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Where have all the babies gone?

The birth of a baby can be a joyous time. A person is welcomed into the world with the promise of making a difference in the lives of others.

But something unsettling is happening in America and most of the industrialized world. Babies are not being born as often as in the past. The fertility gap has important implications from climate change and public health to immigration and labor. Without enough people, who will farm, feed, work, care for and support a resource-constrained planet? Who will pay taxes? Who will care for the sick and the elderly? Who will make goods and who will buy them?

Think about it: U.S. population growth has been in sharp decline for many years, made more dramatic by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year was the first time since 2014 that America’s population crept up by 1 percent. Urbanization, new labor shifts, income inequality and concerns about climate change have made young Americans skeptical about bringing children into the world. 

With the pandemic came job loss, working from home, disease and death, and the prospect of an uncertain future. That turned out not to be a recipe for family expansion, although new federal data suggest couples may be getting used to the new normal and considering babies again.

Still, the trend lines have been stark: The Brookings Institution estimates that 300,000 babies were not born in America because of pandemic-driven financial insecurity.  

According to Econofact, based at Tufts University, between 1980 and 2007 the U.S. birthrate hovered between 65 and 70 births per 1,000. As of 2020, the U.S. birthrate was 55.8 per 1,000 women — a decrease of almost 20 percent. Also of note is that teen fertility has declined by as much as 75 percent in recent years.

America is not alone in its population sag. Close to half the world’s population currently lives in countries with low fertility. By some estimates, 91 countries have demonstrated fertility levels below 2.1, considered the fertility rate needed to sustain our society. 

Countries such as Spain, Portugal and Thailand could see their populations halved by 2100, according to the scientific journal “The Lancet.” 

Russia is a big country, but its population is declining, and the remaining population will face stiff sanctions and economic penalties from the war in Ukraine. 

Europe has also had declining populations, although the war has scrambled statistics in many countries with millions of refugees on the move. (Poland suddenly has over 2 million new people, including babies.) But the refugee crisis was unplanned and is straining resources, including child care, maternity wards and school systems. 

Asia is seeing enormous population shifts. Take China. For many years the Chinese government imposed a one-child policy, meaning most families were allowed to have only one child. But as its population declined, China faced the prospect of labor shortages, among other problems. In 2016 it implemented a two-child policy. Last August Chinese authorities announced a three-child policy. Estimates are that China is losing approximately 400,000 people a year by not replenishing its population. 

Japan has long struggled with low fertility rates, and its population decline is nearing historic records. South Korea is struggling with population decline. And even India, the world’s second most populous country, has seen its population decline.

The reasons for population decline are as varied as the countries experiencing it. Certainly, the availability of contraception and abortion have driven down the numbers, along with the education of women about reproductive choices. More women joining the workforce has delayed childbearing in many Western countries. (There is also research suggesting declining global human sperm counts, but the numbers and impact are debatable.)

Some countries are going in the opposite direction. According to the Economist, Africa’s population will double by 2050. By then, Nigeria could overtake the United States to become the third most populous country. 

Similarly, in Southeast Asia, Pakistan, a country of 220 million people, has a population growth rate of 2 percent

Latin America has also tended to have positive population growth, but the situation fluctuates with immigration and conditions within the hemisphere.

And in the Middle East, Israel, with a population surge in recent years, is thought to be, potentially, among the most crowded places on Earth.

So, what is the answer? Does the planet have too many people with too few resources, or are we in danger of losing generations of talent and innovation? 

The truth is we don’t know. My worry is that populations are unevenly distributed, geographically, with much of the population declines in wealthy countries. That means poor countries are often saddled with more people than they can handle.

Some of the possible solutions are worrisome. Coercion, like in the Chinese model, violates freedom and human rights. Using immigration policies to address worker shortages is fraught with unpredictability.

Uncontrolled population growth, absent a national or international plan to address poverty and food insecurity, is reckless. 

Ultimately, we need to strike a delicate balance. We must respect individual choice when it comes to giving birth and, at the same time, create policies that help children grow and prosper, with nutrition, education and a sustainable planet to inhabit.  

That’s a big job. But it must be done.

Tara D. Sonenshine is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice in Public Diplomacy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Tags Birth rate fertility rate One-child policy population decline

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