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  • Aug 23, 2014
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CommentInsight & Opinion

The explosive impact of falling birth rates

Michael Teitelbaum and Jay Winter say politics, economics come into play

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 July, 2013, 4:17am

It's no surprise that the world's population is at an all-time high - exceeding 7 billion - although many might not know that it increased by 5 billion during the past century alone. And many would be surprised - even shocked - to know that, over the past three decades, fertility rates have plummeted in many parts of the world, including China, Japan and even significant regions of India.

These Asian giants have not been alone. In much of Europe, North America, East Asia and elsewhere, the average number of children born to women during the course of their childbearing years has fallen to unprecedentedly low levels.

Demography is too important a subject to be left to the demographers alone

Our new book, The Global Spread of Fertility Decline: Population, Fear, and Uncertainty, analyses these trends and the demographic, political and economic consequences. Low fertility rates are by no means universal: high fertility persists in sub-Saharan Africa and in parts of the Middle East, but elsewhere low fertility is more the rule than the exception. These trends mean that the rate of population growth both in Europe and Asia is likely to decline. The world is not on a path of unrestrained demographic growth, as some believe.

Thirty years ago, only a small fraction of the world's population lived in the few countries with fertility rates substantially below the "replacement level" - normally set at 2.1 children per woman. Fast forward to 2013, with roughly 60 per cent of the world's population living in countries with below-replacement fertility rates.

The consequences of these changes are striking. One is that international migration has now become the primary driver of rapid changes in the demography of dozens of countries.

While low fertility rates have evoked concerns among political elites, they have generally been less worried about rising immigration. Yet such anxieties have become common among broader publics - leading to large gaps between elite and public opinion. This has been especially evident in some European countries with large influxes of Muslim migrants. Inflammatory preaching by some groups of Islamists in some European cities, sometimes followed by violence, have triggered grass-roots politics and violence.

The convergence of such tensions with the recent economic crises adds to the turmoil and has strengthened political movements that previously were consigned to the fringes.

It is impossible to predict how fertility rates, economies or politics will evolve. Still, the convergence of such patterns in demography and economic life is a source of friction in politics. Much depends on whether governments adopt policies based on an informed understanding of the interconnected demographic, economic and political forces under way today.

The global spread of low fertility touches on vital and explosive issues - the evolution of family ties, the future of pension provisions and care for the elderly, the evolution of immigration policies, the ethnic and language distributions within societies, the potential for violence within and among different religious and ethnic communities, and the debate over women's rights.

Demography is too important a subject to be left to the demographers alone. It is everybody's business.

Michael S. Teitelbaum is Wertheim Fellow at the Labour and Worklife Programme at Harvard Law School. Jay Winter is the Charles J. Stille Professor of History at Yale University. Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online. http://yaleglobal.yale.edu


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1. Hong Kong despite a negative fertility rate with its local population falling, the actual population count may be the contrary. First, there is no one official count but several -- a questionable government practice. Secondly, if there is any certainty I would say Hong Kong’s population is rising not falling as evidenced that increasing many living in cramped condition and the desperate effort by government in resolving housing shortage. Too, by evidence of a migration policy allowing daily 150 or per year 54,750 mainland Chinese for family reunion to settle in Hong Kong. The impact on housing need is self-evident. The policy has been in place for two decades or so with an estimated over a million people added to the population or one-seventh of the 7 millions.
2. The impact is proportionally of great magnitude due to Hong Kong has a very limited economically buildable land. The humanitarian policy once it was has been used rather as a source of cheap labor as well as creating housing demand for the property developers who buying up farmland are ready to meet demand. The skewed population increase by immigration in Hong Kong lacks an all rounded consideration. Business shouldn’t as usual for the 1 year old Administration in its struggle for housing its expanding population – terminate the policy. Nor should it be for the silent majority population. Nothing really to be gained except congestion for everyone.
Hopefully, no one reads this as a cue to increase birthrates. For some reason, we tend to treat population numbers the same as the balance of our bank accounts—that is, there is a tendency to believe that they should only increase. Growth for the sake of growth is unsustainable, and sustainability requires us to examine the many issues associated with population levels, many of which have been quoted by article author.
An interesting trend is that the more developed and more educated a society becomes, the lower the birthrate. Contrary to popular belief, this is actually a good thing, especially in areas where the level of population far exceeds the GDP generated, resulting in a very low quality of life. In fact, there is the strong correlation between population levels and quality of life. The trick is how to contend with declining/plateauing levels of population. I would argue that immigration is only necessary when perceived from the viewpoint of maintaining existing levels of population. There is nothing wrong with gradually declining or stable levels of population so long as there is an effective method of achieving this.


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