We don’t have to speculate about cratering fertility rates around the world, since this is already happening. Japan’s fertility rate is now 1.4 lifetime birth per woman, which is a good way to halve your population in a generation or two. Japan is expected to lose 1/3 of its population by 2050 with the population as a whole aging at the same time.
This isn’t an isolated phenomena:
The trend is very clear. Countries that are poor/developing are mostly above replacement, and everyone else is below. Usually a lot below. Israel seems to be the only economically advanced country with a fertility rate above replacement.
Why has this happened? Birth control has allowed people to choose whether or not to have kids, and from my experience in two countries (Japan and the US), kids just are not affordable to a lot of people. One may surmise that the same kind of thing holds true in Europe, where the fertility rate is catastrophically low in almost every country.
That’s economics, but is there another reason? I think so. I think people are beginning to see relationships as a bad gamble, and so people are getting married less and doing less of the thing that makes you really married: having kids. As an explicit example of this in the US, you have the “men going their own way movement.” In Japan, I think you have a similar sentiment on the part of women: Why get married and have kids when I can just have a job and spend my money my way?
I think until very recently, say the 1960s and 1970s, society did a pretty good job of pressuring people to get into relationships, have kids, and stay in relationships:
• In ancient Rome and China, an unmarried man could be fined or otherwise forced into a marriage.
• Many societies practiced arranged marriage; some still do, but this is dying out.
• Divorce was difficult or impossible until the 20th century.
• Women were pressured into marriage at an early age until quite recently. There is a Joan Rivers routine I saw from the late 60s in which the jokes are all about the increasing pressure a woman would receive as she headed into her late 20s. Nowadays, if a woman is getting married before her late 20s, she’s often seen as “too young.” In Japan, there has been a similar shift in attitudes.
• If you were gay, too bad: get married anyway! Gay men were called “bachelors,” either as a euphemism or out of ignorance.
There is a stat I heard on NPR in 2007 that I remember to this day: The median age for women getting married in 1957 was 20; in 2007 it was 26. That is a huge change! Imagine, in 1957, nearly half of all women getting married were teenagers–it’s mindblowing.
But I think things are getting worse and will still get worse. Why?
• The economic trends are only getting worse. Young people can’t get jobs and thus can’t have kids.
• The above-mentioned social pressures are going from little to zero.
• People are much more savvy today about:
Mental illness: 18.2% of the US population suffers from it. In the past, people got into relationships before mental illness appeared (a lot of serious stuff appears in the 20s), or they were just unaware of it. Today, people look out for it and are more likely to stay out or get out of relationships with people who have it.
Domestic violence: People used to put up with a lot, and ignorance of DV was massive. Today, people are much more aware and put up with less.
Addiction: 7% of adults 18 and older have an alcohol use disorder. Throw in other types of drug abuse, and you have a decent slice of the adult population.
Just plain bad behavior: When I first started dating in the late 80s, the term “red flag” either didn’t exist or wasn’t used much. I would never have married my ex in 2000 based on what I know today about what can be expected in a relationship. There were several red flags that I simply thought weren’t a big deal. I think the rise of the Internet has allowed people to talk much more freely (and anonymously) about their relationships and be told by others not to put up with bad and dysfunctional behavior.
More options: Online dating, Tindr, etc. People have learned they can shop around, and the tools are out there. It’s easier to date more people and then expect all the good things you experienced with each individual you dated from one person. I personally think I have fallen into this trick bag.
I was seeing a therapist at one point, and he was a positive guy, not a cynic. I suggested to him that barely 25% of the population is truly “relationship material,” and he concurred. And I think that’s the truth. And the more we collectively wise up, the more we understand this fact, the less likely we are to commit and get married, and you can be we are less likely to have a kid with someone when it could tie us to someone we don’t want to be with for a couple decades. I have a daughter with my ex, who is a very unhappy and manipulative Japanese woman, and it’s really fucked up my life.
How is society dealing with cratering fertility rates? Right now, it seems that measures are few and those aren’t doing anything (obviously, I don’t have comprehensive knowledge about what countries are doing, but I haven’t heard of much). I know Japan has some small financial incentives to make it slightly, slightly easier to afford kids. Children’s health insurance is cheap, and some places actually pay you money each month for each child in your household.
But end-stage capitalistic systems mostly don’t give a shit. We have a surplus of labor, so if those people don’t have kids, well cool. The fact that this reduces consumption doesn’t matter, since we’ll just produce less for the remaining rich people. Yes, it’s a death spiral, but a certain percentage of the population will always be doing OK, so who cares?
When I talk to people about this issue, often the knee-jerk response is that the world is overpopulated anyway, so this is good! But actually, it’s not good because it’s not planned and population is a local issue as well as a global issue. Japan, through a kind of social incompetence, is committing national suicide. It’s gone from a company of enthusiasm and abundance from the 1950s to the bubble bursting in 1989 to one of deep malaise, where a large percentage of the population is simply bowing out of sexual relationships. Schools and other facilities for children are closing down, and the country is basically being run for the benefit of retirees. It’s sad.
So what do you think about all of the above?