Imagining a world permanently fighting against a fertility drought.
What would happen if suddenly women and couples decided not to have kids anymore? What would happen if none of the rationales that researchers have identified as the main reasons why people want to have kids, such as helping parents with family or agricultural tasks, supporting parents in old age, emotional satisfaction or intergenerational transfer of wealth and family name, are no longer enough to convince people to reproduce?
In the Handmaid’s Tale book, published by the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood in 1985, and recently presented by Hulu in a TV Series of the same name, a totalitarian society arises from what was once the United States, after a Second Civil War ravages the country. The Republic of Gilead, the new country that emerges, enforces brutal measures to reestablish the levels of past fertility. Society is divided in well-distinguished classes. Women, called handmaids, are forced to be successive surrogates of wealthy families without children, and to become pregnant through repeated rapes performed by the husband of the wealthy wife. After the handmaid gets pregnant and has the baby, she is assigned to another family and the cycle is repeated. Fortunately, this is only fiction. Or is it?
The solution given by the Authorities in the Republic of Gilead to the fertility drought would seem impossible in the world we live in today, but the trends to very low fertility and its implications, already exist. All over the world, women are having fewer and fewer children. Furthermore, in most developed countries, and in an increasing number of middle-income countries, fertility is well below of what demographers call the level of population replacement, which is placed at about 2.1 children per women. Under this level, on average, a woman will have less than one girl during her reproductive life, which implies there will not be enough girls to replace their mothers. Theoretically, a country where fertility remains under replacement level for some time will see its total population declining and later disappearing, unless fertility increases over that level or the country receives an influx of immigrants to offset the dwindling fertility rate. The disappearance of some population groups has happened several times in human history and for many reasons, but the idea that we can watch today how a country disappears before our eyes, just because people decided not to have kids, is a completely new phenomenon. Are we ready for that?
Fear and concerns
The concerns about low fertility are based, at least partially, on the socio-economic and demographic impacts it may have. First, it is the effect on reduction of the total population size and the fears of depopulation. In Europe, these concerns have been rooted in worries about losing military power or for some ethnic groups, to lose presence and relevance. Concerns of a population that decreases in size are also embedded in our culture because of the great food crises and deadly pandemics of the past, and now reinforced by those of the present (Coronavirus just reminded us that pandemics are not only something from the past). It is part of our psychological mindset that populations have to grow in order to survive. This mindset is not rooted solely in demographic figures: people think in terms of losing their cultures, their religions, their beliefs, their assets, their family networks. .
There is also the concern about the transformation of the geopolitical landscape. Countries like those in the former Soviet Union may fear that their depopulation, caused not only by their very low fertility, but by their out-migration, will make them vulnerable due to their lower capacity to defend their territories. Baltic countries, for example, have experienced a population decline–, up to 20% reduction of their population in the case of Lithuania and Latvia. So, population decline is actually happening in front of our eyes. Even if governments of these countries are all trying to create and expand their policies, what makes the situation in these countries more difficult to address is that their institutional and political conditions may not be fully favorable for the establishment of a set of effective, widely accepted, and ideological-free family policies.
Second, the concern countries have about their dwindling populations is also affected by the effect of under replacement fertility on the age composition of the population. A reduction in fertility, particularly in the context of low and decreasing mortality rates, has a huge impact on the age structure of the population by decreasing the number of young people enroll in schools and universities, thereby decreasing the need for schools and teachers. All these factors together, lead to an increasing number and proportion of older persons. There is a strong concern that this demographic shift and its impact on the increase of the dependency ratio can have detrimental effects on productivity, on the sustainability of the pension and health systems with far-reaching adverse effects on the and can affect the economy as a whole.
Third, there is a great concern by urban planners, policy makers and general public about how entire towns become depopulated. A low fertility rate together with internal or international outmigration creates those ghost towns now prevalent in many countries of Southern Europe such as Spain and Italy. I remember visiting, some years ago, several towns in the north of Valencia, Spain, and having the feeling that I was visiting a Middle Age town. Exploring these towns on foot and seeing older people, with a sprinkling of kids, gave me the feeling of being in a parallel universe. As shown by several scholars, those people remaining in these small towns have lower education and participate less in the labor market. In these communities and towns, depopulation is part of quotidian life.
More generally, as said by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson in the book “Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline”, there is no doubt that the demographic trends toward low and negative population growth are intensely reshaping societies and their economic and political landscape.
The current situation
Today, more than half of the world population lives in about 90 countries whose fertility is under the replacement level. Fifty years ago, only 19 countries were part of what at that time was a very exclusive group. Within this group, the United States and Canada went below replacement just at the beginning of the 1970’s. The estimates produced by my colleagues at the Population Division of the United Nations show that in less than 20 years from now, India, Argentina and Indonesia, among many other countries, are expected to join this club. When that happens, about three quarters of the global population will be living in countries where people are not having enough children to keep the population growing. Welcome to the new normal.
Let me tell you how this situation differs in different regions, starting with Africa that seems far away of the situation described above. Yes, it is true that no country in Africa, except Mauritius, has a fertility below replacement and in most cases fertility rates far exceed the replacement level. A stark example of a country with a fertility rate still around 7 children per woman. Although, as said by my colleague John Casterline, from the Population Council, the future of fertility trends in Africa is quite uncertain. But even in this continent, there are clear indications that the transition to lower fertility is happening particularly in urban areas. In Latin America and the Caribbean, with the exception of Cuba and Barbados that went below replacement in the 1980’s, the rest that moved to the sub-replacement, including most of the Caribbean islands and Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay moved to this group about 15 years ago. In Asia, all Eastern Asia countries have below replacement fertility levels, including China, Japan and the Republic of Korea. The only exception is Mongolia. Almost all of these countries have been in this state for at least three decades. In South-Eastern Asia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand have sub-replacement fertility. Finally, in Western Asia and Southern Asia, below-replacement fertility is reported in Armenia, Bahrain, Cyprus, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal. In Europe, all countries already have fertility below replacement levels and in most cases, this happened since the 70s or the 80s.
Some history of the decline
The transition from high or natural fertility started more than two centuries ago in France. By mid-18th century, almost a century before the Industrial Revolution and the start of the fertility decline in England, France’s women started having fewer children, which consolidated as a sustained trend particularly after the French Revolution. When England and other countries started their transition, France’s fertility was already low. By mid-19th century, fertility in France was just above the level of replacement. There is no agreement which were the main factors responsible for the decline, but the fact is that women and couples decided to have fewer children and started controlling their fertility by using contraception.
Some years ago, I attended a Population Conference and Ansley Coale, one of the most famous demographers and mathematicians from United States, wearing a refreshing silk beach shirt and looking joyful and extremely confident, said to the audience “Look, can you just imagine that the European fertility transition was the result of couples practicing mainly coitus interruptus? They are my heroes”. The audience laughed. He was presenting the results of one of the most comprehensive research projects on European fertility transition, coordinated by the University of Princeton. What Ansley Coale was essentially referring to, apart from putting some humor in the debate, was that more than 200 years ago, French couples, and more than 100 years ago women from other European countries as well, realized that they did not want all the children ‘sent by god’ anymore and they were ready to use their knowledge about reproduction to limit the number of children, even if that implied the use of a method that some may consider not so appealing. In spite of the fact that today women and couples have a wider range of contraceptive options available to them, controlling fertility still requires a sacrifice when you think for example that women have to take a pill every day knowing that there will be some side effects.
In the second part of this post, I will present more details on some of the factors and challenges being considered by women and couples in their decisions about having or not having kids, and which policies are government implementing to face these challenges.
To be continued …
 See, e.g., the book by Teitelbaum & Winter 1985. The Fear of Population Decline. https://www.sciencedirect.com/book/9780126851908/the-fear-of-population-decline
 Some authors think that the survival of the small Baltic nations, and particular of the ethnic Estonians (about 900 thousands) and Latvians (about 1.3 million) is imperiled. DEPOPULATION IN THE BALTIC STATES Peteris Zvidrins Centre of Demography, University of Latvia . https://iussp2009.princeton.edu/papers/91919
 Natural fertility was defined in 1961 by Louis Henry, French demographer, as the fertility that occurs in the absence of deliberate birth control.