In the Asian fertility video posted a few days ago on MercatorNet, the dramatic decline in birth rates in Asian countries was dramatically demonstrated through some very smart graphics. But leaving aside the fancy artwork the fundamental question remains about what these declines in birth rate presage and what if anything could be done to increase them.

The fact that the world has never before experienced such low fertility rates is not in itself a cause for worry. The world had never previously known all sorts of developments, from industrialisation to the iPhone, and seems to have survived, for better or worse.

Are low birth rates just another such development that we will take in our stride or is it different? Does it mean, in itself or as a symptom of some more fundamental change, that the world is entering a new era that will challenge the very existence of the human race or parts of it? Or is there some sort of invisible hand at play such that there will be a statistical ‘reversion to the mean’ leading birth rates will rebound to around the replacement level before it is too late?

The determinants of fertility can be divided into the remote and proximate. The remote determinants include factors such as levels of education and wealth, cultural norms and psychological factors. These factors can though only influence levels of fertility through the proximate determinants which are time spent in marital or cohabitational union, frequency of intercourse, use of contraception, abortion (spontaneous and induced), postpartum amenorrhea, which is affected by the length and intensity of breastfeeding, postpartum abstinence and sterility.

The proximate determinants of fertility operate as a result of the remote causes. For example, cultural norms about age at marriage affect the time spent in a marital union while cultural norms about breastfeeding will have an effect on postpartum amenorrhea. Similarly changes in levels of education can affect the length of time in union and also, depending on the type of education, the use of contraception.

If a society wishes to stop or reverse a falling birth rate it will need to first of all address the remote causes for the fall. Therefore China would need to change its one child policy which it at last seems to be doing while Japan would need to reverse a flight from marriage and sex among young people. Whether the change in China’s policy will have the desired effect after decades of propaganda in favour of small families, massive economic development, which is usually associated with falling birth rates and expensive housing, remains to be seen.  

Many young Chinese seem to prefer the idea of a single child even if it is not mandated. The Japanese also seem to have a major challenge on their hands if they want to increase their fertility, there the social norm of small or even no family has put down very deep roots and there would take a lot of digging up.

These low fertility situations in China, Japan and elsewhere, including Europe, provide the means for countries which have maintained relatively high fertility rates, for example the Philippines, to reap the benefit, their own demographic dividend, by providing services to and in these countries which these countries no longer have sufficient work force to provide for themselves.

Dermot Grenham is an actuary in London.

Dermot Grenham is chief actuary for the social security, demography and overseas pensions team of the Government’s Actuary Department in the UK. He has held various financial reporting...