A new study at The Lancet is raising eyebrows and getting headlines. “fertility rates cut in half since 1950,” says CNN. BBC notes “‘remarkable’ decline in fertility rates.” The study, titled ‘Population and fertility by age and sex for 195 countries and territories, 1950–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017,’ claims to show that the global fertility rate has declined from 4.7 to 2.4 births per woman. This should be welcome news to all those who have been writing about the world becoming overpopulated and that humans are destroying the environment. But the study points out that the changes are not equal across countries, some countries, primarily in the global south, have more children. More developed countries have less.
“As women have gotten more educated and participate more in the workforce and they get access to health services, no surprise, fertility has come down tremendously,” Christopher Murray told CNN. He the director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. Younger women are having fewer children. They are also delaying getting married. Dr. James Kiarie says that “Marriage is one of the biggest drivers of having children all over the world.”
The world is also “divided” between the countries having more children and less. “Only 33 countries, largely in Europe, were falling in population between 2010 and 2017, according to the report.” CNN also asserts that “over half of the expected growth between 2017 and 2050 is likely to occur in Africa.”
The BBC highlighted several reasons for the changes: Fewer deaths in childhood meaning women have fewer babies. Greater access to contraception. More women in education and work. Both articles pointed to the “progress” and “success story” of declining birth rates.
Ageing and immigration
But the BBC also tells us that “Without migration, countries will face ageing and shrinking populations.” The article continues, “The report, part of the Global Burden of Diseases analysis, says affected countries will need to consider increasing immigration, which can create its own problems, or introducing policies to encourage women to have more children, which often fail.” Murray comments. “I think Japan is very aware of this, they’re facing declining populations, but I don’t think it’s hit many countries in the West, because low fertility has been compensated with migration.”
The actual report has maps and looks at some different issues, such as the ratio of males to females. But it leaves more questions than answers. The phenomenon of low birth rates has been known for decades as they declined in most of the Europe, Japan and some other countries. In 2016 Italy reached a record low. “The average Italian is now 44.9 years old, up 0.2 years from 2015, while some 22.3 percent of the population is over 65, the highest ratio in the 28-nation European Union.” Italy has 1.34 children per woman and in Sardinia the number reached almost 1. This was similar to Cyprus.
For years policy makers in Europe particularly have known that fertility rates are falling. They have chosen to increase migration to meet the changes in society. For instance The Economist in 2017 noted that “Europe needs more migrants.”
Decades of falling birth rates have resulted in slower population growth in Europe than in other regions. By 2017, Europe’s most populous country, Germany, ranked just 16th globally. The continent’s birth rate is now so low that the total population in many European countries has begun to decline.
Many populist and more right leaning parties have grown over the last decades, partly by opposing immigration. This fueled the Brexit vote and Euroskepticism in general. Some articles have wrestled with this issue. A Time magazine piece notes
The average birth rate in the European Union is 1.6, well below the 2.1 live births per woman needed to sustain a population, and the global average of 2.4. Coupled with aging societies, consequences include villages with only a handful of people left; no staff to care for the elderly; a dwindling labor force to sustain economic growth.
The article also notes that “universal access to contraception, the increase of women in higher education and greater female participation in the labor force have led many to delay starting their families.” The article claims that welcoming more immigrants into societies with declining birth rates and aging populations is perhaps the most logical solution to plug any gaps in the labor market,” but that this has led to “emotional” responses and politicians won’t discuss such a policy.
The UN suggested in 2000 that “replacement migration” might be a solution. “Replacement migration refers to the international migration that a country would need to offset population decline and population ageing resulting from low fertility and mortality rates,” the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs notes. “United Nations projections indicate that over the next 50 years, the populations of virtually all countries of Europe as well as Japan will face population decline and population ageing.”
But if migration is the answer, why are young people unemployed?
Overall these studies raise many questions. If experts think that migration is the “solution,” they can’t seem to explain why the EU has also had rising unemployment rates in the last decades. Supposedly migrants are filling gaps in the labor market as people age. But actually in some European states with low birthrates, there are also high levels of unemployment among people who usually would be of child bearing age. In Spain in 2013 unemployment among young adults reached 25%. Spain has also had one of Europe’s lowest birth rates since the 1990s, with around 1.5 children per woman. Other European countries have high levels of unemployment, including Greece, France and Italy. Cyprus, where birthrates are the lowest in Europe, also has one of the higher unemployment rates at 8%. The same countries have the highest levels of youth unemployment, sometimes reaching almost 50%. Add to that list Slovakia, Portugal, Finland and Belgium. Germany, a country that opened its borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees in 2015, has had low unemployment among younger people.
So something doesn’t make sense. Birth rates are declining. But the fewer young people are also unemployed. They ostensibly can’t find work. Yet policy experts say that the answer is more migration. One gets the sense that what the policy experts mean is “we need migrants to do manual labor,” which means working in fields or doing domestic work or factory work. The global divide between north and south, and the differences between developed countries and those where refugees come from, has fueled major disparities, not only in wealth but also in the way that migrants are “imported” to do working class jobs. This comes at a time when there are a record number of displaced people, around 68 million.
Contradictory policies in developed countries lead to greater education and greater need for migrants
The record number of refugees fits in with the desire by policymakers to make up for declining birth rates by opening borders to migration. But this still raises questions about what is actually happening. Immigration would seem to work best and lead to less social problems if immigrants can lead dignified lives and assimilate into society and have a hope of reaching the middle class. This was the “dream” offered by the United States for migrants. But increasingly what we seem to hear is that not only are there declining birth rates and “we need labor,” but that immigrants are expected to only fill the lowest level jobs, while the local, often unemployed, younger people refuse to take those jobs. This sets up the toxic environment that is feeding populism and the far right. Because people are complaining that “elites” are importing migrants, and that those migrants are primarily poor and not assimilating into society. Younger people, out of work and looking for answers, are finding them on the far-right.
The problem is built in to some of the assumptions and lessons that have been taught in the last decades. When we read through the statistics about fertility rates and migration what we see is that culture tends to play a major role. So higher education for women, and getting married later in life, tend to lead to lower birth rates. These are hallmarks of not only a developed society, but also one that is more secular and middle class. So the very values that policymakers have engineered in places like Europe or Japan over the last four decades that helped lead to lower birthrates; such as family planning, contraception, accessible education, increasing secularism, have led to declining birth rates and then led the same policy makers to suggest that only migration can solve the “problem.” Namely, the more “successful” a society was at changing social views and encouraging people to become educated middle class workers who marry later in life, or maybe not at all, the more migrants are needed from countries that are poor and where people are less educated and get married younger.
In a sense this is a kind of catch-22. The same values that see success as educating women, bringing more women into the professional job market and having men and women marry later in life, is the same one that then says the only way to deal with the consequences of that, lower birth rates, is to import more men and women who have lots of kids and are not well educated and will take lower paying manual labor jobs, or jobs as domestic servants or caregivers.
Is migration really a solution?
How can this process go on forever as a “solution.” You can’t have a society that encourages everyone to be well educated, pushes secularism and thus results in later marriage for adults, and then tell the same society that it needs to have large numbers of “migrants” to “replace” the lack of children. In a sense you can’t have one policy that encourages one set of values that leads to X while then sees X as a problem and needs to foster Y, just so that X can live well and thus have more Y. Is the assumption that the new migrants, poor and marrying younger, will eventually adopt the culture of the country they have come to and then need more migrants to “replace” themselves as their children become more educated and marry later. This appears to just create a system where one group of wealthier countries sort of “feeds” off the birth rates of other, poorer, countries, as if those poorer countries are just baby factories to keep the production lines going in the wealthy countries so people can retire in comfort. And that’s what these studies say, basically openly. Demographic change is coming, the BBC and CNN, say. There aren’t enough workers to take care of the elderly.
For instance Prof. Murray says: “We will soon be transitioning to a point where societies are grappling with a declining population.” The BBC report notes “Half the world’s nations are still producing enough children to grow, but as more countries advance economically, more will have lower fertility rates.” And therefore we must “Think of all the profound social and economic consequences of a society structured like that with more grandparents than grandchildren.”
Automation will replace 800 million jobs by 2030
At the same time as we are told that birth rates are declining below “replacement” and that migration may be the only “solution” in some wealthier countries, we are also being told something else. A 2017 study said that automation will replace 800 million jobs worldwide. An article at Verge notes:
The study, compiled by the McKinsey Global Institute, says that advances in AI and robotics will have a drastic effect on everyday working lives, comparable to the shift away from agricultural societies during the Industrial Revolution. In the US alone, between 39 and 73 million jobs stand to be automated — making up around a third of the total workforce.
Overpopulation is “worse” than climate change
With millions of jobs now “at risk” as robots take them over, that leads to profound questions about the claim that the only solution to declining birth rates is for more migration. It also must lead us to wonder whether it is even true that declining birth rates are a problem. It also shows how highly developed societies, such as Japan, where there are declining birth rates and even declining population, might cope with thisissue. What is the real problem with declining population. An article at the Guardian in 2015 argued that population growth was a greater threat than climate change. It foresees several problems and also mentions the issue of fertility rates.
Agricultural intensification is causing serious soil degradation and depletion of groundwater in some of the most agriculturally intensive and important areas of the planet. Land use for agriculture, urbanisation and infrastructure (eg roads) continues to cause loss of habitat for much of the world’s biodiversity….The global fertility rate has been dropping. Yet the global population has more than doubled over the 50 years in which the fertility rate has been declining, and the UN projects that there are set to be at least 10 billion of us in just a few decades.
Combining this argument, with the growing numbers of jobs being automated by robots, leads to questions about the “declining fertility means more need for migrants,” narrative. It also might help answer the riddle of why countries with low birth rates in Europe also have high unemployment. And it might help us understand why migration, which was supposed to “solve” problems that the EU and other developed countries have, has actually increased political extremism and is tearing at the fabric of society.
The data says that there will be major population increase in Africa and some other countries in the Middle East and Europe. This is primarily due to poverty and also religious conservative views. The studies don’t want to say that this is the main reason some of these countries still have very high birth rates, but it is. There are no other factors involved. Some poorer countries have lower birth rates, such as Thailand (1.48), but in general poorer countries and more religious societies have higher birth rates. There are some exceptions, Saudi Arabia, Poland and Iran have decreasing birth rates, and other poorer eastern European countries have very low birth rates.
A global south perspective
So what about the countries that have very high birth rates. The problem here is that these kinds of studies tend to look at developed countries, where the authors tend to live, and say “what does this mean for us.” So in Europe the answer tends to be “more migrants.” But this is a very eurocentric view that posits that the “problem” with low birth rates is a lack of enough people to fill the “labor force” and “take care of grandparents.” That views countries with high birth rates as merely making “human material” to help “fill the gaps” or aid “replacement.” But thats not the only way to look at things. Why not look at it from the perspective of those countries with high birth rates. The articles speak of the “success” and “progress” of introducing “family planning” to reduce the numbers of children. How about improving education in those countries? Since education and later marriage appear to be the mainstays of having fewer children, massive investment in that infrastructure would aid sub-saharan African countries more than simply encouraging migration, in which thousands die crossing to Europe every year. Instead of turning people into victims of human traffickers, why not help with local education?
Efforts to build schools on the local level have largely failed because they were mostly created to enrich westerners and western-based NGOs that also “feed” off of some African countries as a way to keep westerners employed “helping” poorer countries. In fact these NGOs were just a way to find jobs for the unemployed youth mentioned above. It didn’t help locals, despite talk about “capacity building.” There isn’t more capacity in many of these countries than 50 years ago. In some cases there is less and there is more violence and civil conflict stretching across the Sahel and into countries such as Cameroon and the Central African Republic, Niger, Nigeria and others. These are precisely the countries with the highest birth rates and where unprecedented numbers of people have been made into refugees.
Automation can help solve Europe’s problems as many of the jobs that existed years ago can be automated. Population decline is probably a good thing for the environment. Given these two facts, the need for “migration” to always solve the “fertility” issue is not as important. But what is important is addressing the problems in those poorer countries where there are high birth rates and a lack of basic education systems and infrastructure. Those countries don’t want to exist merely to export people to “fill the gap” in other countries. They would like to be more successful. Insofar as these reports tell us something, that is the message we should learn from them.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Seth Frantzman