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.
This year, Social Security’s deficit is unusually high due to lower revenues and higher benefits: 1.75%. In 2040, the deficit climbs to 3.70% rather than 3.54%. In 2080, the deficit stands at 4.87% rather than 4.59%.
Put another way, if there were no Trust Fund accounting mechanism now, the OASI program would have been able to pay 93% of benefits. This would drop to 76% in 2035 – 2040 – 2045, then drop further to being able to pay 70% of benefits.
What’s more, this year, the actuaries changed several assumptions. They assume that by the year 2036, fertility rates will increase to 2.00 children per woman, an increase from the 2020 report’s assumption of 1.95. They also assume a long-term unemployment rate of 4.5% rather than 5%. At the same time, they calculate alternate projections with more pessimistic assumptions, including a continuingly low fertility rate (1.69), a higher rate of mortality improvement (that is, longer-lived recipients), a higher rate of unemployment (5.5%), and others. In these alternate calculations, the 2040 deficit becomes 6.47% rather than 3.7% (benefits 64% payable), and the 2080 deficit becomes 12.39% rather than 4.87% (benefits 50% payable).
Also consider that, at the moment, there are 2.7 workers for each Social Security recipient (2.8 in 2020). This is forecast to drop to 2.2 in 2040 and ultimately down to 2.1. But if the population trends are those of the pessimistic scenario, then that 2.1 would drop to 1.5 by the year 2080.
In the United States and other developed countries, fertility tends to drop during periods of economic decline. U.S. fertility rates fell to low levels during the Great Depression (1930s), around the time of the 1970s “oil shock,” and since the onset of the recent recession in 2007 (see Figure 1). The U.S. total fertility rate (TFR) stood at 2.0 births per woman in 2009, but preliminary data from the National Center for Health Statistics show that the TFR dropped to 1.9 in 2010—well below the replacement level of 2.1.1 A similar decline—or leveling off—of fertility rates has been reported in Ireland, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and several other European countries.
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.