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.
Figure 2 translates these childbearing age profiles into total number of children ever born by a certain age. The figure clearly shows that successively younger cohorts of women are having fewer children by specific ages. For instance, by age 24, the 1995 birth cohort of women had 38 percent fewer children than the 1975 and 1980 birth cohorts had at that age (0.5 compared to 0.8). This younger cohort would need to have 21 percent more children at each age from 25 through 44 to “catch up” to the earlier cohorts in terms of total lifetime childbearing. As another example, the 1990 birth cohort has had 21 percent fewer births through age 29 compared to the 1975 and 1980 cohorts; they would need to have 38 percent more births in their remaining childbearing years to catch up in terms of lifetime fertility.
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.
The Communist Party has long known that, partly as the result of its brutal birth-control policies, China’s population would soon peak and start to shrink. It has been startled, however, by how rapidly that moment has drawn near. Now, it looks as if it might have arrived.
There are also indications that China’s total fertility rate (the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime) has dropped faster than previously thought. Chinese planners have assumed a rate of 1.8, but some Chinese scholars (and the World Bank) say it between 1.6 and 1.7. A working paper released in March by China’s central bank suggests the rate is no more than 1.5.