According to an unprecedented study by Lancet magazine, nearly half of all countries have a birth rate that is below the replacement level. While there was not a single country with a birthrate below the 2.05 level in 1950, the global average is only 2.4, down from 4.7 to 70 years ago.
Differences between nations are more pronounced, with some European countries having a record low of one child on average, compared to more than six children in some African countries.
If you live in a poorer country with high birth rates, a decline is likely to be a reason to celebrate. Lower birth rates are often the result of less infant mortality, more accessible contraceptives, and a prospering economy, which disproportionately affects Europe, North America, and more affluent Asian countries like Japan.
However, in countries with birth rates below the replacement level, the costs outweigh the benefits. Europe has been struggling with this challenge for years. Even more so than in the United States, Europe's prosperity largely depends on a sufficient number of working-age citizens who can finance health care, pensions and social security for all. The less there is, the more difficult it becomes to maintain a system established in a century in which declining birth rates were one of the issues people were least concerned about.
Alarmed by constantly falling numbers, some E.U. Governments have taken drastic measures. The Italian Ministry of Health launched an advertising campaign about two years ago to remind people that September 22 was fertility day. Other countries have tried to deal with education. Denmark, for example, has begun to teach schoolchildren that babies bring not only risks but also benefits.
However, this week's study raises serious doubts about the impact of such policies or proposals. "Pro-natalist policies have been followed in more than a dozen countries, but the impact on fertility rates has not been great," they wrote. Instead, they argue, more and more of the world's population has to deal with a higher retirement age, reduced benefits, and, above all, the most divisive issue of the century: migration.
Falling birth rates do not necessarily lead to declining populations, as migration and better healthcare also impact overall numbers, according to the study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. While almost half of all nations now have fertility rates below the replacement level, population growth dropped from 2010 to 2017 in only 33 countries. The countries where the population remained stable despite lower birth rates also saw a higher influx of migrants. The fertility rate in the United States is even below the replacement level at 1.8. However, the population is growing, mainly thanks to immigration.
"It will take a generation for the population to actually start to decline," said Christopher Murray, who has been involved in the study.
Despite the time lag, there has been another factor that has saved the United States from the fate of Europe's aging societies: migration. The recent decline in net migration has already slowed US population growth and could potentially accelerate a negative trend.
Since other global measures to increase fertility rates have mostly failed, migration has proven to be "effective in maintaining population in several countries," the authors of the study, while acknowledging that migration "brings with it social and political challenges," write some places.
Based on this analysis, reducing migration numbers – as the Trump administration is trying to do – and setting a budget that relies on young workers seem contradictory. Other countries are increasingly aware of this. Given the low birth rate this year, Japan decided to pass some of its residence laws.
"In the long term, of course, migration can not be the only solution. People would eventually disappear if birth rates simply continued to decline, "Murray said, stressing that the United States is still in a better position than many other developed countries where birth rates were below replacement levels decades ago.
"In the debate is still the question of whether a better financial benefits for the parents, as he exists, could have a sufficient effect," he said. However, Northern Europe's financial benefits are already much more generous than those of the US.
With the recent proposals by the Trump government to cut child health insurance programs and tighten immigration laws, this is a conclusion that will not be well received by many voters in the United States.
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