Elon Musk thinks human civilization will fall apart unless people have more babies — and he’s expressed particular worries about Italy, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan. But he has some concerns about the United States, too.
For weeks, Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, the acquirer of Twitter in a $44 billion deal and a father himself, has been tweeting about birthrate declines in America and abroad.
“At risk of stating the obvious, unless something changes to cause the birth rate to exceed the death rate, Japan will eventually cease to exist,” Musk tweeted on May 7, according to TheStreet. “This would be a great loss to the world.”
The number of births in advanced economies has largely rebounded to levels before the coronavirus pandemic, a Financial Times analysis shows, a recovery that experts say was partly because of stimulus policies deployed to mitigate the economic impact of the crisis.
Births began to fall sharply in late 2020 after Covid-19 took hold and people were confined to their homes in lockdown, worsening an already perilous demographic trend of population decline in wealthy nations.
The trend mirrored drops during the 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression and the global financial crisis in 2008. But an analysis of national data shows a rapid rebound in most developed countries.
The global fertility rate peaked at five in 1960 and has since been in freefall. As a result, demographers believe that, after centuries of booming population growth, the world is on the brink of a natural population decline.
According to a Lancet paper published in 2020, the world’s population will peak at 9.7bn in about 2064, dropping to 8.7bn around the end of the century. About 23 nations can expect their populations to halve by 2100: Japan’s population will fall from a peak of 128mn in 2017 to less than 53mn; Italy’s from 61mn to 28mn.
Low fertility rates set off a chain of economic events. Fewer young people leads to a smaller workforce, hitting tax receipts, pensions and healthcare contributions.
In the ’70s, these overpopulation alarms had widespread impact. A 1970 survey found that 69 percent of married women in America agreed that US overpopulation was a “serious problem” — and that many of them were lowering the number of children they intended to have.
Now, however, the birthrate in the industrial world is below the “replacement rate” of 2.1 children per woman. That rate is set at the number of children needed to replace every parent, with more added to account for mortality.
In 1855, white American women averaged 5.31 births — well above the then-current replacement rate of 3.32 (higher then because of higher infant mortality). By 1980, the figure had dropped to 1.75 children each — well below the 2.1 replacement rate. Even the high birthrate of US Hispanics — 56 percent more than non-Hispanics in 1982 — doesn’t raise the total US rate above replacement levels.
Birth rate in the United States fell 4% in 2020 to about 3.6 million babies, its sixth straight annual decline and the lowest since 1979, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC did not attribute the overall decline to the pandemic, but experts have predicted that pandemic-led reasons including anxiety will hit the country’s birth rate.
“The recent decline in birth rates reflects both a longer-term downward trend in birth rates that was apparent prior to the pandemic and pandemic-related reduction,” Lorna Thorpe, director of epidemiology at the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone, said.
The provisional number of births for the United States in 2020 was 3,605,201, down 4% from 2019. The general fertility rate was 55.8 births per 1,000 women aged 15–44, down 4% from 2019 to reach another record low for the United States. The total fertility rate was 1,637.5 births per 1,000 women in 2020, down 4% from 2019 to also reach another record low for the nation. In 2020, birth rates declined for women in all age groups 15–44 and were unchanged for adolescents aged 10–14 and women aged 45–49. The birth rate for teenagers aged 15–19 declined by 8% in 2020 to 15.3 births per 1,000 females; rates declined for both younger (aged 15–17) and older (aged 18–19) teenagers. The cesarean delivery rate rose to 31.8% in 2020; the low-risk cesarean delivery rate increased to 25.9%. The preterm birth rate declined to 10.09% in 2020, the first decline in the rate since 2014.
Author(s): Brady E. Hamilton, Ph.D., Joyce A. Martin, M.P.H., and Michelle J.K. Osterman, M.H.S., Division of Vital Statistics, National Center for Health Statistics
From today’s vantage point, it looks more likely that unemployment will have risen by around 5.5 percentage points in the year following the start of the pandemic (April 2020 through March 2021) from 3.5 percent to roughly nine percent. This estimate is based on observed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for April through November and assumes little change in the next few months. Using this revised expected change in unemployment, we would predict a 5.5 percent reduction in births from the unemployment effect alone. Applying that to the number of births in 2019 (3.75 million) suggests 206,000 fewer births in 2021.
Our original forecast also incorporated an additional reduction in births coming from the anxiety and social conditions associated with the public health crisis. We incorporated this into our forecast by examining the experience of the 1918 Spanish Flu. Back then, every spike in the death rate attributable to the flu was associated with a dramatic reduction in births nine months later. We relied on that evidence to increase our forecast based solely on labor market conditions by one to three additional percent, or another 38,000 to 114,000 fewer births.
Of course, there’s a case to be made that fewer people in advanced economies is a good thing. But arrayed against that are all the “because groaf” forces. The two drivers of growth are demographic growth, as in more people, and productivity increases. National leaders are afraid of becoming the new Japan, having an aging population and falling in the “size of economy” pecking order, when Japan has weathered a financial system crisis and implosion of real estate prices with remarkable grace. And the demographic time bomb? The feared dependency ratio? More older Japanese work. Japanese even more so than Westerners prize attachment to communities and organizations, so it would probably suit those who are able to handle it to remain in the saddle or get a part-time job.
But the big point is that the Covid impact on child-bearing is widespread and looks set to continue for quite a while. The old solution in advanced economies for low birth rates was immigration. But that’s now become fraught. First is that neoliberalism-induced widening income disparity means those on the bottom are extremely insecure. Bringing more people in to them sure looks like a mechanism for keeping their crappy wages down. Second is advanced economies now eschew assimilation as if it were racist. But what did you expect, say, when Germany brought in Syrian refugees, who skewed male and young, and didn’t even arrange to teach them German? The notion that there’s a public sphere, where citizens hew to national norms versus a private sphere seems to have been lost (having said that, I don’t understand the fuss about headscarves; Grace Kelly wore them, so why should a religious intent matter?).
A year into the pandemic, early data and surveys point to a baby bust in many advanced economies from the U.S. to Europe to East Asia, often on top of existing downward trends in births.
A combination of health and economic crises is prompting many people to delay or abandon plans to have children. Demographers warn the dip is unlikely to be temporary, especially if the pandemic and its economic consequences drag on.
“All evidence points to a sharp decline in fertility rates and in the number of births across highly developed countries,” said Tomas Sobotka, a researcher at the Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital in Vienna. “The longer this period of uncertainty lasts, the more it will have lifelong effects on the fertility rate.”
Throughout history, it was typical to see both birth and death rates at higher levels. But today, in most parts of the world, women are having fewer children, and innovations in healthcare and technology mean we are all living longer. The average person today lives to 72.6 years old, while the rate of births per woman has fallen to 2.5.
These trends have drastically altered the demographics of mature economies, resulting in a much older population. In many developing countries, however, births still outweigh deaths, resulting in populations that skew younger.
This visualization uses data from the World Bank to examine the countries with the highest shares of old and young people.