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The Baby Bust

How declining fertility will affect the world

June 2023

Script

Click to reveal bonus content (fun facts and additional insights) within script.

 

Americans: A people defined by their can-do spirit.

Cross an ocean to start a new life? Yeah, we did that.

Build a new nation around radical ideas of freedom? All in a day’s work.

Tame the West? Got that covered.

Build an industrial powerhouse, send skyscrapers soaring towards the heavens, lead the way into a digital future? Check, check, and check.

It sometimes seems like Americans can make just about anything if they put their mind to it…

…except, it turns out, babies.

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

If you had to summarize the history of the world’s population, it would go something like this: normal — normal — normal — normal — sweet lord god, what happened?

From the year 0 to the year 1700, it’s estimated that the world’s population only increased from 190 million people to 600 million.i From 1700 to today, it’s gone from 600 million to nearly 8 billion. ii

Look at that line and you can understand why so many people panicked about overpopulation…

…until about five minutes ago. When we started panicking about underpopulation

…because this is what the world’s population growth has looked like since 1950. iii And this is what it’s projected to look like through the end of this century.iv

Our birthrates are in steep decline. And the richer your country is, the more likely it’s happening. Between 2010 and 2020, more than 70 percent of developed countries saw a decline in their fertility rates — the number of children born per woman.v

The U.S. hasn’t been immune to this trend. To keep population levels stable, you need an average of 2.1 children per woman,vi a number that’s often referred to as the “replacement rate.” And America has been below that number nearly every year since 1972.vii The Congressional Budget Office estimates that in less than 20 years America will have more deaths than births — at which point the only way for the population to grow would be through immigration.viii

So, it’s time to panic! Or maybe not panic? Because here’s the thing: there’s actually a lot of disagreement as to whether this represents a problem — and, if so, how much of a problem. For every figure like Elon Musk, who’s called population decline an existential risk, you’ll find others who say we don’t have that much to worry about.

So, how should we think about falling birthrates?

The first thing to understand is that this isn’t some unexplained infertility crisis. We’re not in a Children of Men scenario. The birthrate is falling because of the decisions that people are making.

In reality, research suggests the biggest factor is simply that people are choosing to get married later in life — and having fewer children as a result.ix Which doesn’t necessarily seem like a crisis.

Although some scholars think they’re choosing to get married later and have fewer kids because it takes longer to afford things like a decent house or childcare.x Which sounds a little closer to a crisis.

Then there’s the question of the effects. Why do declining birthrates worry so many people?

Well, an aging population means fewer people in the workforce, which some analysts fear could lead to lower levels of productivity and innovation.xi

It could lead to a large population of senior citizens without enough younger people around to take care of them — not to mention enough younger people around to pay into the programs, like Social Security, that financially support them.xii

And it could also lead to increasing social isolation as children grow up in smaller families with fewer siblings.xiii

As a result, several nations around the world have actually launched campaigns to try to jumpstart their fertility.

Some countries, such as Russia and France, have tried to do it with money, offering cash or other government benefits for having children. But the results are pretty underwhelming: The programs are expensive, the increase in the birthrates often isn’t very large, and the effects don’t usually last that long.xiv

Other countries have been more … um, let’s say ‘creative’?

In South Korea, which has the world’s lowest birthrate, xv government offices close early one day a week to encourage employees to go home and … rectify the problem — a policy known as … Wednesday.xvi

And in Singapore — and we swear we’re not making this up — the government partnered with Mentosxvii to make a commercial to encourage people to … do their civic duty.

Neither of those efforts, we should point out, made much of a difference. In the case of the Mentos ad, probably because it seems like a good argument for fewer people.

So, birthrates are in free fall, and it doesn’t seem like there’s much public policy can do about it. Which could be pretty depressing … unless you’re more persuaded by the case made by the people who say we’re being too panicky about this.

Their arguments: Even if these trends continue — which we can’t be certain of — we can figure out how to adapt. So, while you might have fewer workers in the labor force you can just invest more in automation. While you might have fewer teaching jobs in a country with fewer kids, you’ll also have more jobs caring for the elderly. While it might get harder to finance programs like Social Security, you can reform the way we pay for them to make them more sustainable.

Bottom line: We should probably take any bold predictions with a grain of salt. The pessimists might be wrong. And the optimists might be too. There’s just a lot we don’t know yet.

In fact, just about the only thing we can say for certain…

…is that Singapore needs to knock this off.

Source(s)

  1. "How Has World Population Growth Changed Over Time?" (Max Roser, Hannah Ritchie, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, Lucas Rodés-Guirao) — Our World in Data 
  2. Ibid.
  3. "How Has the World Population Growth Rate Changed?" (Max Roser, Hannah Ritchie, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, Lucas Rodés-Guirao) — Our World in Data
  4. Ibid.
  5. "South Korea Has the World’s Lowest Fertility Rate, a Struggle With Lessons for Us All" (Ashley Ahn) — OECD, via NPR
  6. Fertility — OECD
  7. Fertility Rate, Total for the United States — Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
  8. The Demographic Outlook: 2023 to 2053 — Congressional Budget Office
  9. "Declining Fertility in America" (Lyman Stone) — American Enterprise Institute
  10. Ibid.
  11. "From Managing Decline To Building the Future Could a Heartland Visa Help Struggling Regions?" (Adam Ozimek, Kenan Fikri, John Lettieri) — Economic Innovation Group
  12. "The Graying of America: More Older Adults Than Kids by 2035" (Jonathan Vespa) — U.S. Census Bureau
  13. The Consequences of Declining Fertility for Social Capital — U.S. Congress, Joint Economic Committee
  14. "Declining Fertility in America" (Lyman Stone) — American Enterprise Institute 
  15. Fertility Rates — OECD
  16. "Declining Fertility in America" (Lyman Stone) — American Enterprise Institute
  17. "Singapore’s 'National Night' Encourages Citizens To Make Babies" (Rachel Nuwer) — Smithsonian Magazine

Shownotes

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Footage | American Enterprise Institute // Architect of the Capitol // The Economist // Library of Congress: James Montgomery Flagg // Mentos Singapore (2012) // Universal Pictures: Children of Men (2006) // The New York Times // The Philadelphia Museum of Art: Benjamin West, Warren Sheppard // Twitter: Elon Musk // The Internet Archive: National Archives and Records Administration // YouTube: NASA // Getty: Vasiliki, Jessie Casson, Momentimages, Westend61, Vladimir Godnik, Tara Moore, Justin Paget, Aleksander Kaczmarek, Ljupco, D3sign, Maxim Kalitvintsev, Fine Print, SDI Productions, FluxFactory, Adamkaz, EkaterinaZakharova, ROSLAN RAHMAN / Contributor, Bucky_za, Hello World, Fcafotodigital, Atiatiati, Grinvalds, EyeMark, DawnPoland, Lostinbids, Szefei, PeopleImages, Nancy Brown, Gian Lorenzo Ferretti Photography, Simonkr, Sakdam, Rotko_Olga, PhotoQuest / Contributor, SilverV, Universal History Archive / Contributor, DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / Contributor, Alexey Cheprakov, Silver555 // Storyblocks: iNeedFX, Berkerdag, Rass, Filmed, Andrii ASD, RomaS, Motionblock, Bennyb, Stockmedia, DCStudio, SuziMediaProduction, Nopow, Sleg211, PaulCarr, Ilya2k, Prostock-studio, Monkeybusiness, Sergey Gribanov // Adobe Stock: Comic Vector, Mimagephotos, Shefkate, Africa Studio, Pixel-Shot, Curto, Alotofpeople, Vladimirnenezic, Geargodz, Blackday, Lunarts_studio, Sergey, AntonioDiaz, DavidPrado, Studio Romantic, Ermolaev Alexandr, Tan4ikk, Prostock-studio, Krakenimages.com, DN6, Jacob Lund, Jovannig, Ryan C. Riley, Oleksandr Pokusai, Konstantin, Sommai, Yagnik, Pol Maria, Stillfx, Exopixel, Mshch, Kornnphoto, Littleny, Whatamiii, New Africa, Akarawut // Flickr: Dominique James, Scott Fiddelke // Unsplash: Engin Akyurt, Carl Revell, Hyundai Motor Group, Luke Stackpoole, Scarbou Siu, Emmanuel Ikwuegbu, ThisisEngineering RAEng, Jacinto Diego, Usman Yousaf, Jeshoots.com // Pexels: Engin Akyurt // Pixabay: PIRO4D // Vecteezy: Riaz Jani, Nendra Wahyu // Basile Morin // Dbenbenn // France // Frederick Brownell // GPinkerton // Ian Fieggen // Illegitimate Barrister // Marc Mongenet // Olek Remesz // Rillke // SKopp // South Korea // Zairon // イユニマ // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION. 

Sources

  1. Our World in Data 
    "How Has World Population Growth Changed Over Time?" (Max Roser, Hannah Ritchie, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, Lucas Rodés-Guirao)
  2. Our World in Data
    "How Has the World Population Growth Rate Changed?" (Max Roser, Hannah Ritchie, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, Lucas Rodés-Guirao)
  3. OECD, via NPR
    "South Korea Has the World’s Lowest Fertility Rate, a Struggle With Lessons for Us All" (Ashley Ahn)
  4. OECD
    Fertility
  5. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
    Fertility Rate, Total for the United States
  6. Congressional Budget Office
    The Demographic Outlook: 2023 to 2053
  7. American Enterprise Institute
    "Declining Fertility in America" (Lyman Stone)
  8. Economic Innovation Group
    "From Managing Decline To Building the Future Could a Heartland Visa Help Struggling Regions?" (Adam Ozimek, Kenan Fikri, John Lettieri)
  9. U.S. Census Bureau
    "The Graying of America: More Older Adults Than Kids by 2035" (Jonathan Vespa)
  10. U.S. Congress, Joint Economic Committee
    The Consequences of Declining Fertility for Social Capital
  11. OECD
    Fertility Rates 
  12. Smithsonian Magazine
    "Singapore’s 'National Night' Encourages Citizens To Make Babies" (Rachel Nuwer)

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