Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, European societies “. . . are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).” The same observation applies to wealthy Americans and the upper class of many other countries.
Nevertheless, finances are not irrelevant when most adults when deciding to have children. Many Eastern European countries experienced a sharp decrease in TFR in the 1990s when their Communist governments collapsed, but since then have nearly rebounded to the fertility levels recorded approximately 30 years ago. This indicates that a nation’s economic outlook matters; as potential parents are optimistic about the economic future, they are more likely to have a child. The reverse is true: when a country’s economy turns south, so does its TFR. This is why the United States, which had a TFR hovering at 2.0 for two decades, experienced a sharp decrease in birth rate in the wake of the late 2000s housing crisis. It has not recovered since.
Evolutionary psychology may give some insight into why economic prosperity seems to have a detrimental effect on the birth rate. According to life history theory, which is part of evolutionary psychology, there are two general reproductive strategies. A fast strategy occurs when an organism or species produces a large number of offspring and provides little or no parental care. A slow strategy is the opposite: fewer offspring, each of which receives a great deal of parental investment into its survival.
Organisms and species that use a fast strategy have many offspring in the hopes that at least some will survive to reproduce themselves. Adopting a fast strategy results in fewer offspring, but the parental care increases the likelihood that any offspring will reach adulthood and become parents themselves. Among mammals, mice have an extremely fast life history strategy; a female mouse can produce 10 litters per year, with each litter averaging about 7 pups. At the other extreme are elephants, which produce only about 4 to 5 young over the course of a female’s 60-70-year lifespan.
Humans in general have a slow life history strategy, but within humans there is a range of slow and fast life histories (though the range among humans is not as extreme as seen among mammals in general). For most of human history, almost half of children failed to reach adulthood, and birth rates were high to compensate. As conditions improve, humans shift to a slower life history strategy and have fewer children, while investing more in each offspring. It is tempting to attribute this shift in reproductive behavior to the advent of birth control. However, this decrease began long ago in wealthy countries; in the United States TFR was about 4.0 for women born the late 1860s and decreased almost steadily for the next 100 years. Birth control likely accelerated the switch to a slow life history strategy of reproduction; it did not create the trend.
In developing nations where child mortality is still high and adult life expectancy is low, TFR is high, as adopting a fast life history strategy makes sense in that situation. But in countries where nearly every child reaches adulthood, a slow life history strategy is best. The problem is that so much of the population in most middle- and upper-income countries has adopted a slow life history strategy that now their populations cannot maintain themselves.
This dynamic is a tragedy, because there is evidence that parents in wealthy countries are over-investing in the few children they have. For cognitive development, educational achievement, and other life outcomes, genetic influences and random environmental events matter far more for children than the influences of parents. Contrary to the beliefs of modern upper-class parents, children do not need a private school, expensive summer camps, or the finest day care to thrive. As long as children have a safe, loving environment, good nutrition, and access to a decent education, there is little that parents do in wealthy countries that has a permanent impact on children. Most families in economically developed nations might benefit more if they redirected some of the time and attention they spend on intensive parenting toward having an additional child.
Fortunately, modern humans have two “cheat codes” that can lessen or even reverse the impact of evolution on the fertility. Those cheat codes are culture and science.
While the decrease in birth rates is a worldwide phenomenon, some countries and states are exceptions to this trend. The cultural characteristics of these places provide insight into how to stop or reverse the decrease in the birth rate.
Among economically developed nations, Israel is an outlier. Israel’s current TFR is 3.00, and it has always been above 2.7. Another exception is Utah, which has historically been the American state with the highest TFR. It is the youngest state in the country (mean age of 31.9 years), and over one-quarter (27.6%) of the population is under 18. (In comparison, the mean age in the United States is 38.9 years, and 21.7% of the population is under 18.)
The obvious connection between Israel and Utah is the strong religious culture in both locations. Israel is, of course, the only Jewish state in the world, and Utah is well known as the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the state reporting the highest percentage of people who attend religious services weekly. Religious practice is positively correlated with fertility in many countries; therefore, it should be unsurprising that these two places well known for their religious heritage and culture have a high birth rate.
But examining the data about these groups shows that the relationship between religion and TFR is complex. Orthodox Jews have a very high birth rate, with a TFR of 3.5 to 4.3 in the United States. Other Jews struggle to reach replacement level in most countries (TFR of 1.5 in the United States). Yet, in Israel, the Orthodox population is not sufficiently large in Israel to raise the nation’s TFR to 3.0. Israel’s secular Jews have a TFR of 2.2—above replacement level.
Utah and Latter-day Saints are also a complex case study. While Latter-day Saints—who are the majority of Utah’s residents—undoubtedly are the primary drivers of the state’s high TFR, other groups in Utah have a higher birth rate than similar populations elsewhere. The Catholics in the United States who have the most children are Catholics in Utah.
There is another unusual characteristic of Latter-day Saint fertility. Whereas for the general American population, the relationship between intelligence and fertility is negative, among Latter-day Saints, smarter adults tend to have more children. The Israeli version of this story is that Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQ of any ethnic group in the world, and in Israel, they are more likely to live as secular Jews. The Israeli and Latter-day Saint ability to get more intelligent people to have more children is important, because intelligence is highly heritable. Smart people, generally, have smarter children.
Examining Israel and Utah together indicates that low TFR is not an inevitable consequence of economic prosperity and modern life. The “cheat code” of a religious culture can encourage not just believers—but their neighbors also—to have more children. Moreover, the Israeli and Latter-day Saint cultures are successful in getting smart people to have more children. It would be beneficial for the rest of the world to identify what makes these groups avoid demographic decline.
While Jewish and Latter-day Saint doctrine encourage parenthood and see children as a blessing, I do not believe that mass conversion to these religions is a realistic solution to the world’s declining birth rate. If knowledge of Jewish religion were enough to keep TFR high, then secular Jews all over the world would have lots of children. Likewise, Latter-day Saints are increasing in number, but if the Church’s doctrines were attractive to large numbers of people, its missionaries would not need to knock on anyone’s doors.
I do not have much knowledge about the specifics of Israeli culture, but I have a great deal of insight into the Latter-day Saint situation that allows me to hypothesize about cultural characteristics that give this population its fertility profile. I am a lifelong Latter-day Saint who has lived most of his life in Utah, the past 12 years in Utah County, where Latter-day Saint culture is probably strongest. I have four children, and so I “walk the walk” of high fertility.
Here are some of the ways that Utah County encourages childbearing, compared to other places I have lived in the United States. First, children are highly integrated in the community. Businesses accommodate families and children in ways large and small. For example, one local non-professional theatre company allows patrons to bring babies and has a “cry room” where parents can watch the play while caring for a noisy child. Nearly every park has a playground. Even the jewelry store where I bought my wife’s engagement ring has a play area for children. Welcoming children into most spaces normalizes their existence, makes it easier for parents to stay integrated in the community, and models parenting for young adults.
In contrast, many aspects of American culture are downright hostile to children and families. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, schools in some parts of the country opened months after bars, sports stadiums, music venues, and other places for adults. Even after schools opened, students often had to wear masks, engage in social distancing, and had sports and other activities curtailed or cancelled. When the chips were down, America chose to sacrifice the normalcy and mental health of children to protect the elderly. It was the first time in human history that children were expected to sacrifice for a previous generation—instead of vice-versa. For many parents—including me—it was a sign that America’s leaders did not care about children.
Less dramatically, America devalues children other ways. For example, anti-child humor is accepted in polite company, and some airlines charge families extra to seat parents near their children. Other devaluations are more explicit and widely known, such as strains of feminism that treat children as being an obstacle to flourishing, instead of a component of many women’s happiness.
Another way in which the local culture dominated by Latter-day Saints encourages childbearing is that the default life plan in the culture is to get married and have children. Whereas in general American culture, a variety of life goals are all seen as being equally valid, Latter-day Saint culture assumes that young people should date with the intent of finding a lifelong marriage partner and to have children thereafter (while compassionately recognizing that not all people’s lives unfold in this manner). As a result, the average age of first marriage in Utah is the lowest in the country: 25.8 years, compared to the national average of 29.2 years. This leaves more years for childbearing.
Finally, in Utah County there is a strong consensus that childhood is a special time in life. This is most noticeable in the high prevalence of low-cost, family-friendly activities. Arts, sports, and outdoor activities are widely available, and entertainment for children is nearly devoid of adult language or sexualized content. Children are allowed to be children, and that encourages prospective parents to trust that the community will provide a welcoming environment to future children.
This is a stark contrast to how the general American culture approaches children. Entertainment is now targeted far more at adults than it was a generation ago. In the 2010s, 24 G-rated movies were released in the entire decade, and only one has been released since then. (The motive for this is not economic; historically, G-rated movies performed better at the box office than average.) Even programs and movies aimed at children have had an increasing number of adult themes. This neglect of children in entertainment sends everyone the message that children and childhood don’t matter.
However, the fertility lessons of Utah are not always positive. The state can serve as a cautionary tale, too. In 2008, Utah’s TFR was 2.60, but it collapsed after that, seemingly as a consequence of the Great Recession. Until 2016, Utah had the highest TFR in the U.S. (2.29 in that year), and today it ranks fifth, with a TFR of 1.92. Economic factors may be a lingering cause of the state’s failure to rebound its TFR. Utah today has some of the highest housing costs in the United States, and that inhibits family formation. It is too early to tell whether this downturn in fertility is permanent, but it shows that microeconomic conditions can be important in determining TFR levels. It likely takes more than a critical mass of religious people and a child-friendly culture to keep TFR above replacement levels.
Now the magic question: if the world instantly imported the fertility-positive aspects of Latter-day Saint culture tomorrow, would TFR increase? Probably. Do I think that will happen? No. To outsiders, some of these aspects of Latter-day Saint culture seem antiquated, and there is little appetite at the national or international level to bring them back. The sexual revolution succeeded decades ago, and it seems extremely unlikely that the 21st century world would frown upon cohabitation, see choosing childlessness as selfish, fight against hookup culture, and encourage adults to have another child instead of spending their financial resources on their own pleasure. It is in such conflict with the decades-long attitudes about life, sex, parenthood that have dominated Western nations for decades that I just cannot conceive of it (pun intended).
For a high-fertility culture to take hold in a modern wealthy nation, people must want to live in a culture that values children. For most Israeli Jews, they or their recent forebearers chose to move to Israel; the majority of Latter-day Saints are converts, and disaffected members can and do leave the Church. These are cultures that mostly consist of people who have chosen them. There is no evidence that a culture that values children can be forced upon people who do not desire it. This likely explains why the generous financial subsidies some countries have provided are unable to cause large increases in TFR.
This is where humanity’s second “cheat code” can help. Reproductive science has already led to the birth of millions of people who would not have existed otherwise. Governments subsidizing in vitro fertilization and other technologies—some possibly yet to be invented—could increase the TFR. However, governments must be careful to ensure that such subsidies do not merely delay childbearing (for example, by freezing a woman’s eggs so she can have her the same number of children in her 40s, instead of her 30s). Increasing TFR requires people to have additional children—not to delay the ones they would have otherwise. And investing in reproductive science may not provide returns that make this strategy economically feasible. It is not clear how much reproductive technologies have increased TFR since their invention.
So, my pessimistic view is that most countries will fall and stay below replacement levels of fertility during the 21st century. While some countries may delay their descent, I find it unlikely that there will be permanent reversals once a population gets accustomed to a TFR below 2.1. The situation does raise an interesting question, though: How low can TFR get in a country? My grandchildren will be around to find out. Will yours?
Russell T. Warne has published over 60 scholarly articles in peer reviewed journals and is the author of Statistics for the Social Sciences: A General Linear Model Approach and In the Know: Debunking 35 Myths About Human Intelligence. He was an associate professor at Utah Valley University until 2022.
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