NOV. 9, 2015
New York Times
LONDON — China’s decision to allow more families to have a second child is an effort to confront a problem that is facing much of Europe, too — aging populations and not enough babies. But reversing a demographic slide involves a complicated set of incentives that have more to do with social mores than with government policies, experts say.
Studies indicate that countries with healthy demographic trends are not those that promote birth, but those with higher levels of gender equality, of trust within society and of immigration.
So even for authoritarian China, raising the fertility rate will not be simple.
Examples of countries that recover from low fertility rates are rare, scholars and experts say. Immigration can play a positive role — not because immigrants have many more children than natives, but because they tend to be of childbearing age and have their children in their new countries.
Germany, for example, has a low fertility rate of about 1.4 or 1.5 children born per woman, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. The problem has been especially acute in the former East Germany, similar to the situation in other post-Communist nations, leading to some dire predictions of a shrinking German population.
But Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to take in a large number of migrants and refugees of childbearing age is almost certain to have a positive effect on the birthrate.
In the 1960s and ’70s, birthrates in many European countries were low. In later decades, birthrates in many of them, as in Germany and Austria, remained low, “but the Nordic countries and France reversed,” said Gunnar Andersson, a professor of demography at Stockholm University.
Partly that was because of social policies and attitudes in those countries, promoting gender equality and being friendlier to women in the workplace, including leaves and day care. But the main explanation for the change, demographers said, was that because women were working and had more opportunities, they were having children later than usual, not that they were having a lot more children.
That is the difference between “cohort fertility” — the fertility of all women of the same age over their lifetimes — and “period fertility,” measured year to year, said David Coleman, emeritus professor of demography at Oxford University.
“In Western Europe since the late 1960s and 1970s, there has been a major trend toward postponement of fertility going hand in hand with the emancipation of women in education and the workplace,” Mr. Coleman said. “So it was natural to delay childbearing. But inevitably, when the birthrate went down, we were misled into thinking that it was a permanent state of affairs.”
As women grew older and decided that if they wanted children they had better get to it, he said, “the birthrate of those in their 30s and 40s has been going up slowly but gradually.”
In Sweden, Mr. Andersson said, period fertility went up and down, but cohort fertility remained close to two children per woman. “Swedish women have been having an average of two children for a century,” he said.
War and economic change matter, too, said Stuart Gietel-Basten, associate professor of social policy at Oxford. Women tend to postpone having children in chaotic periods, during war or deep recessions, he said, then catch up later.
Social policy can also help but is not a complete answer, said Francesco Billari, a professor of sociology and demography at Oxford.
“A basic element of fertility rebound is a society with increasing gender equality,” he said. “When women are in the labor market and social policy helps them and men do more child care in the household, fertility bounces up. But social policy has to be pushed by a society that is ready for it or demands it from politicians.”
Mr. Billari cited Italy, where the population has continued growing modestly despite traditional worries about abortion, divorce and decline. But while historically richer northern Italy once had fewer children and poorer southern Italy had large families, “now that has completely reversed,” he said.
Women in the richer north, he said, with more gender equality and job opportunities, are having more children than before. At the same time, women in the poorer south are having fewer children in a society with high unemployment and where there remains a “more traditional gender division of labor and lack of female participation in the work force — it’s more like China,” he said.
The lack of gender equality, small numbers of working women and few social policies to support them help explain why Russia, Central Europe and East Asia have generally not been able to bounce back from low fertility levels, Mr. Billari said.
In general, “natalist policies” — government diktats to have more children, or appeals to patriotism, or even cash subsidies for having larger families — tend not to increase fertility very much, he said.
One sharp and brutal counterexample was in 1966, when the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu suddenly banned all abortions. The total fertility rate jumped from 1.9 in 1965 to 3.66 in 1966. But later it fell again.
Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also pushed natalist policies with some success through welfare payments to the poor, keeping fertility around 2.1, considered the replacement rate necessary to keep a population stable.
Immigration can also help stabilize or restore fertility rates, as in the United States and in Britain, which “has no population policy at all, though the fertility rate is quite high,” Mr. Gietel-Basten said.
China will be watched carefully, but those experts said they believed that the new policy of allowing two children would have only limited effect. Partly, they said, that is because generations of Chinese have grown up with the experience of small families and partly because China’s social and housing structure does not favor large families.
“We’ve seen reforms in the past where some couples are eligible to have a second child and often they don’t,” Mr. Gietel-Basten said. “There will be a small baby boom, especially in poorer, more rural areas like Sichuan, where the policies have been strict. But even there it’s about aspirations. People want to move to town, and having kids becomes a brake on those aspirations.”
China’s urban housing is crowded and small, a further disincentive for more children, Mr. Coleman said. “For a while, not much will happen in China,” he said. “They’re locked into population decline.”
The one-child policy, with other factors, radically brought down the fertility rate, he said. Given the unreliability of official Chinese figures, he said, no one really knows the fertility rate now. Mr. Gietel-Basten said “it could vary from 1.4 to 1.8, but most people think it’s between 1.5 and 1.6, which is well below replacement rate and has been so for some time.”
That creates “negative demographic momentum,” he explained, since for some time each generation is smaller, so there will be fewer babies. But it may be self-correcting over the next 10 to 15 years, he said.
But in China, as in most of Asia, fertility will not be aided by immigration, because there is little immigration in East Asia.
Mr. Billari said, “We may actually see further fertility decline in China after a small blip upward.” With the decline in fertility, there was a window of opportunity for development, with fewer young and not so many old, he said.
“But for China that window is closing,” he said. “What happens is that all these workers get old and the numbers entering the labor market are smaller, so you have to change completely the way the society is organized. And no one has observed the kind of population-aging we will see in China.”