The Death of Birth — Our Dismal Fertility Rates

Through Collapsed Fertility Rates, We Are Self-Exterminating

Archive for March, 2008

The Coming Acceleration of Population Aging

Wolfgang Lutz is a highly respected demographer specializing in the sub-field of fertility rates. With co-authors Warren Sanderson and Sergei Scherbov he has published an article in Nature magazine (vol. 451, pp. 716-719, February 7, 2008). The piece, titled “The coming acceleration of global population aging, examines the aging that will occur worldwide over the next several decades as a result of reduced fertility rates and increased life expectancies.

They conclude that the speed of aging will increase over the next several decades and then being to decrease by mid-century. This does not mean, however, that the aging will cease. In fact, their research indicates that populations will continue to get older throughout the century. They predict that globally the average human age will rise from 26.6 in 2000 to 37.3 in 2050. By 2100 they expect the average age to have reached 45.6 years-of-age “when it is not adjusted for longevity increase.” They also predict an 88% probability that the world’s population will stop growing some time during this century.

An abstract of the Nature paper can be found here, along with the opportunity to purchase the entire report.

The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis has published an interview with Lutz that can be read here.

China: Aging Amid Population Explosion

 Map of China

 Very much a developing country, despite its recent economic advances, China faces the combined challenges of massive population and rapid aging. The nation’s one-child policy, often eased in individual cases, has led to a below-replacement fertility rate of 1.75. Nevertheless, the population continues to rise as it ages.

According to Professor Wang Feng, professor of sociology and demography at the University of California, Irvine, China’s over-60 cohort will burgeon from 140 million to 200 million by 2015, an increase of 43% in a mere 7 years. He also projects that, by 2030, the number will reach 300 million, roughly today’s population of the United States, the world’s third most populous nation. In the past, the elderly have relied on their children for support. Unfortunately, they will soon need the support of children that they never had — the Chinese government estimates that the one-child policy has reduced birth totals by 400 million.

Recent reports out of Beijing have given mixed impressions regarding the future of the one-child policy. Earlier this week, however, the head of the National Population and Family Planning Commission stated that the standing policy will remain in force for at least another decade. Estimates of the time scale vary, but it is clear that sometime during the next decade, a large number of women will enter their prime child-bearing years. Once they have aged a bit more, national fertility rates are expected to plummet. As shown in the following graph, in 2000 a large number of females were in the 10 to 14 age group. This year they range from 18 to 22 and in 2015 this group will be 25 to 29 years old — prime childbearing years. Far smaller numbers of women will follow.

China population pyramid 2000

China has wedged itself between the proverbial rock and hard place. The nation’s developing infrastructure struggles to support the country’s current numbers, yet low fertility rates have led to an old population with relatively few young workers to depend on.

The situation in China should give warning to the United States, whose population continues to grow at a high rate, largely because of immigration. The US would do well to adjust its system of transfer programs before it becomes necessary to drastically reduce immigration and fertility rates.

The elderly will continue to depend on the young, yet no piece of land can support an infinite population.

South Korea’s Baby Boom: Does It Really Exist?

A hearty dose of caution is in order, when considering today’s so-called baby booms. Numerous governments have both introduced and increased payments to couples and, in some cases, single women for having children. Needless to say, little time passes before politicians start to trumpet their “successes.” When there is any true success, it’s generally a tiny bump in the fertility rate.

South Korea has been boosting its child subsidies, and the country’s fertility rate has risen a small amount. But what is the real cause of this improvement? Are the subsidies a partial solution to the nation’s growing crisis, or do they compound the problem by raising government expenditures without actually serving to cure anemic birth rates?

One of the greatest challenges created by collapsed fertility rates is the growth of unsustainable government deficits. On average, it costs more to support a senior citizen than a youth; as societies age, an increasing amount must go toward transfer programs to the elderly, such as (in the US) Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. In addition, labor-shortages occur, as the working-age percentage of the population shrinks. The situation could lead to a death spiral, if matters get to the point where adults in their reproductive years spend so much to support the elderly that they can’t afford to have children. Increased government expenditures, targeted to encourage childbearing, will only exacerbate the problem, if they don’t significantly augment the number of births.

South Korea faces a massive demographic crisis as a result of adults having so few children for so many years. As stated in this article, “Amid the low birthrate, South Korea’s population is projected to diminish by two-thirds in the next century, dropping to 16 million from 48 million and creating a national economic and labor-shortage disaster.” “Disaster” is the operative word. No society on earth has ever thrived with such a collapse of population. This is equivalent to a plague of biblical proportions.Unfortunately, though the fertility rate of South Korea has lifted in recent years, the rise might not be due to any social efforts. It may simply be a result of a recent, and temporary, increase in the number of women in their prime child bearing years.As the above linked article points out

experts say that it may be too soon to declare an end to the country’s “baby strike.”
“The boost might be temporary, as it occurred mainly because the children of baby boomers, born shortly after the Korean War, are now of childbearing age,” said Lee Jin-man, an official at the National Statistic Office (NSO).

The following graph from the U.S. Census Bureau, International Data Base, shows the male and female populations of South Korea in 2000 as a function of age. Note that the largest female cohort (right side of the graph) falls in the 25 through 29 age group. In 2005, this group ran from 30 through 34. A graph of this form is typical for developed countries today. With women having most of their children in their very late 20s and during their early 30s, the overall fertility of a society will swell as a relatively large number of women pass through these years. Unfortunately, fertility rate may well fall again, when these women exit their prime childbearing years.


Is the problem a lack of money in the hands of potential parents? Apparently not. As the article states:

While the country’s new president is seeking to raise per capita income to $40,000 within a decade, the current birthrate is barely over 1 child per woman. Yet back in the 1970s, when South Korea’s per capita income stood at a mere $250, the birthrate was an average of 4.5 children per woman.

Some pundits maintain that women will want more children, if more child care is provided, so the women can spend their days at work rather than with their children. But do women really want to have children, only to turn them over to others to raise them. Perhaps not.

Yoon Young-in, a 32 year old female office worker quoted in the article, states that “What we really want is a change in the social concept that childcare is no longer solely the family’s job, but that of the whole society.” It seems, however, that she wants her extended family to care for her children, while she works.

“I am worried because both my mother and mother-in-law put their foot down, saying they don’t want to take care of the grandkids… I don’t blame them since it wasn’t their job to begin with, but it has made the decision-making much harder,” Yoon added with a sigh. “I am not about to leave my baby in the hands of a stranger, but I don’t want to give up my job either.”

The solution to collapsed fertility rates certainly isn’t obvious, and the causes are many and varied. But with far higher standards of living corresponding to fewer children, it doesn’t seem that an inability to afford children is the fundamental determinant. Nor is an absence of programs to get more women out into the workforce.

More on Robotics and a Lonely, Aging Society

According to research, appearing in the March issue of the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, robotic dogs may prove to be as effective as real dogs, when it comes to assuaging the loneliness of the elderly.

Readers of The Death of Birth may have seen this post on robotics, in which it was reported that companies in Japan are leading the way in developing robots for both service and companionship. It should come as no surprise that Japan is at the forefront of this field, partly because the nation is so advanced technologically but also because it is aging so severely as a result of its decades-long anemic fertility rates.

According to this article,

To test whether residents responded better to Sparky, a trained therapy dog, or the Sony-made robot dog, researchers divided 38 nursing home residents into three groups at a trio of long-term care facilities in St. Louis.

Though the results are not conclusive, it seems that, once they warmed up to the mechanical pooch, residents found as much comfort in its company as in the company of a real dog.

With a dearth of children in much of the developed world, the elderly may at times need to find companionship in robots. Now if we can only get the robots to pay the necessary taxes to support us in our elder years.