How to reverse the global decline in fertility rates

How to reverse the global decline in fertility rates

According to the World Bank, the global average fertility rate is 2.4 children per woman, about half what it was 50 years ago. No more than half a century ago, only six countries — Estonia, Hungary, Japan, Czech Republic, Latvia, and Ukraine — reported fertility rates below replacement level, which is the total fertility rate at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next. Today, 83 countries, representing almost half the world’s population, are below replacement level rates. By 2050, it is projected that more than 130 countries will experience fertility rates below replacement levels. 

The reasons why fertility rates have gone down have been observed for decades and widely identified. Sure, there are nuanced differences between various countries, but urbanization, increased education and employment opportunities for women and improved women’s rights have had direct effects on changing fertility trends. In addition, the widespread availability of modern birth control methods and access to family planning centers have delayed childbearing for many families. Equally important are the economic changes, translated into higher living, childcare and education costs, which have all played a role. 

The consequences of declining fertility rates are multifold. It poses serious challenges for economic growth by contributing to a shrinking labor force. It also increases the proportion of the elderly population, which leads to an increase in government spending on the elderly, retirement, and social security. Healthcare systems and costs will strain resources and consumer spending may decline due to the population’s inability to cope with rising costs. 

As a result, nearly two out of three countries with below replacement fertility rates introduced policies to raise birth rates and tackle the challenges associated with low fertility rates. Many announced public programs, or pronatalist incentives, which include baby bonuses, family allowances, extended maternity and paternity leave, tax breaks, flexible working hours, and subsidized childcare and education. 

Several government interventions have shown some promise. Japan, for example, has experienced positive results in several towns. In Nagicho, fertility rates have doubled since 2005, from 1.4 to 2.8 in 2014, well above the national average. But the biggest improvement in the country was in a town called Ama on the island of Nakanoshima. The local government provided parents with financial incentives: $940 dollars for the first baby and $9,400 for the fourth. Within one year, the fertility rate jumped from 1.66 to 1.8.

Countries such as Canada, Germany and the UK managed with low replacement rates by opting to increase their population and workforce through selective immigration.

Asma I. Abdulmalik

Realizing that the costs of such incentive schemes can be substantial, other options had to be considered. Countries such as Canada, Germany and the UK managed with low replacement rates by opting to increase their population and workforce through selective immigration. For countries with more conservative views on international immigration, and who have recently restricted citizenships, this solution will most likely not offset the demographic trends. 

On the other hand, and closer to home, some governments have started to explore other options. In the UAE, for example, fertility rates have been dropping at an alarming rate, according to the UN Human Development Report published in 2018. In the early 1970s, the number stood at 6.6 births, falling to 1.8 in 2015. Attempting to tackle the challenge, the government opted to introduce financial incentives by providing residential plots to married couples, allowances from the Marriage Fund and a monthly subsidy for each new child. In addition, maternity leave was extended to three months and schemes to establish nurseries in working places were underway. 

Despite these incentives, the number of births remained low. As a result, the UAE Cabinet announced in 2018 major changes to the visa regulations in order to enhance its economic competitiveness. These changes included a two-year visa for talented and outstanding students, a new six-month visa for jobseekers who overstayed their visa but wish to work in the country, and a 10-year residency visa for investors and specialists. 

Studies have already shown that the impact of pronatalist policies is minimal at best. In fact, a research study conducted by Jan Hoem of Stockholm University on the impact of public policies on European fertility found that “for every 25 percent increase in natalist spending, society gets a 0.6 percent fertility increase in the short term and 4 percent in the long term.”

Thus, economists and policymakers have already begun to rethink their approach. Many are reconsidering their immigration laws, while others are trying to control childcare and education costs. Nevertheless, much more is needed to ease the burden. Japan, for example — where the percentage of people who are aged 65 years and older is expected to reach 40 percent by 2055 — is developing technologies such as robotics to ease the pressure on its healthcare system. 

A significant boost in fertility levels is unlikely, at least not for the foreseeable future. Even in countries that have experienced slight improvements, the result could be considered as sporadic fluctuations rather than long-term trends. As such, perhaps it is time for us to reconsider the pronatalist approach, and shift our focus from one that only focuses on raising fertility levels to one of multiple interventions.

  • Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @AsmaIMalik​
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