Study: fear of baby bust in developed world could be misplaced
Birthrate in rich countries shows signs of recovery
By Anssi Miettinen
Textbooks in the social sciences claim that the birthrate tends to decline as a country becomes more prosperous. Now a fresh study indicates that this is valid only up to a certain point.
A study published in the scientific journal Nature has found that the average number of children that a family has tends to rise again once the quality of life improves sufficiently.
For instance, in Finland and in many other European countries, the birth rate has been on the increase this decade.
The study, by a research group at the University of Pennsylvania, says that this constitutes a clear shift in trends.
The group, led by Finnish researcher Mikko Myrskylä, was surprised at the findings.
“We had many different hypotheses, but it was a big surprise that the change was so striking."
The demographers compared the so-called total fertility rate with the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI) for each country in question. The HDI measures economic prosperity, life expectancy, and levels of education.
The surprising result was that once the index goes above a certain point, the birthrate, which previously moved steadfastly downwards, starts to climb.
For instance, Finland has already reached this level.
No actual baby boom is expected at this point, Myrskylä says.
“Now we are moving from very low levels to levels that are not quite as low”, he says.
According to the researcher, the United States and Israel have reached levels at which zero growth - rather than negative population growth - is maintained. This requires an average of 2.1 children or more per couple. France is also coming close.
In many European countries, birth expectancy has risen from 1.5 to close to two children.
Even small changes in the percentages, on the right side of the decimal point, are significant.
David Coleman, Professor of Demographics at Oxford University, sees population prospects for Western Europe to be better than generally assumed.
“The increase in the average age of the population remains a problem, but not as bad as some seem to think it is”, he says.
Myrskylä says that even modest levels of immigration will compensate for the birthrate deficit.
But what is the reason for the change?
The researchers are still cautious about offering an explanation. David Coleman and Mikko Myrskylä point out that policies supporting families - such as cheap day care - would seem to have a great significance.
In most countries women (and men) can choose to have both a career and a family.
“The change in the trend can be seen most clearly in the Nordic Countries, which are trailblazers in linking work and family in support networks”, Myrskylä says.
Growth in the birthrate in France has also been attributed to progressive family policy.
“In the United States, public safety nets are not as good, but on the other hand family values there are stronger, and working life is more dynamic. It is easier to take a year off and possibly to start a new career after that”, Myrskylä says.
A higher birthrate among immigrants affects figures in some countries, such as Britain, but it is not the deciding factor.
“The significance of fertility treatments has also been very small”, says Professor David Coleman.
The birthrate is not rising in all countries. Examples of advanced countries with continued lower rates of birth include Japan, Canada, and South Korea. Cultural factors are seen to be behind the trend in those countries.
A common factor for now is the increase in prosperity and overall well-being.
Professor David Coleman points out that prosperous people generally tend to have larger families than usual.
“Perhaps we have reached a level of well-being in which we can think of measuring well-being in terms other than money”, says Mikko Myrskylä, who currently works in Germany at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 13.8.2009
Previously in HS International Edition:
Mini baby boom - 60,000 babies could be born in Finland this year (28.8.2006)
Another baby boom being experienced in Greater Helsinki area (6.3.2009)
Nature 6.8.2009 (abstract - full article requires log-in or payment)
The Economist "The best of all possible worlds?"
Science blog: Challenging conventional wisdom
ANSSI MIETTINEN / Helsingin Sanomat