Children rarely born

Back from a short visit to Taipei, Taiwan.

After listening to an interesting, speculative presentation by Larry Wu at the conference, I have been thinking about what it means to have “lowest-low” fertility rates. Or, why is this woman so happy?

Source: She was happy to let me take their picture.

It turns out Taiwan has the lowest current fertility  (total fertility rate)  in the world (excluding city-states): 1.14. That means, if current rates persist, the average woman will bear 1.14 children. This figure shows, roughly, the highest- and lowest-fertility countries in the major regions (matched by color), with the U.S. and world rates highlighted.

Source: My graph from CIA data.

Anything under 2, more or less, and the population will shrink. With these low-low rates, however, the population will shrink and age dramatically and rapidly, within a generation.

You have heard about the aging of the Baby Boom in the USA, and the problems we will have paying for Social Security and Medicare as the population ages. But we’ve got nothing on the lowest-lows.

This population pyramid shows the number of people projected to be at each age in the U.S. in 2050:

Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

Even with our aging population, we will still have more infants than 65-year-olds, under this scenario. With a population pyramid, you can compare two populations by looking at their shape, even if they are on different scales. So compare the U.S. with where Taiwan is headed:

Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

In Taiwan, the pyramid is heading toward inversion. 65-year-olds will outnumber infants more than 2-to-1 by 2050. More importantly, healthy young workers will be way outnumbered by aging seniors.

There is a debate over whether Asia’s low-low fertility is driven by the same factor’s Europe’s, which include cultural shifts toward individualism and emotional self-fulfillment, away from old-fashioned procreative family values.

In the case of China, it looks like economics drive the shift. Many people assume the low fertility rates (about 1.5 nationally) are the result of the “one-child policy,” begun in the 1980s. But there are two problems with that assumption. First, most of China’s fertility decline from the high levels of the past occurred before 1980s. And second, even where Chinese families are permitted to have more than one child, few do. As Zheng and colleagues recently found in Jiangsu province:

…the extremely low fertility—total fertility rate (TFR) of close to 1.0—that currently prevails in this area of China is explained largely by factors other than the government’s birth-control policy. Among couples who are eligible under the current policy to have two children, the majority say that they have voluntarily chosen to have only one child, and they cite economic considerations as the primary reasons for this choice. A fundamental shift appears to have occurred, such that government control is no longer necessary to maintain low fertility.

In these low-fertility contexts, everyone needs everyone else to have children.  Maybe the nice woman in the photo, presumably the child’s grandmother, was just in a good mood and a super nice person (which seems likely). But she might also be counting her blessing.

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