Hello everyone! Go and take a look at this Economist article! If you love interactive maps of the world (I certainly do!) then you will love the map that they have prepared there for us. The map shows the total fertility rate (births per woman) of each country in the world. Blue countries are those with a fertility rate below the replacement rate (2.1 children per woman) beige countries are those with a “medium” fertility rate (2.1-2.49 children per woman) and red countries are those with a “high” fertility rate (above 2.5 children per woman). The blue countries are found mainly in Eurasia, North America and Australasia. The red countries are mainly found in Africa and the Middle East. The interactive nature of the map means that you can isolate countries according to fertility rate or zoom in on a continent or area. But don’t take my word for it, go and see how great it is for yourself!

As for the article that accompanies the map, it touches on points that we have talked about in this blog for some time now: more and more countries have fertility rates that have dropped below the magic figure of 2.1: the figure necessary to replace the current population.  The article notes that the average fertility rate across the world is down to 2.5 and that even in Africa the rate is expected to drop from 5.7 in 1990-1995 to 4.7 in 2010-2015.  The below-replacement fertility rate is not just a European problem either:

“In China it is around 1.5 (though official figures put it slightly higher) because of the one-child policy in force since the 1970s, which has also messed up the balance between boys and girls. For Europe as a whole it is 1.6, and well below that in several southern and eastern countries. In Japan fertility has been declining for decades, to 1.4 now, and the population is already shrinking. South Korea, at 1.3, has the lowest rate of any big country. Numbers are also slipping below replacement level in less wealthy South-East Asia. Quite soon half the world’s people will live in countries where the population is no longer reproducing itself.”

Why is this a problem? Economically it is not a great idea to have a population that is not replacing itself because “because fewer babies mean fewer workers later on, and as people are living longer, they will have to support a growing number of pensioners.” Thus, the article notes that the proportion of “developed” countries that have policies designed to increase fertility has doubled to two-thirds in the period since 1996. While the effectiveness of these policies can be debated, the article is interesting because it cites a recent study which questions whether countries should aim for the replacement level of fertility at all. 

“In a recent study Erich Striessnig and Wolfgang Lutz, of the Vienna University of Economics and Business and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, argue that in predicting dependency ratios (the number of children and pensioners compared with people of working age), education should also be taken into account. And that makes optimal rates much lower than previously thought.”

Because better educated people are “more productive and healthier, retire later and live longer” it is not necessary to have a population replacing itself as long as the education-level of those coming through is high enough for each younger person to support more elder people and will require less help themselves in later life. 

“Using projections by age, sex and level of education for 195 countries, the demographers conclude that the highest welfare would follow from long-term fertility rates of 1.5-1.8. That excludes the effects of migration: for countries with many immigrants, the figure would be lower.

Educating more people to a higher level will be expensive, both because of the direct costs and because the better-educated start work later. But they will contribute more to the economy throughout their working lives and retire later, so the investment will pay off. Moreover, fewer people will help limit future climate change.”

While education is a great thing, I am unsure if higher and higher education will necessarily ease the coming economic impact of population ageing. First because at a point higher education does not necessarily translate into more productive working lives – I see many postgrad students who have little more prospect of a job once they’ve secured that MA in medieval English literature. At some point the returns on the educational investment must run out. Secondly, will we really be able to support our retiring baby boomer generation merely by upskilling? We have noted previously the optimism that is required to believe that our productivity can increase to overcome the effects of a declining workforce.  So yes, increase educational opportunities for people, but don’t think that it is the panacea that we can rely on instead of reproducing! Thirdly, is there something more fundamentally going wrong with a society that collectively refuses to reproduce itself? We haven’t seen widespread, voluntary depopulation in peacetime before in history. Does the fact that we are starting to see it now in the twenty-first century suggest a deeper societal (dare I say, spiritual?) malaise?

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...