A falling total
fertility rate, or TFR for short, can be a positive sign -- an indication of
better education systems, better health systems, higher incomes, and more job
opportunities, especially for women. The countries with the world's top five per
capita GDPs all have TFRs, measured as the average number of children that
would be born to a woman if she lived to the end of her childbearing years and
bore children according to given age-specific fertility rates, below the
replacement rate of 2.1. But a low fertility rate, especially coupled with its
typically concomitant low mortality rate, can also mean shrinking and aging
populations, diminishing numbers of workers, and heavier burdens for taxpayers.
And falling economic productivity in just a few countries might affect living standards across the globe. So,
should countries welcome a low TFR, or should they fear it?
In "Baby Menace," published in Foreign Policy's
January/February 2013 issue, Joshua Keating addresses both sides of the baby
debate. On one hand are many prominent leaders, politicians, and pundits who
worry that demographic decline is a precursor to economic and cultural ruin; on
the other are scholars like Klaus Prettner, a German economist who thinks that a
low fertility rate is no reason to panic, as the underappreciated positives of
falling fertility will outweigh the better-known negatives.
Here's a look at
the 10 countries with the lowest fertility rates in the world -- countries that
don't, according to Prettner, have anything to worry about.
TFR: 0.78 children per woman
Per capita GDP (PPP): $59,700
total fertility rate, the world's lowest, has been below replacement and
falling since 1976. Young Singaporeans, interested in pursuing careers and not
paying for bigger apartments, haven't exactly been rushing to fix the problem. "Other people can have the kids. For me, it's important to have my
own money and my own time," one woman told
the BBC in November.
But Singapore's leaders are not so relaxed.
Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew prophesied in August: "If we go on like [this], this place will fold up,
because there'll be no original citizens left to form the majority, and we
cannot have new citizens, new PRs to settle our social ethos, our social
spirit, our social norms."
has been trying to encourage its population to marry earlier and have more
babies for years -- sometimes with bizarre results. Some programs make it easier to have kids, such as Marriage
and Parenthood Packages offering extended paid
maternity leave as well as per-baby cash bonuses and tax breaks. Others make it
harder to stay single, such
as limiting the construction of single-friendly 500 sq. ft. "shoebox"
apartments in certain parts of the city-state. Perhaps fearing the
economic repercussions of an aging and immigrant population, the private sector
is even joining the cause. A comically sexual rap video meant to raise
awareness by poking fun at Singapore's low fertility rate ("I'm a patriotic
husband, you my patriotic wife. Lemme book into your camp, and manufacture
life") went viral on YouTube in August. Maybe that will work.
Per capita GDP: $37,700
In March 2010,
in response to 2009's record low TFR, the Taiwanese government decided it needed a slogan to encourage people to have more babies.
The Interior Ministry set up an online poll and offered a cash prize of one
million Taiwan dollars ($31,250 U.S.) for the best baby-making catchphrase. The big winner: "Children -- our best
heirloom." (Followed by "Happiness is very easy, baby one two three"
and -- most inventive -- "It's good to have a child.") But by the end of
2010, Taiwan's TFR had fallen by another 13 percent.
for the Interior Ministry, the chosen slogan, even when bolstered by cash
bonuses for each newborn, subsidies for fertility treatments, and funding for
babysitters, was no match for the Chinese zodiac, which Taiwan's Council for
Economic Planning and Development (CEPD) partly blamed for the baby bust. According to folk belief, 2009 was a
"widow's year" and thus unlucky for marriage. And children born in 2010, the
Year of the Tiger, were predicted to question authority and cause trouble for
themselves, their families, and their employers. The birth rate did increase in
2012 (children born under the dragon will be
"not only honest, sensitive and brave, but will also be free from habits like
borrowing money or making flowery speeches"), but not enough to solve what Taiwanese
President Ma Ying-jeou has dubbed a "national security issue."
The zodiac is
just one of several factors at work. According to professor Jack
Yue, chairman of the Population Association of Taiwan, the biggest cause of the
low fertility rate is the education of women. (In 1950, the average Taiwanese
woman had seven children.) And those women, who blame everything from the cost of keeping a child ahead in a competitive
society to high housing prices and short maternity leave to Taiwan's uncertain
political future and traditional attitudes of men (who is going to do the
housework? will he resent my education?), are not as keen on getting married
and having children as their mothers were.
government's efforts at playing matchmaker within Taiwan, many Taiwanese men look
abroad for wives -- Taiwan
accounts for the biggest share
of foreign marriages worldwide every year. And while the young-and-single trend
has been good for pet sales,
it doesn't bode well for the future. According to CEPD statistics, if Taiwan's
fertility rate continues to fall, over-65s will make up 20 percent of the
population in 2020, and 42 percent by 2060.
3. SOUTH KOREA
Per capita GDP: $31,200
In the early
1960s, concerned that high fertility rates would hamper economic growth, South
Korea launched a program to encourage couples to have no more
than two children. The government offered slogans ("Give Birth Without Thought and Keep Living Like a
Beggar"), easy access to contraceptives, and even military exemption for men
who had vasectomies. The program was a wild success -- South Korea's TFR fell
from above 6 to 2 in a single generation.
fertility rate never stopped falling. In 2000, the government tried to reverse
the trend, offering early retirement for parents with more than one child, and
special mortgages and tuition assistance for families with three children. So
much for slogans: In 2010, South Korea's health ministry started turning the
lights off early (at 7:30 p.m.) one night a month to encourage employees to go
home and "get dedicated to childbirth and
number of children born each year is a top priority for the government (and of the Catholic Church), and, according to the Korean Institute for Health and Social Affairs, a necessary
one if South Korea is to maintain the "social,
economic and military power" it has been working hard to gain. But, so
far, nothing has worked. This year, single-person homes became Korea's most popular living
arrangement. As in Singapore and Taiwan, the younger generation -- pursuing
careers and worried about high property prices -- is getting married later.
The problem may
be a cultural as well as an economic one. According
to Minja Kim Choe, senior research fellow at the East-West Center, most South Korean women don't want to get
married until their late twenties, but many men don't want to marry a woman in
her thirties -- leaving a very small window for women if they want to start a
already married, the prohibitive cost of childcare and cram schools, as well as the stress of watching a
child go through "exam hell" only to enter a very competitive
workplace, are the primary reasons Korean couples don't have more than one
child. The South Korean government has been making efforts to reduce the emphasis placed on these
after-school "cram schools" -- not only for the sake of fertility rates, but
also because it has begun to realize that the education system must foster
innovation and creativity rather than simply reward rote learning. Perhaps
serious education reform is the only way to stop South Korea's gray tsunami.
Per capita GDP: $8,100
country has seen its share of demographic disarray. During the 1992-1995 Bosnian
War, an estimated 100,000 Bosnians were killed, and 2.2
million were displaced -- about half the population at the time. While roughly
half of those wartime refugees eventually returned home, Bosnia's population
never reached prewar levels. Now, the country's net migration rate is zero. Add that to a low fertility
rate and you have, according to a 2010 Bloomberg study, the fifth-fastest shrinking country in
governments of Singapore and South Korea, the oft-unstable Bosnian government,
which was deadlocked for 16 months after inconclusive parliamentary elections
in October 2010, has not intervened to increase the TFR. According to one U.N. projection, at this rate, Bosnia-Herzegovina will
have the oldest population in the world in 2050.
Per capita GDP: $27,100
When the Czech
Republic (then Czechoslovakia) was part of the communist bloc, its total
fertility rate lingered comfortably at and above replacement. In
Czechoslovakia, as in many of its communist neighbors, the state provided housing,
education, and childcare so
that mothers could continue to work. In
Prague, a young couple could only get an apartment if they were married and had
a child. But after the December
1989 Velvet Revolution, such incentives disappeared. The new parliamentary
republic shunned the idea of "family policy," perhaps considering it precisely
the type of social engineering against which it revolted. In 1990, partly due
to the lack of incentives to marry early and have children, partly due to
economic instability brought on by the transition to a market economy, and
partly due to the same natural societal progression that has been the reason
for falling TFRs in so many other countries, Czechoslovakia's rate began to
realizing that some family policy was needed to maintain growth (and with a
more liberal party in power), the Czech government began enacting policies to
encourage women to have children. According to Charles University demographer
Jirina Kocourkova, these new policies -- tax breaks for families and seven
months paid maternity leave, with additional financial support for a
parent wishing to stay at home longer (up to four years) -- contributed to the
rise in the Czech Republic's TFR from 2000-2009.
the republic's fertility rate has decreased again. As Kocourkova points out, ever since government cutbacks in 2008,
many of the government's family policies are designed for low-income families,
and are not as effective for families in other income brackets. Moreover, at
5.4 percent, the Czech Republic offers one
of the lowest percentages of part-time jobs in Europe, a fact that forces
women, who are pursuing careers more than in the past, to make an
all-or-nothing decision when they chose to return to employment. That makes it
less likely for a woman to have a second child.
Luckily for the
Czech Republic, a positive net migration rate has kept its population
increasing -- setting it apart from many of its Eastern European
neighbors, whose populations are on the decline.
Per capita GDP: $19,100
2012, Lithuania's population fell to its lowest level in nearly 50 years, due
mostly to large numbers of people migrating to Western European countries. According to Vilnius University economist Romas
Lazutka, those leaving tend to be young. And more than half immigrate to
Britain, one of the few countries to immediately welcome Lithuanian workers
after Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004. Now that Lithuanian
"colonies" have been established in other countries, it is much easier to start
a new life abroad, Lazutka claims. The total number of Lithuania children born abroad has been increasing. (More than 17,000
Lithuanian children were born in Britain over the past decade). In other words,
Lithuanians are having babies -- just not in Lithuania.
As in the Czech
Republic, and for much the same set of reasons, Lithuania's TFR began to
decline after the fall of the Soviet Union. Though the government has tried to
remedy the problem, according to a study by the Max Planck Institute of Research,
the government has failed to boost the fertility rate significantly because its
reforms -- most notably paid maternity leave and childcare financial packages
-- have been piecemeal rather than strategic. Due to changing governments every
few years, Lithuania has yet to adopt a far-reaching approach that won't shift
with the political winds.
Lithuanians continue to immigrate in search of better opportunities abroad, the
government might be forced to rethink its approach.
Per capita GDP: $7,200
Low birth rates
often accompany low death rates, but that is not the case in Ukraine, where the
death rate is the second highest in the world -- surpassed only by that
of South Africa. As a result, Ukraine's old-age dependency ratio (the percentage of people older than 65 per persons aged
15-64) is actually decreasing, which is uncommon in countries with low
necessarily a good sign, however. Ukraine is one of the fastest-shrinking
countries in the world. Though many of its neighbors are also seeing their
populations decline, Ukraine is projected to have "the single largest absolute
population loss in Europe between 2011 and 2020." Over the next 40 years, the
population is expected to shrink by roughly 23 percent. And
that old-age dependency ratio is expected to start increasing. All this will
happen if Ukraine's fertility rate remains at current levels.
fertility rate has increased since its all-time low of 1.1 in 1999, thanks
largely to an improving economy, but most women are still not choosing to have
more than one child. According to Brienna Perelli-Harris in her paper published by the Max Planck Institute of
Demographic Research, primary reasons for
Ukraine's low TFR include inadequate housing, the high cost of childcare,
pressure to support aging parents, and general social "anomie" -- a breakdown
in social norms that can led to stress, anxiety, and even depression.
In 2006, the
Ukrainian government enacted its "Strategy
of Demographic Development of Ukraine" in an attempt to improve the living
standards for young families, but the "strategy" has not had a significant
effect. Despite child allowances and paid maternity leave lasting for up to
three years, living standards in the Ukraine remain poor. In addition,
according to Perelli-Harris, bureaucratic mismanagement and budget problems
mean that, after parents have filled out complicated paperwork and waited in
long lines (all with an infant), they often do not receive the financial
support they were promised. (In 2012, Ukraine ranked 144th out of 174 countries
on Transparency International's 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.)
Per capita GDP: $12,500
mid-1960s, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu decided that Romania's birth rate, at 1.9, was too low. Any woman
who had more than 10 children would be called "Heroine Mother," he said,
reserving the less glorious "Maternity Medal" for those who bore only five or
six. But the promise of titles and metals did not convince women to forget
their poor living conditions, and they did not rise to the occasion. So,
Ceausescu tried another tactic: In 1966, he forbade divorces and abortions except in special
cases. There were 28 divorces in Romania in 1967; there had been 26,000 the
year before. With access to abortions blocked -- essentially the only method of
contraception that existed in Romania at the time -- Romania's TFR rose from 1.9 to 3.6 in a single year.
triumph was short-lived. Although the amount of money the government spent on
material incentives to have children rose
by 470 percent between
1967 and 1983, in those years the birthrate actually decreased by roughly 40
percent. The government was demanding a TFR that Romanian women, burdened with
childcare, full time work, and third-world standards of living, simply would
not give. To make matters worse, the maternal mortality rate soared as more and
more women died of complications during unsafe and illegal abortions.
Romania has come
a long way since Ceausescu's tenure -- its standard of living rose 143 percent
just between 1999 and 2008. During its bid for EU membership, Romania worked
particularly hard to improve its childcare. Most recently, however, economic problems forced the
government to cut its maternity leave to encourage women to return to work
Per capita GDP: $20,200
As is the case
in Lithuania, women in Poland are having fewer children, while Polish women
living abroad (especially in Britain) are having more. And according to the Financial Times,
the lack of day care, nursery schools, and financial support for new mothers
are all to blame.
Women in Poland
are also marrying later: Many want to find a good job before they find a
husband. And Polish women have also become pickier: When they do marry, they
want it to be an equal partnership. "I
married when I was 29," one Polish woman told the BBC. "I
looked for a husband for a long time. I was looking for somebody who could go
to the kitchen and get his own food and find his own socks and underwear."
Catholic and traditional Poland still want to have children, but economic
difficulties and the tough job market have made it harder to do that. In 2006,
one woman complained to the BBC that Polish women often lost their jobs
after they had a child or even because they might get pregnant. Despite reforms starting in 2006, such discrimination has not been totally
remedied. Just this year, one woman told the Financial Times
that her company prefers to hire young and unmarried women.
In light of
these comments, it is no surprise that Poland's low fertility rate has recently
become a political problem for center-right premier Donald Tusk, whom the
opposition has accused of not doing enough to remedy the problem. In October
2012, Tusk announced a new generous maternity and paternity
leave policy as part of a government plan to boost the economy.
Per capita GDP: $28,800
Slovenia has the
highest per capita GDP in Eastern Europe, a well-educated work force, and a
well-developed family policy. The state has provided one year of parental leave
with full compensation since 1986 (unique in the world at the time). Today,
benefits include highly subsidized childcare and insurance coverage for
multiple fertility treatments. But these measures have had little effect on
Slovenia's low fertility rate.
Nada Stropnik at Slovenia's Institute for Economic Research and Milivoja
Sircelj at Slovenia's Statistical Office, if Slovenia is to reverse the trend,
it must revolutionize its approach to gender roles. Women in Slovenia face sex
discrimination in the labor market and are expected to assume the primary role
in childrearing, they say. Spronik and Sircelj report that having only one
child has become a coping mechanism for Slovenian women -- both those who want
to continue to work and those who feel burdened at home.
that the positive causes of a low TFR -- higher levels of education and more
opportunities -- will outweigh its negative results -- a shrinking and aging
population. But what if, as in the case of Slovenia and some other countries in
this list, the primary causes of low fertility aren't so positive?
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