What Statistics Can’t Capture About the Global Baby Bust

It’s a story that you can almost set your watch by: Every few months, new data or a new report will show that the birthrate in a country or region is too low to sustain economic growth, and that efforts to convince people to have more babies have failed.

It’s a story that, in many ways, is made for the Interpreter, and one that I’m very much in the middle of as a busy working parent. That perhaps explains why analyzing this issue makes me feel like I am teetering on the edge of a swirling vortex that contains everything from the pressures of modern capitalism to my own stress over what to feed my kids this evening.

I usually stop at that point — as a busy working parent I don’t have time to drag myself out of vortexes — but today I’m feeling lucky, even though I’m running on fumes at the end of the week. Let’s get into it.

Recently, the story of demographic doom is pegged to China, whose population is now officially shrinking, setting up a crisis with global consequences. But you could write a similar story about the United States, where birthrates fell sharply last year, or any number of other countries whose governments have offered cash bonuses, tax breaks, paid leave and other benefits to convince people to have more kids. Almost always, the result is the same: The numbers barely budge.

Even in countries like Sweden, where the government’s generous welfare benefits and financial incentives did manage to stem a fall in birthrates, the effects were modest, my colleagues Andrew Jacobs and Francesca Paris wrote in the Upshot this week.

This is what’s often referred to as the “second demographic transition.” Once a country reaches a certain level of economic development, fertility rates tend to fall near or below the level needed to maintain the population. (That number is usually estimated at about 2.1 children per woman.)

There are a few related explanations for what is going on. The first is a gender story: As women gain more opportunities outside the home and become more likely to pursue careers, that leaves less time for parenting, making it difficult to have more than one or two children.

Many government programs that offer paid parental leave and subsidized child care are designed to ease the gender trade-off between work and parenting. Sweden’s parental leave policy incentivizes fathers to take time off, and encourages men to take on a greater share of parenting duties.

The second explanation for falling birthrates is similar: Because modern life is so expensive, particularly in the urban areas where well-paid jobs tend to be, families can’t get by on one income. If both parents work, they’re less likely to have time to care for multiple children. Having another child could then force one parent out of the work force, with a catastrophic effect on the family finances.

The third explanation, which tends to get a little less attention, is the rise of “intensive parenting,” in which parents invest huge amounts of time and money into their children in order to set them up for success in a brutally competitive world. In that view, it’s children themselves who are prohibitively expensive.

All of those factors can overlap. When I last wrote about this issue in 2021, Matthias Doepke, a professor at the London School of Economics, told me that the countries with the lowest fertility, such as Singapore and South Korea, tend to be those where educational competition is exceptionally high and where the burden of child care falls especially heavily on women.

But while all of those explanations strike me as basically correct, it seems like the bloodlessness of statistics leaves out something that is harder to measure than housing prices or education costs.

That something, I suspect, is probably also why writing about this topic tends to feel so emotionally fraught to me: the way that all of those pressures combine to put a price tag on relationships and community.

Education is an investment that provides an economic boost for families, but school is also the place where children and parents make friends, develop interests, and work together on meaningful projects in ways that are valuable even if they never lead to greater income.

Expensive child care isn’t just the cost of having careers in two-parent families — it’s an attempt to replace the networks of grandparents and extended families who are now often too distant, too busy or not in good enough health to care for their grandchildren.

Add it all up, and you have a financial and emotional balance sheet that leaves many parents filled with dread, a precarious feeling that the whole edifice of work and family is about to topple over. Which helps to explain why falling fertility has been so hard to reverse, despite so many governments’ best efforts: It’s not one thing, it’s everything.

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