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[Nettime-ro] total fertility rate
Sebastian Bertalan on Thu, 13 Mar 2003 11:16:11 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-ro] total fertility rate

The New York Times, 2003 March 08

It Will Be a Smaller World After All

Remember the number 1.85. It is the lodestar of a new demography that will
lead us to a different world. It should change the way we think about
economics, geopolitics, the environment, culture  and about ourselves.

To make their calculations orderly, demographers have typically worked on
the assumption that the "total fertility rate"  the number of children born
per woman  would eventually average out to 2.1. Why 2.1? At that rate the
population stabilizes over time: a couple has two children, the parents
eventually die, and their children "replace" them. (The 0.1 accounts for
children who die before reaching the age of reproduction.)

Now, in a new report, United Nations demographers have bowed to reality and
changed this standard 2.1 assumption. For the last five years they have been
examining one of the most momentous trends in world history: the startling
decline in fertility rates over the last several decades. In the United
Nations' most recent population report, the fertility rate is assumed to be
1.85, not 2.1. This will lead, later in this century, to global population

In a world brought up on the idea of a "population explosion," this is a
radical notion. The world's population is still growing  it will take some
time for it to actually start shrinking  but the next crisis is

The implications of lower fertility rates are far-reaching. One of the most
profound is their potential to reduce economic inequality around the world
and alter the balance of power among nations.

The United Nations divides the world into two groups, less developed
countries and more developed countries. The most surprising news comes from
the poorer countries. In the late 1960's, these countries had an average
fertility rate of 6.0 children per woman. Today it is 2.9  and still
falling. Huge and continuing declines have been seen in countries like
Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Turkey and (of great importance to
the United States) Mexico.

The more developed countries, in contrast, have seen their fertility rates
fall from low to unsustainable. Every developed nation is now below
replacement level. In the early 1960's, Europe's fertility rate was 2.6.
Today the rate is 1.4, and has been sinking for half a century. In Japan the
rate is 1.3.

These changes give poorer countries a demographic dividend. For several
decades the bulk of their population will be of working age, with relatively
few dependents, old or young. This should lead to higher per capita incomes
and production levels. Nations with low fertility rates, meanwhile, will
face major fiscal and political problems. In a pay-as-you-go pension system,
for example, there will be fewer workers to finance the pensions of
retirees; people will either have to pay more in taxes or work longer.

Among the more developed countries, the United States is the outlier nation,
with the highest fertility rate  just under 2.1. Moreover, the United
States takes in more immigrants than the rest of the world combined.
Accordingly, in the next 50 years America will grow by 100 million people.
Europe will lose more than 100 million people.

When populations stabilize and then actually shrink, the economic
dislocations can be severe. Will there be far less demand for housing and
office space? Paradoxically, a very low fertility rate can also yield labor
shortages, pushing wages higher. Of course, such shortages in countries with
low fertility rates could be alleviated by immigration from countries with
higher fertility rates  a migration from poor countries to rich ones. But
Europeans are actively trying to reduce immigration, especially since 9/11.
Wisely, America has mostly resisted calls for restrictions on immigrants.

The environmental future, however, looks better. Past research on global
warming was based on a long-term United Nations projection, issued in the
early 1990's, of 11.6 billion people in 2200, far more people than we're eve
r likely to see. The new projections show the global population rising from
just over six billion now to just under nine billion in 2050, followed by a
decline, moving downward in a geometric progression.

With fewer people than expected, pollution should decrease from expected
levels, as should consumption of oil. Clean water and clean air should be
more plentiful. We know that many of these people will be richer  driving
more cars, consuming more resources. We also know that wealthy countries
tend to be better at cleaning up their pollution than poor nations. With
fewer people, open spaces should also be more abundant.

Still, it is the geopolitical implications of this change that may well be
the most important. There is not a one-to-one relationship between
population and power. But numbers matter. Big nations, or big groups of
nations acting in concert, can become major powers. China and India each
have populations of more than a billion; their power and influence will
almost surely increase in the decades to come. Europe will shrink and age,
absolutely and relatively.

Should the world face a "clash of civilizations," America may find itself
with weaker allies. It may then be forced to play a greater role in
defending and promoting the liberal, pluralist beliefs and values of Western
civilization. We may have to do more, not because we want to, but because we
have to.

Ben J. Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is
author of "The Birth Dearth."

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