There were only around 170 million Homo sapiens roaming the earth a little over two millennia ago, at the commencement of the Common Era.
Except for the enormous speed bump known as the Black Death, which took away 75 million people worldwide, the global human population has grown dramatically, from 910 million in 1800 to over 7.7 billion now.
It’s natural to conclude that the human population will continue to grow based on those figures.
However, the reality is rather different: over the previous fifty years, global average fertility rates have decreased by half.
In 1968, there were five children per woman; in 2017, there were only 2.5. This tendency is quite concerning for several countries.
The government of South Korea, where the fertility rate is fewer than one kid per woman, has begun promoting pregnancies; China, which is on the verge of a hitherto imagined demographic cliff, has begun incentivizing pregnancies.
In 2016, it abolished its one-child policy and began letting families have two children. It was expanded to three children in May of this year.
According to Caroline Hartnett, a demographer and sociologist at the University of South Carolina, countries concerned about dropping birth rates focus on economics and demographics.
“You can have a decreasing population if you have low or negative population growth,” Hartnett continues, “and that’s led to worse GDP growth in the past.”
“Immigration is very well-designed to offset the disadvantages of a low fertility rate,” Hartnett points out.
Immigrants are frequently young, arriving with small children or having children shortly after emigrating.
Both the fertility rate and the ratio of working-age persons to the elderly rise as a result of this.
“I believe that many people are legitimately driven by other reasons when they express concern or anxiety about dropping birth rates,” Hartnett adds.
“Birth rate is frequently utilized as a not-so-subtle warning signal.” If you take a quote out of context, it can mean a lot of different things
A declining birth rate might be used as an argument by those who want to impose nativist or anti-choice measures.
People who cheer low reproduction rates as a positive thing, on the other hand, are wrong, according to Hartnett; kids, she points out, are not terrible for the environment, and seeing them as such stigmatizes parenthood.
Surprisingly, both the historical increase in population and the decline in birth rates have the same basic cause: modernization and cultural shifts that are affecting the lives of women and children all over the world.
Fertility rates (a frequent synonym for birth rates) appear to be highly sensitive to the ups and downs of life in the Anthropocene, much like people.
GENDER ROLES ARE CHANGING
“In Our World in Data,” an Oxford economist Max Roser says, “the level of education in a culture – particularly among women – is one of the most important indicators for the number of children families have.”
Women who start school are more likely to want to continue their education, are more informed of contraception and how to use it and are more likely to want to continue their education.
Parents who understand and seek medical care for their children are more likely to do so.
Breaking down educational obstacles tends to lead to changes in norms as well; education empowers women, for example.
Women who are more empowered are better equipped to make their own decisions rather than succumbing to established gender standards.
“Education is extremely crucial for the initial reduction in fertility rates,” Hartnett says, especially in underdeveloped countries; once women’s education is widespread and they have greater choice over when they become pregnant, having a baby becomes more of a financial decision.
AN INCREASE IN THE NUMBER OF WOMEN IN THE WORKFORCE
According to Hartnett, as more women enter the workforce, the question of having children becomes a question of opportunity cost.
“How difficult or easy it is for people to integrate employment and childbirth is a crucial factor,” Hartnett argues.
“In locations where it is difficult for moms to do both, birth rates tend to fall.”
Working women frequently must choose between their careers and their families, and being a working mother is extremely difficult.
It’s significantly easier to coordinate a workday with one or two (or even zero!) children than it is with five.
CONTRACEPTION THAT WORKS BETTER AND IS EASIER TO FIND
The availability of birth control, notes Roser, is one of the most important technological elements in the decline of global fertility.
Condoms are no longer made of animal intestines, and contraceptive choices such as IUDs and hormonal pills provide women with unparalleled control over their bodies.
According to a 2010 study, the Pill is to blame for at least 40% of the reduction in fertility rates in the United States since the 1960s.
Contraception, education, and work are all intertwined: educated women are more likely to be aware of and use contraception, and educated men are more likely to be aware of and use contraception.
Contraception allows women to continue their studies and jobs rather than having several children.
CHILDREN ARE IN BETTER HEALTH THAN ADULTS
Childhood was dangerous for most of human history. Before 1900, about a quarter of all children died before reaching the age of one, and only half of all children born survived to maturity.
As terrible as it may sound, having many children was effectively an insurance policy: parents who wanted to ensure that at least two of their children lived to adulthood may have four or five babies at the start.
with the ominous threat of death in the back of their minds, Countries with high child mortality have greater fertility rates even now.
Children’s lives have changed dramatically as a result of the advancement of modern medicine.
Vaccines for debilitating and even fatal diseases such as polio and measles are widely available, and mothers all over the world have easier access to pre-and post-natal care.
In 1990, one out of every eleven children died before they turned five years old over the world.
As healthcare became more widely available around the world, the number has reduced to one out of every 27 children by 2019.
Women are less likely to have many children as more youngsters survive illnesses that would have been fatal previously.
CHILDREN ARE ALSO MORE EXPENSIVE
It costs a lot of money to raise a child. In 2015, the USDA estimated that raising a child to the age of seventeen would cost an average American household $233,610, not including the expense of four-year university education.
Having children can also result in lost pay: in 2014, taking five years off to raise children would cost the average 26-year-old American woman $467,000 in lost wages.
According to Hartnett, economics is the primary cause for women having fewer children in most developed countries, particularly in metropolitan areas.
“What we discover in wealthy countries is that birth rates are typically lower than what people say they want,” Hartnett adds.
“Having children is extremely challenging. There isn’t any help.” In other ways, she claims, the economics of having children has the opposite impact of education in that it takes away the option of having children from women who might otherwise want them.
Faced with the economic catastrophe brought on by the COVID-19 epidemic, birth rates in the United States fell by 4% last year, to a little over 3.6 million, the lowest level since 1979.
According to Hartnett, declining fertility rates are neither good nor bad; they are merely a reflection of modernity.
“This stuff just exists,” Hartnett explains, “and that’s fine.” Demographic shifts, she claims, can be anticipated.
“You might be able to create a thriving economy with fewer people than you could in the past with appropriate planning,” he says.
It’s not as if increasing birth rates at any costs is the sole option.”
The most important thing to consider for the future, according to Hartnett, is that mechanisms be in place to allow individuals to live the lifestyles they desire.
Whether it’s two kids, no kids, or a complete baseball team, it’s all good.
“How can governments assist people in avoiding having children when they don’t want them while also assisting them in having children when they do?” Hartnett inquires.
“These are extremely vital inquiries. There isn’t much more significant than that.”