Lowest-Low Fertility in Europe

This article appeared in the Sunday New York Times, and it was so interesting I felt I needed to share it here.  I found the concept of “lowest-low fertility” extremely interesting.  I think it is become I always find exponential behavior interesting, and thinking about how an exponential decline might affect a population was new to me.  From the article:

DEMOGRAPHICALLY SPEAKING, Laviano is not unique in Italy, or in Europe. In fact, it may be a harbinger. In the 1990s, European demographers began noticing a downward trend in population across the Continent and behind it a sharply falling birthrate. Non-number-crunchers largely ignored the information until a 2002 study by Italian, German and Spanish social scientists focused the data and gave policy makers across the European Union something to ponder. The figure of 2.1 is widely considered to be the “replacement rate” — the average number of births per woman that will maintain a country’s current population level. At various times in modern history — during war or famine — birthrates have fallen below the replacement rate, to “low” or “very low” levels. But Hans-Peter Kohler, José Antonio Ortega and Francesco Billari — the authors of the 2002 report — saw something new in the data. For the first time on record, birthrates in southern and Eastern Europe had dropped below 1.3. For the demographers, this number had a special mathematical portent. At that rate, a country’s population would be cut in half in 45 years, creating a falling-off-a-cliff effect from which it would be nearly impossible to recover. Kohler and his colleagues invented an ominous new term for the phenomenon: “lowest-low fertility.”

I wish the article spent a little more time on historical examples of populations that have cratered like this… it’s unclear to me whether or not this has ever happened in human populations before.  Instead, the article strays into unsupported conclusions about the role of men & women domestically as a causal factor.

The issue of labor market flexibility, however, seemed extremely interesting if true.  The tie-in to people having children later and living with their parents longer also seemed plausible.

It would have been interesting to see the breakouts for countries based on their overall birth rates vs. immigrant birth rates.  My suspicion is that story would also tell you about the likely demographic shifts to expect in countries where birth rates aren’t lowest-low, but are distorted due to large immigrant populations (ie, US, France).

It’s a long article, but worth the read.  Let me know what you think.

4 thoughts on “Lowest-Low Fertility in Europe

  1. I read this article too, Adam and had exactly the same questions about the immigrant birth rate, especially given all the fuss in the media about the “drop out rate” of highly educated women. It’s created quite a stir on several of the women’s blogs I follow (Jezebel; The Juggle on the WSJ) and a lot of commentary on the issue of flexibility. Many parents I talk to are very concerned with the lack of societal support for children like day care etc. So the article’s conclusions about the US being flexible were hard to swallow for some. I saw the flexibility as being expressed in terms of better or worse.

    One thing was for certain though, the world sure doesn’t make it easy to have babies. When I ponder that in light of how I saw the media treating Hillary Clinton I think we have a long way to go before women are truly equal.

  2. Man, our lives would be so much better if we had a euro-style guarantee of child care and parental furlough that lasted more than 15 minutes. We might have even chosen to have produced three more future taxpayers instead of stopping at two.

    My mom (born in Europe but became a U.S. citizen in the 70s) declared after the EU happened that Europe would basically be unstoppable. Sorry, mom, you’re still batting .000 on armchair political and demographic observations.

  3. Adam: regarding “historical examples of populations that have cratered”, yes, this has indeed happened in other human populations before, sometimes very swiftly. Pick up a copy of Jared Diamond’s excellent book “Collapse”. Examples are many more than you might expect.

  4. Thought-provoking article, thanks for linking to it. There does, however, appear to be some drawing of conclusions from correlations in the article. For instance;

    “high fertility was associated with high female labor-force participation . . . In other words, working mothers are having more babies than stay-at-home moms….put differently, Dutch fathers change more diapers, pick up more kids after soccer practice and clean up the living room more often than Italian fathers; therefore, relative to the population, there are more Dutch babies than Italian babies being born. As Mencarini said, “It’s about how much the man participates in child care.””

    This is certainly one conclusion to draw from the data, but allow me to propose another: that the high cost of socialist programs in Europe sets a tax rate (both explicit and embedded) that is sufficiently high that families can’t afford many children unless the mother works. When the State offers or subsidizes things like daycare, this alleviates some of the income pressure on families so they can better afford to have more children. This would explain the Dutch vs. Italian situation sufficiently as the Dutch are much more aggressive with their daycare programs. (That the Dutch man is more likely to pick up the living room has to be intrinsically tied to the number of children and number of working mothers. Sure, there might be some cultural bias, but if the US can be used as a point of reference, bald necessity is bound to contribute significantly, especially with the younger generation.) That people can’t readily earn enough income to live in society in traditional roles is further supported by kids needing to live at home. (High costs of living is typically associated with high tax rates).

    The trick with the Dutch system is that the money for daycare has to come from somewhere, that is taxes. At what tax rate does the system enter a positive-feedback loop and drag the whole society into the ground? Somewhere before 99%, right? How about if we throw in gene therapy (10 years off, perhaps) and extend the lifetimes of the recently retired by an additional 20-30 years? All pyramid schemes eventually collapse, and even the Dutch’s ‘successful’ system still gets tagged ‘population fail’ at 1.7.

    Personally, my wife and I are in a holding pattern with two kids for purely financial reasons. I’m running one company while founding another, and things are tight. If the startup makes it we’ll have another. I think we’ll be satisfied with a 3.0 GPA, but if our costs of living were lower we could probably do it now, which would be on a better biological schedule. Our total tax rate (explict and embedded) for the past ten years has been close to 50% (not even counting the effects of the ballooning money supply) – if it were, say, 10% over that same period we’d have plenty saved to handle Thing 3 already. The government(s) have the tools they need to increase the population already, in my estimation.

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