“For the first time ever, more than half of women aged 30 in England and Wales are childless. This is not a normative condemnation but a descriptive statement.”
D. James is a strange place to begin a piece on fertility and birth rates, but her 1992 novel referenced in the title, The Children of Men, concerns an infertile Britain in 2021, a sterile, depopulating country turning in on itself (and each other with a feminist civil war), becoming increasingly authoritarian. The fact that sperm counts drop to zero in this fictional world echoes the real-life concerns about falling fertility in men today. Both sides of this vital and visceral question are having problems, contributing to shrinking and aging populations across the developed and newly industrialized world. The question of whether this is due to anti-natal messaging or to economics and culture is not clear cut, with each playing its part. And we must not forget the spiritual realm in an otherwise coldly materialistic and utilitarian discussion.
Firstly, there is an issue concerning terms: Birth rate and total fertility rate are not the same thing. The most important difference “between birth rate and fertility rate is that birth rate is the total number of births in a year per 1,000 individuals in a population whereas fertility rate is the number of live births in a year per 1,000 women of reproductive age in a population.” The numbers looked at below are the total fertility rate (TFR).
Secondly, talking about fertility levels and birth rates can be awkward, given the sensitive issue of having and raising children. It is no small commitment and something that changes the lives of those who decide to take the leap into the new world of becoming parents. It can also come across as weird when men talk about something that inevitably affects women most without women’s input. But men have mothers, sisters, and daughters; women have fathers, brothers, and sons.
As even The Guardian admits in a May, 2021 editorial, this is a matter that affects everyone deeply, given the reality of our relational nature. It is the concern of society as such whether there will be more, the same, or fewer people that come afterward. The question is both utilitarian and existential and will continue to be central. The Guardian editorial writes that “The Centre for Population Change recently predicted a post-pandemic decline in annual births, deepening a secular trend that has already taken the birthrate to ‘historically low levels.'”
The facts are plain for anyone to see. This trend is worldwide, especially in the second half of this century. In the West, it has been largely in play since 1800 or so, when the Demographic Transition kicked in, declining mortality followed also by declining births. The fact that child mortality is falling is something to celebrate, but this also results in fewer children. The startling fact is that some of the “highest fertility rates today are lower than the global average in 1950.” The upshot, as a December, 2020 article in Quillette states, is that “The projected fertility rates in 183 of 195 countries will not be high enough to maintain current populations by the century’s end. That is called negative population growth and once it starts, it probably won’t stop.” Indeed, “42 countries have had a total fertility rate of 1.5 or below” for a long time. This is why Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson write of an approaching “empty planet.”
It is across the developed world that populations are currently aging and shrinking. If a population needs 2.1 children per mother to maintain a steady-state, “replacement fertility,” then things are not looking great in Europe, where the average TFR is between 1.53 and 1.66 and the average age is 42. The graphic of European TFRs in this story gives an idea of the general situation, which is one of negative population growth throughout most of the continent. Once a society falls below this level, populations start shrinking more and more each generation. Demographers call fertility rates of 1.3 and below “lowest low” fertility, at which point it is very difficult for societies to bounce back or even make a gradual, sustained recovery.
Italy and Spain have TFRs of 1.27 and 1.37 apiece, roughly around “lowest low.” Across the English Channel, the United Kingdom has crashed from a TFR of “just under 2” in 2012 to 1.58, the lowest since 1938 when records began. For the first time ever, more than half of women aged 30 in England and Wales are childless. This is not a normative condemnation but a descriptive statement. Meanwhile, France stands at 1.85, Germany at 1.54, and Austria at 1.53. The northern countries are similarly low: Holland at 1.66, Denmark up at 1.72, Sweden reaching a ten year low of 1.67, and Norway at 1.48.
Some American conservatives proclaim the success of Hungary’s family planning policies, but these have only raised Hungary’s TFR to 1.52 in 2021, from 1.51 in 2020. The growth rate of the Hungarian populace is still negative. This reflects similar trends across national populist Eastern Europe. Poland has a TFR of 1.44, Czechia at 1.71 in 2020, up from 1.51 in 201o, Estonia at 1.63, Lithuania at 1.61, Slovakia at 1.54. This does not mean that countries should give up and refrain from trying anything at all, but it is a reality check on overly idealistic conservatives looking to the East for hope in the West. Speaking of which, the American fertility TFR is down to 1.6.
Things are even worse in East Asia. China’s TFR dropped for a fifth year in a row, down to around 1.3 and is declining for the first time since 1949, set to be half its current level by century’s end. For Singapore it is 1.24, while Japan has slumped to 1.34 and Hong Kong stands at 1.4. Taiwan has a TFR of around 1. Finally, for South Korea, it is TFR is an astonishing 0.84. As David Goldman outlines in How Civilisations Die, across the Near and Middle East the numbers are not much better, with the rate of decline at warp speed compared to the West’s demographic transition. The European far-right loves to go on and on about Le Grande Replacment or Great Replacement, with immigration from majority Muslim countries into Europe replacing the white population. At this rate, along with falling immigrant fertility rates in Europe itself, there will not be anyone to replace Europe’s contracting populations. This refutes the arguments of both the pro-immigrant and anti-immigrant camps.
These numbers are cold, hard evidence of a very human predicament. We are not just talking about widgets, or simple economic units, inputs into the machine of the economy. We are talking about families and communities that are seeing themselves reduced each year, each decade. There will be fewer siblings, cousins, and extended family—fewer young people filling the air with their cries at the joy of life, or its harshness and tragedy. Culture becomes less dynamic; loneliness and atomization increase, with old and young missing the presence and warmth of human contact. This is why Ross Douthat talked about an age of sterility in his 2021 book The Decadent Society.
There are many reasons for this increasingly childless and contactless society. There are economic concerns. It is harder and harder to start a family, both for men and women. It takes ever more to even think about putting a deposit down on a house, while renting is reaching into the stratosphere. As Robert Colville writes in The Sunday Times, “Last year the cost of a deposit jumped from 102 per cent of average income to a record 110 per cent. In London it would take the average worker more than 15 years to save for a deposit. As recently as 1991, 78 per cent of those aged 35-44 were owner-occupiers. Today, the figure is 56 per cent. Among those aged 25-34, it’s dropped from 67 per cent to 41 per cent.” Another study finds that “while it is impossible to definitively trace a causal link between land use restriction and fertility, the results…suggest that the two are strongly related in the data.” In other words, build for births.
According to Joel Kotkin, the same housing issues apply to the bluest of blue areas in the United States. Along with this, there is the matter of rising bills. As Kotkin and Hugo Kruger recount, “In Spain, 10% of all households cannot adequately heat their homes during the winter months; and in Italy, electricity bills jumped by 55% by January 2022. In the United Kingdom the number of homes that cannot pay their energy bills is set to triple by April 2022.” This is added to the fact that, as Oren Cass demonstrates, money simply does not go as far as it used to. What Cass calls the Cost-of-Thriving-Index is the “the number of weeks of the median male wage required to pay for rent on a three-bedroom house at the 40th percentile of a local market’s prices, a family health insurance premium, a semester of public college, and the operation of a vehicle.”
Cass, writing in 2018, shows that “in 1985, the COTI stood at 303—the median male worker needed thirty weeks of income to afford a house, a car, health care, and education. By 2018, the COTI had increased to 53—a full-time job was insufficient to afford these items, let alone the others that a family needs.” In other words, it takes more weeks than the year has to afford a comfortable life. This is all layered on top of the fact that “the Great Recession [of 2008] made the chances of childbearing more unequal, depending on socio-economic background.”
Lower TFRs also lead to lower social mobility and an increased role for inherited wealth and privilege: “It is a logical necessity that as fertility rates decline inherited wealth will make up a larger share of the wealth of elites, and that wealthy estates will become more durable across generations.” Ironically however, given the policy prescriptions for this inequality, it seems that a study has found that “higher minimum wages are anti-natal.” Added to this, Finland with its extensive social safety net has had the steepest fertility decline. These things are never simple.
Speaking of education, the impact of rates of higher education attendance is stark. At many colleges and universities in the United States and United Kingdom, college attendance among men has dropped below 50%. Women now attend university in greater numbers and earn more undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that “At the close of the 2020-21 academic year, women made up 59.5% of college students, an all-time high, and men 40.5%.” It is not just attendance, but completion, with the Brookings Institution showing that men complete college at lower levels as well.
This in itself is not a bad thing, as depending on the subject matter, education can be a good in itself, and it is a positive that more women feel able to compete and succeed. However, research suggests that education is a big negative factor in having children, finding that “individuals with a university education are more likely to see children as a burden, rather than a joy, than those with a low education level.” There is also “a slight negative correlation that’s statistically significant. A 1% increase in college degrees leads to .18% fewer parents of young children.” Having a B.A., in particular, is likely to reduce childbearing.
Rob Henderson reports that “in general, university education increased negative attitudes about children and decreased positive attitudes, while religiosity increased positive attitudes about children and decreased negative ones.” Another study found that “increasing attendance in higher education has a largely direct effect on early childbearing up to age 25 years, resulting in a substantial increase in childlessness.” Given that education influences who marries whom, men with low education are understandably not attractive relationship propositions. Simply, if there are fewer educated men and more educated women, then pairing-off will happen less. Even so, “educated women are not less likely to marry [emphasis mine], however they are more likely to reach the end of their fertile lifecycle without having any children, which is consistent with the hypothesis that education delays marriage and family formation.” One interesting fact is that women with low education have the lowest fertility in the Nordic countries, demonstrating the unpredictability in this area.
Another result of the economic and education issues is that women are deferring having children until later in life, once they feel established in careers. The New York Times reported that “the vast majority of American women are mothers by the time they end their childbearing years…and the number of children older women are having is increasing. Yet in total American women are having fewer babies each year.” In the United Kingdom, in 2020 the Office for National Statistics stated that “For the third year running, women aged 40 years and over were the only age group to see an increase in conception rates.”
This delayed childbearing is a global phenomenon, not unique to the Anglosphere, the West, or developed world. And this has meant a drop in teenage pregnancies in the United Kingdom and across the world: a good thing. On the other hand, being childless earlier in life tends to mean being childless in later life. The obvious reason is that it is harder to try for children when older, so fewer are able. The impact is significant: This is an ache for those unable to fulfill this desire. More and more experience this, as “today 14 percent of U.S, women past their childbearing years have never given birth,” while in Germany “nearly a quarter of women end up childless.” Furthermore, “In…low fertility countries, the percentage of women completing their childbearing years with no children ranges from 8% in Portugal to 29% in Japan.”
However, men are by no means off the hook for fertility issues either. There is the problem of the urban and suburban environment on male reproductive ability, as “air pollution may affect semen quality, specifically…the ability of sperm to swim in the right direction.” This reflects a long-term collapse in sperm counts across the West, “falling by 50 percent for the last four decades…That is to say: We are producing half the sperm our grandfathers did. We are half as fertile…the decline has been accelerating.” The “sperm count of men in Western countries [fell] by 59%” from 1973-2011, reflecting a problem with “a class of chemicals called endocrine disruptors…plastics, shampoos, cosmetics, cushions, pesticides, canned foods and A.T.M. receipts.”
These facts reflect cultural influences as well. As Lyman Stone argues, social norms and mores are often more important than economic and educational factors. For example, British fertility “fell off a cliff in 1877,” after a censorship controversy over a book about birth control published by two secularists. There is also the fact that French fertility collapsed as a result of the ideology undergirding the French Revolution, launching a national crisis of confidence rooted in demographics that dogged France into the 20th century, particularly as Germany continued to grow. Finally, though some conservatives like to blame the contraceptive pill and its fellows in the 1960s, fertility decline in the West began long before the introduction of easily available, mass contraception.
Reinforcing the socio-cultural factors, there is evidence that pregnancy is socially contagious, in that once someone in a social group becomes pregnant, the more likely it is for other women in that group to become pregnant, and then on into other social groups. Our social nature is consistently underestimated at the expense of the view of man as homo economicus, which ironically leaves our view of ourselves impoverished. The impact on social networks and communities by modern life cannot be understated in this regard: A study of 174 countries has shown that the increasing urbanization and, therefore, the density of modern living has been shown to have an adverse impact on family formation. Furthermore, “Families in metropolitan areas with higher income inequality had fewer children.”
What one might call a connection between memes and the passing on of genes is reinforced by the role of religion, or at least a metaphysical worldview. The trends with regards to secularism are clear as “secularism, even in small amounts, is associated with population stagnation or even decline absent substantial immigration.” Another study argues that “At least some of the connection between religiosity and fertility apparently is attributable to metaphysical beliefs.” In Georgia, personal baptism by the Orthodox Patriarch was offered as a family-forming incentive. As a result, births surged. In contrast, it is highly unlikely we will see growth from atheists and secularists, as “they just don’t have many kids. According to this simple model, a third of them should be parents. But, instead it’s closer to 20%.” With “Mormons, 32% should be parents, instead it’s 42%.”
Moreover, “societal secularism is a powerful predictor of fertility rates. People, especially the most religious ones, have fewer children in more secular societies.” Religiosity adds vital context to the age picture discussed above as, in America, “Among women who are 40 years old+: 30% of nones have no children. 16% of Catholics. 9% of fundamentalist Protestants. Nones have 2.1 kids. Catholics have 2.4.
Fundies have 3.3.” Again, men are also inevitably part of the frame, as it has been shown that “religiousness is associated with greater reproductive success in contemporary humans, particularly in males.”
Again, this all speaks to the fact that we are social creatures, and we imitate, even unconsciously, what happens around us. This is reflected by a British study which demonstrated “that religious networks explicitly support alloparenting [“care provided by individuals other than parents”] which, in turn, influences child development and fertility.” This reflects both family and community cohesion and stability, as well as a high-trust culture and society which enables such a social arrangement. Religious identification would allow for this, given the feeling of fellowship and common belief in a creator.
The feeling of one’s life being bound to a higher power through one’s individual and communal experience would, of course, encourage a sense of interconnection and interdependence. This is inevitably lessened when religious affiliation declines, as it has precipitously in the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe. As Franz Rosenzweig saw, the sense of a continuation of the meaning of our lives after death that religion provides is lost when religion goes. Why make such a significant investment in the future, make such a gesture of hope as having children, when the source of that hope is gone?
The loss of religious belief and decline in practice is accompanied by a rise in outright anti-natalism. As Brad Wilcox of the Institute for Family Studies says, the “majority of growing # of non-parents 18-49 say ‘they just don’t want to have children.’ Anti natalism is on the march.” Lifestyle changes, particularly among the young, are both influenced by and play into attitudes about life and family formation, with “children thought to require much more effort and attention than was the case in the past.” The widespread decline in fertility even across egalitarian Nordic countries represents “generalized attitudes towards family life and work. Regardless of how postmaterialist or egalitarian a couple may be, if their highest priority is located in increasingly competitive and unstable workplaces, and if neither partner regards the household-based element of their life as primary, then fertility is likely to be low.”
Anti-natalism is rife in academia, with children seen as, at best, barriers to career advancement, or as outright examples of oppressive family structures designed to entrench patriarchy, the solution for which is the abolition of the family. Playing into this are environmental concerns, which among some take on an all-consuming, spiritual character. Young people see overpopulation as a concern because of its environmental impact, while many young people in the United States and United Kingdom are afraid to bring children into the world because of apocalyptic warnings about the “climate crisis.” If this does not demonstrate the point made about hope in the future made above, I do not know what else does. It is a question though, if we do not have children to save the planet, and there are no future generations, for whom are we fighting to save it? Many of the challenges and problems related to family formation discussed above are understandable, but the nihilism that flows through these arguments is best represented by an advertisement in Germany that calls children “climate killers.” This is not just hopelessness in the future but, rather, hatred for the future.
The limited impact that public policy can have is, as already discussed, shown by the fact that Poland and Hungary have both put in place extensive financial family support, which have had some effect but have not stopped the population decline. Additionally, “after expanding access to affordable child care and paid parental leave, Germany’s fertility rate recently increased to 1.54, up from 1.3 in 2006.” Again, this is an improvement, but Germany is still only just above “lowest low” fertility and nowhere near replacement. Research has shown that “direct payments help fertility. ‘In Spain, for instance, a child allowance led to a 3 percent increase in birthrates; when it was cancelled, birthrates dropped 6 percent.’ Payments encourage children earlier but not more.” We have also already seen the paradox of Nordic social safety nets, where “Scandinavian countries with generous family leave policies have higher fertility rates than southern European countries without them. But births there are still below the ‘replacement rate.'”
The one exception to the rule is Israel, a developed country whose “fertility rate is the highest in the OECD, at 3.1 projected births per woman in 2018, compared with 1.6 for the OECD overall.” Paul Morland discusses this peculiar situation in his book on demography, The Human Tide, and cites research which suggests populations that feel themselves psychologically to be in an existential conflict (and to feel engaged in a common national and religio-cultural project with deep roots in the past that must be continued into the future) are more likely to have a higher TFR. Obviously, we cannot replicate Israel’s precarious position in the United States and United Kingdom and nor should we want to. But it would be worthwhile considering why even secular Israelis have more children than most people in the wider West, as well as which policy prescriptions could be adopted from the Israeli example.
Ultimately, for the West, the population crisis of not enough (as opposed to too many) people is neither simply an economic or a cultural phenomenon. It is both economics and culture; education and religion; environmental and structural. There is also an undeniable message spread by academia and parts of the media that having children is bad, oppressive, and helps to kill the planet. Again, to re-emphasise the message earlier, this is not about men wagging their fingers at supposedly selfish women. Men are an obvious factor in this as well, both for reasons they cannot control so easily (sperm counts) and for those they can, i.e., their behaviour and making themselves attractive to prospective partners through their conduct. The simple truth is that we are all in this together, whether some like it or not. It is time we started paying this, arguably the most important subject there is, the respectful and serious attention it deserves.
Henry George is a writer from the United Kingdom, focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, UnHerd, Arc Digital, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review.