The coming demographic crisis

Barbara Kay, National Post · Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010

Last Saturday I chatted with a young woman I met after a panel discussion I'd participated in. "Andrea" has high ambitions typical of most young women today, but she also looks forward to marriage and a lot of children. She asked what advice I might have for her.

I was stymied, I must admit. She is already 25 years old and in no hurry to settle down, statistically about par for the course. Her career ambitions demand heavy educational investment, but to end up with her big family she should have started yesterday. A woman's fertility peaks between the ages of 15 and 25. After 30, fertility declines somewhat, and after 35, a lot.

Andrea is a complete anomaly these days. There are certainly millions of women in the world who willingly accept and make room in their hearts for as many children as nature provides. And there are millions of women of ambition pursuing higher education and demanding careers. But there are hardly any women in both camps.

The "total fertility rate" tipping point of 2.1, below which a country's population shrinks irreversibly, is a figure most industrialized nations passed below some time ago. It happens to every developing country. Today China has 5.4 workers to support each retiree. By 2050 there will be 1.6 workers.

The causes for the coming demographic crisis are not in dispute: improved longevity, urbanization and rising female education. The United States' total fertility rate is relatively high at 2.06, but when you break it down, the American women with the highest fertility rates are those who have no post-secondary education. The rule is unvarying: The more educated the woman, the fewer her offspring.

If any. Voluntarily childless couples (oops, make that "child-free" couples), once uncomplaining outliers from the matrimonial mainstream, now confidently assert the superior moral standing of environmentally-friendly "hedonic" marriage, in which shared interests and pleasures rather than children form the relationship glue. Some exhibit overt disgust at "breeders" and "moomies" (nursing mothers).

These righteous depopulators are indifferent to the big picture. An article entitled "The Old World" in Sunday's New York Times Magazine paints a grim demographic portrait of the developed and developing world's future. By 2018 65-year-olds will outnumber those under five, "a historic first," and by 2050 the median age--now 28--will be over 40.

Autocratic governments can make people have fewer children, but they can't make people have more. Singapore tried. While modernizing in the 1960s after gaining independence from the British, Singapore's newly minted Family Planning and Population Board launched a billboard campaign, messaging "Stop at Two" and "Small Families Brighter Future." Abortion and sterilization were encouraged at the government's expense. Maternity leave was denied after two children.

It worked. Singapore reached its fertility rate target of 2.1 in 1976, a 53% plunge over a decade. But it didn't stop declining, as women's education rates went up. A reverse strategy was implemented. Abortion wasn't banned, but pre-op counselling is now required for women with three or fewer children. The billboard and media messaging was changed to "Have Three or More Children if you Can." But no dice. Singapore's fertility rate in 1960 was 5.45. Today it is 1.1.

Gallup Research has been polling Americans for decades on their "aspirational fertility"--how many kids people say they want -- because it is the best predictor of how many children they will have. The bright line between wanting three kids maximum and wanting more than three is active religious participation, i.e. regular church attendance. Andrea validates that profile. Her aspirational fertility is five children and she is a committed Catholic.

What advice can I give her? Stop studying, find Mr. Right and start procreating? After all, Canada needs lots more loved children, and her children will be blessed. On the other hand this young woman is a winner and I want to see her succeed.

Unusually for me, I have no advice to offer Andrea. I look back at my own choices, made a half-century ago when women were beginning to be highly educated, and I concede that no rational, collective argument could have persuaded me not to have any children, and no rational, collective argument could have persuaded me to have many children.

Canada's total fertility rate is presently 1.6, far below replacement. I have a feeling Andrea will realize her difficult hybrid goal, whatever the obstacles, but in our secularized society Andreas are few and far between these days. So it seems mass immigration from countries where women are not yet highly educated must be our portion for the foreseeable future. And when they are educated, what then?