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Fertility on the rise again in the most advanced countries

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Uploaded on Mar 23, 2010

Fertility on the rise again in highly developed countries
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In 1974, when the Earth's overpopulation used to send shivers down politicians' spines, the Bucharest World Population Conference motto was: "Development is the best contraceptive". Thirty-six years later, with rich countries haunted by the fall in birth rates, the fact is that "further development is the most effective boost to fertility". Beyond a given threshold of socio-economic development the historically negative link between development and number of newborns reverses and fertility rates rise again, Francesco Billari (Università Bocconi), Hans-Peter Kohler and Mikko Myrskylä (both University of Pennsylvania) argument in Advances in Development Reverse Fertility Declines (Nature, vol. 460, Aug 2009, doi:10.1038/nature08230).

In the last decades the negative association of fertility with economic and social development "has become one of the most solidly established and generally accepted empirical regularities in the social sciences. As a result of this close connection between development and fertility decline", the three authors write, "more than half of the global population now lives in regions with below-replacement fertility".

Billari, Kohler and Myrskylä use, as a measure of development, the Human Development Index (HDI) - an indicator originated by the United Nations Development Programme, which combines life expectancy, education and GDP - and correlate it to the fertility rate. They thus observe that, since the beginning of XXI century, there's a trend reversal in countries at a very high development level. At low and intermediate levels a rise in HDI still translates into a reduction in fertility rates, but beyond a given threshold further development triggers a births hike. This threshold is around a HDI of 0.86 (in 2008 46 countries out of 179 were above this value) and the rise in fertility, from there on, is faster than the previous decline.

"This relationship", Francesco Billari says, "means that the widespread fears of population ageing in the developed world, even if sound, are overdone because grounded on the firm belief that further development in rich countries entails further decline in fertility".

The work doesn't suggest that developed countries can anytime soon go back to above replacement fertility (2.1 children per woman), but the three authors reckon that population in highly developed countries could stabilize where immigration is substantial and decline more slowly than expected where immigration is a minor component of demographic change.

The relation observed by Billari, Kohler and Myrskylä is robust, but not without exceptions; in Japan and South Korea, prominently, there hasn't been any trend reversal despite very high HDI values. In order to fully appreciate the reasons of such exceptions, the researchers call for a better understanding of the ways in which labour market flexibility, social security, welfare policies for the families and economic and gender equality boost higher fertility in developed countries. "Analyses on Europe", the authors write, "show that nowadays a positive relationship is observed between fertility and indicators of innovation in family behaviour or female labour-force participation. Also, at advanced levels of development, governments might explicitly address fertility decline by implementing policies that improve gender equality or the compatibility between economic success, including labour force participation, and family life" -- something out of the Asian giants' comfort zone.

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