Wooing the stork: No easy solutions across the world

The Straits Times, Singapore
Aug 26 2004

Wooing the stork: No easy solutions across the world
By Joseph Chamie

‘SWEETIE, please have a baby!’ No, this is not the gentle plea of a
would-be father or eager grandparent-to-be. It is the appeal of a
growing number of governments concerned with the consequences of low
birth rates.

Today, in one country out of three, fertility is below two children
per woman, the level necessary to ensure stable population numbers,
or, in the term preferred by demographers, the ‘replacement’ of
generations. In some countries, such as Armenia, Italy, South Korea
and Japan, average fertility levels are now closer to one child per

In the absence of immigration, when fertility remains below the
two-child replacement level long enough, a population shrinks and
ages. This is the projected future for most low-fertility countries.

In a couple of generations, for example, the Italian population is
projected to be 20 per cent smaller than it is today, with the
working age population (15-64 years) shrinking by some 40 per cent.
It is not difficult to imagine the social and economic consequences
of such a drastic change.

The picture for Europe as a whole is not much different than Italy’s.
By mid-century, Europe’s population is projected to be 13 per cent
smaller, with the working age population declining by 27 per cent,
and the median age increasing by a third, reaching 50 years.

Population decline and ageing is also in the future for Japan,
Singapore and South Korea. In contrast, Australian and Canadian
populations, which also have below-replacement fertility levels, and
the United States, which has fertility near replacement, are expected
to continue growing throughout the century – a trend due largely to

Many governments view low birth rates, with the resulting population
decline and ageing, to be a serious crisis, jeopardising the basic
foundations of the nation and threatening its survival. Economic
growth, defence, and pensions and health care for the elderly, for
example, are all areas of major concern.

While population decline has been an issue in the past, today’s
concerns are more widespread, involving virtually all regions of the
world. Also, these concerns have extended over a lengthy period of
time and consequences have become progressively evident to gov-
ernments as well as the general public. In addition, the problem of
below-replacement fertility is spreading rapidly.

Why are birth rates falling? With expanding opportunities for higher
education, careers and economic independence, combined with highly
effective contraception, young women are postponing – or altogether
avoiding – motherhood.

In many parts of Europe, for example, more than 10 per cent of women
in their early 40s are childless. In Finland, Germany, Italy and the
Netherlands, the number approaches 20 per cent.

Moreover, for women choosing to have children, the average age at
first birth has risen in most low fertility countries. Today, that
average is in the late 20s, with many women having their first child
in their early 30s.

Postponing the first birth often translates into fewer subsequent
births. The end result: an average family with fewer than two

The responses governments can take to raise fertility rates closer to
replacement levels may be grouped into seven broad categories.

The first category relates to restricting or limiting access to
contraception and abortion. While most countries have policies
regulating the use of contraception and abortion, however, few
governments are prepared to ban their usage in order to raise
fertility levels.

A second category of options focuses on limiting the education of
girls, employment of women and the broader participation of women in
society. Here again, few, if any, countries are prepared to take such
steps in order to encourage childbearing.

A third set of measures centres on promoting marriage, childbearing
and parenting through various means, including public relations
campaigns and matchmaking services. Many public relations campaigns
promote the vital role of maternity and motherhood, stressing that
women are making a valuable contribution to the welfare of the family
and societal development.

These campaigns have been especially prominent among a number of East
Asian countries, including Japan, South Korea and Singapore. For
example, a recently launched campaign by the South Korean government
has the slogan: ‘Let’s Have One More Kid.’

The most recent example comes from Singapore, where the Government
launched a drive to give a package of incentives for childbirth.


A FOURTH category of pro-natalist measures aims at transferring some
of the costs and activities related to childbearing and child-rearing
from the parents to the larger community. Examples of these policies
include cash bonuses and/or recurrent cash supplements for births or
dependent children, infant and childcare facilities, as well as
pre-school and after-school care facilities. Recently, payments of
cash bonuses for the birth of a child (or additional child) have been
popular in such countries as France and Italy, at 800 euros (S$1,700)
and 1,000 euros, respectively.

A fifth set of policies aims primarily at helping women balance work
and family responsibilities. These include maternity leave, part-time
work, flexible working hours, working at home, and nurseries and day
care at the office. In addition to the financial costs, such measures
are often difficult to implement, due to resistance from employers as
well as the reluctance of some women to interrupt their careers.

In parallel, a sixth category of policies is aimed primarily at men.
These policies are intended to increase the involvement of men in
activities that have been traditionally considered the realm of women
(for example, parenting, family maintenance and household chores).

Although these measures include paternity leave, the principal
emphasis of this category of measures is to encourage husbands to
share in the rearing of children. Here again, such policies are
difficult to implement, both for economic and cultural reasons,
especially among countries where gender roles tend to be more rigidly

A seventh category of policy measures centres on financial, political
and legal preferences to couples with children. This includes
granting parents priorities or assistance in securing mortgages,
loans, low-cost or subsidised housing, welfare assistance, increased
pensions, government services and benefits.

More recently, some governments are considering changes in the
political system in order to be more responsive to the needs and
concerns of couples with children. For example, granting extra voting
rights to the parents of minor children, as is being discussed in
Austria, may provide an opposing counterweight to the increasing
political strength of elderly voters.

Will government policies, incentives and various other pro-natalist
measures be sufficient to raise birth rates to replacement levels?

Taking into account the considerable social, economic and political
constraints, the policies most governments will be able to offer may
have only a modest – and temporary – effect on raising fertility. It
also seems likely that fertility may increase somewhat above the very
low rates of today as the lowering effect of postponing childbearing
runs its course over the coming years.

Nevertheless, current and foreseeable efforts available to most
governments to raise their fertility rates seem highly unlikely to
succeed, at least for the near term. In other words, a government
appeal to Sweetie to have a baby is unlikely to reverse the trend any
time soon – even with a little sugar on it.

The writer is the director of the Population Division, Department of
Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations. Rights: YaleGlobal