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Falling birth rates are not just a Chinese problem

Nursing students show baby care skills. Credit: Getty

June 1, 2021 - 8:03am

The Chinese government has announced that every family may now have three children. This policy change responds to a cratering fertility rate and looming demographic crisis that isn’t confined to China, but replicated all over the developed world. 

China’s fertility rate in 2020 was 1.3 children per woman. This is worse than the 2020 US total fertility rate of 1.6, a figure much the same in the UK — and that was already falling before Covid struck

In the West, the collapsing birth rate is often attributed to ideology, in the form of selfish feminism. But while China does have a feminist movement, this emerged relatively recently and is rooted in the one-child policy, which redirected resources toward girls that would in traditional Chinese society have been reserved for their brothers. 

Along with this came ‘filial piety’, the traditional Confucian duty to support parents in old age. The upshot is a generation of women reluctant to have babies, especially when their prospective partners still see childcare as women’s job. 

So whereas we imagine feminism caused falling birthrates in the West, it resulted from falling birth rates in China. Perhaps, then, neither is strictly a cause-and-effect relationship. What both settings have in common is the material condition of technological advance and economic competition.

Technology replaces functions that were previously performed via laborious, cooperative effort; think of Liverpool’s thousands of dockers, now replaced by a handful of gantry operators (or even robots) in a container port. Or think of women hand-washing clothing, now replaced by an army of white goods. This is all good inasmuch as it takes back-breaking labour out of life, but drives social atomisation as a side-effect. 

Similarly, the push for ever greater economic competition fragments social units: this study showed how ‘filial piety’ is in growing tension with economic pressures that drive urbanisation and labour mobility. So technological and economic advances increase material wealth — but chip at social bonds. And the most irreducible such bond, the only one that really can’t be replaced by staff or robots, is the one between mother and child. 

You can hardly blame women for balking at a type of commitment that feels ever more like swimming against every economic and cultural current. More bluntly: high-tech capitalism (whether in its state-run or “free-market” variants) is inimical to babies, even as it relies on women continuing to produce and raise them. 

The liberal Western response to this tension hopes that individuals and families will find solutions. The top-down Chinese one deploys heavy-handed policy vehicles. Time will tell which approach is more effective. But if social fragmentation and economic competition keep incentivising hyper-individualism as the key to survival, this will exert ever greater downward pressure on women’s willingness to compromise their individual autonomy by having children. In turn, then, we may see fertility politics become increasingly salient, while mitigating policies could begin to tip beyond ‘nudge’ and towards coercion.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
3 years ago

Through mass migration, the west has effectively outsourced having children. Why spend money on raising and educating the next generation, when another country can pay for it but you get the working adult?

Of course, this distorts the labour market and undermines social cohesion. But at least the middle class professionals don’t have to tolerate anything as beneath them as raising children.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

in many cases, the West is not just getting “the working adult,” but that adult’s spouse, children, and in some instances, extended family, too, all benefitting from the taxpayer. Great system. What could possibly go wrong.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
3 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

And what are the countries who are providing their young going to do? What are we going to do when we end up with an even bigger elderly population without anybody to look after them?
The real problem is that state funded health care has produced a huge number of elderly being kept alive with a cocktail of drugs and with serious health issues. This is just a transfer of taxes to big pharma. We should be responsible for our own health care and pay for any care out of our own pockets. The governments distort all decision making and create endless problems that have never existed in the past.

Bob Bepob
Bob Bepob
3 years ago

There is also this, at least in the US: before social security, your children helped you in old age. With social security, other people’s children help you in old age. Seems like a rational decision: live the high life without the children and then someone else covers your retirement. I know I know, you paid for it while you worked. But that money is gone. The money for your retirement is from the work of other people’s children.

Last edited 3 years ago by Bob Bepob
Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
3 years ago
Reply to  Bob Bepob

That’s a really good point.

Very few people seem to understand that pensions are paid for only in part by your contributions and make up the rest from the working population, after you retire. This is fine if the population or the economy are growing fast enough to cover this. If they’re not, then parents take on the costs of raising children but are forced to share the benefits with those who did not. (Before anyone says they paid for other people’s children’s education, unless you are a very high earner, you didn’t. We pretty much cover the cost in our life time ourselves)

Of course this doesn’t mean people should be compelled to have children. Just that those who do, deserve better financial support from the rest of society.

Bob Bepob
Bob Bepob
3 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Exactly, well put Matthew. “You” drove a Porsche, traveled the world and lived in a big house while I spent nights helping Johnny with his homework, weekends shuttling him to practice, and paid for his summer camp, braces and college. And now you want social security from his work? No, screw that 🙂

Last edited 3 years ago by Bob Bepob
Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago
Reply to  Bob Bepob

Although in the past people didn’t have to look after their adult parents so long nor was the financial burden so heavy.

Modern medicine and hospitals also only started becoming a feature of modern social system about the same time. Beforehand your parebts were likely to die of TB or whatever between 50-70, usually in their pwn home.

David Fitzsimons
David Fitzsimons
3 years ago
Reply to  Bob Bepob

And now some of my money – which I would have liked to be spent on helping my nephews and their classmates – goes on a futile attempt to reverse cultural practises of people I never wanted in the country anyway (e.g., Somalis and FGM – there are others).

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
3 years ago

Well, if the results are anything to go by, only one successful FGM conviction in the UK in decades suggests not much of a commitment on the part of the government.

Auberon Linx
Auberon Linx
3 years ago

Mary might have a somewhat rosy view of motherhood in the past as being primarily driven by child-mother bond. In fact, mothers often had very little say in any decisions regarding the number of pregnancies or their timing. Also, while the current systems in China and the West are equally inimical to babies, at least the individuals deciding to have one are not. Parents to be are mostly driven by a genuine desire to bring a new being into this world. This was rarely a case in the past: children were a resource to be exploited: a pair of working hands in the poorer sections of the society, and a bargaining chip to be used as convenient in the aristocracy. I can’t help thinking that contemporary attitudes towards child rearing are an improvement.
As to the very real issues coming from a society committing itself to demographic oblivion, capitalism has a temporary solution. The same as manufacturing has been moved to cheaper countries, so will citizen production be outsourced. Mass immigration will sooner or later be tried in all societies facing low birth rates. It is still too early to tell whether this will solve the problem, but the results so far do not look promising.

Richard E
Richard E
3 years ago
Reply to  Auberon Linx

Why not just let the populations of the west slowly decline, ecologically speaking it’s a good thing to do.
Most of the damage to the natural world is due to the fast expanding populations of Africa and the Third world. They must be made to stay there and suffer the consequences of their unsustainable populations.
Why not incentivise women to have children with income tax refunds when they have a child. It would benefit those that have the best jobs and careers the most, and these are exactly the women who find it hard to have children. They’re also the ones we need to have children. As at the moment, those funded by the state seem to be having the most kids.

Last edited 3 years ago by Richard E
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard E

In the West the wrong people have the children. This is because of deliberate tax policy. Middle Class cannot afford children, the unemployable paid to have children. The Global elite are creating a people to be Serfs instead of Middle class who vote for freedom and for their nations interest, as they are educated and independent financially – so they must be removed and replaced by voters dependent on gov handouts, and thus compliant and vote correctly.

This is 100% eugenics of a twisted kind done by the elites.

rrostrom
rrostrom
3 years ago

Birth rates have have been falling almost everywhere for over 200 years. Fertility in the in the US declined by 1/3 from 1800 to 1850, and except for the temporary post-WW-II “Baby Boom”, has declined right down to the present.
High birth rates are now found only in a few African and Middle Eastern countries (not all).
The author is right that economic forces are driving this change – but the force is prosperity. Wealth generates freedom of choice, and when people are free to choose their life patterns, many choose to have few or no children, and hardly any choose to have many children.
This is the case in East Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, even much of black Africa, the US…

Rob C
Rob C
2 years ago
Reply to  rrostrom

NO country in black Africa has a low birthrate. South Africa is the lowest with a TFR of 2.76. Sub-Sahara Africa averages 4.6.

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
3 years ago

The progress with robotics will lead to many job losses.
If we banned the pill, this would be a win win – women could return to children and child care and men could take the remaining jobs.

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago

You’ll be shot down, but difficult to argue with the logic!

Kathryn Richards
Kathryn Richards
3 years ago

Progress with robotics and AI mean fewer jobs and this is an aspect of reducing child bearing which never seems to get a mention.
Nor does overpopulation being the major cause of all which is wrong in the world today. From pollution to global aggression.
As for your second suggestion, I guess you subscribe to the old ‘bare foot, pregnant and in the kitchen’ form of sexism.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago

Both my parents came from large families , but so did my Victorian grand-parents who came from rural backgrounds , so were used to literally always being surrounded by a lot of people , which they seemed to like . Nowadays myself & my cousins have usually one or two children or none.Unless a lot of factors like rent to wage ratio etc changed most people seem to need two wages. Unfortunately the new people because of consanguinity actually have some very poorly children who obviously will need looking after themselves.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

My stay at home mother picked up a couple university degrees, traveled the world, was an artist and writer, wore shoes, but did cook and had a few children.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago

In Japan they are trying out robots in care homes. We could live in a world rather like the Woody Allen film Sleeper.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

Without The Laughs?..

Bob Bepob
Bob Bepob
3 years ago

There will surely be job losses but it’s overplayed. Remember when ATMs were going to shut down all bank branches? There are more branches now than before.
As to the gender division of labor, once the baby is popped + a few months, either parent could stay home while the other works.

Last edited 3 years ago by Bob Bepob
Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Bob Bepob

Not in Uk 4,500 banks &building Society branches shut in Last decade…Leading to rural populace heading 20-40 miles to nearest ATM or bank,hardly Progress or ”Green;;

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
3 years ago

Human population stabilization will resolve many more problems than it will create. In this respect, population stabilization may well be driven by a sense of ecological rationality and the need for humanity to consume within the global safe operating space.

David Fitzsimons
David Fitzsimons
3 years ago
Reply to  Steve Gwynne

While ‘human population stabilisation’ happens, established societies will disintegrate. For us humans, this will be the worst possible example of a system oscillating around an equilibrium. The ice ages were a walk in the park in comparison.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
3 years ago

If you can explain in detail the basis of your catastrophism, that would be great.

David Fitzsimons
David Fitzsimons
3 years ago
Reply to  Steve Gwynne

Global warming causing millions of people to migrate from equatorial regions that can’t sustain life; no jobs; no money; mass unrest.
Good for the planet’s ecology. Bad for people.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

There is No Global Warming, Ocean hasnt Warmed since 1998 …..NZ,Australia SW USA have had a succession of Colder Winters ….in Uk we’ve just had coldest driest April since 1922, wettest may similar period …Such inaccuracies &scare mongering ..Contribute nothing, Your Solar Panels Are full of Toxins ,8, Cant be recycled last less than 20 years, Like Electric cars,A Con doomed to fail,,like ”Greenwash;;

Irene Ve
Irene Ve
3 years ago
Reply to  Steve Gwynne

2017: average fertility rate in Europe was 1.59 birth/woman, in Africa – 4.5. This imbalance In population growth and lack of economic opportunities in Africa (they cannot even feed themselves as of today), creates an immense pressure for more immigration to the West. Immigrating populations with average IQ of about 70 (Africa) will quickly (say, 50-100 years) replace host populations (average IQ about 100).
Can you see a problem? – lowering IQ of world human population would be one, wiping out Western civilisation would be another.
Happened before – read some History of Egypt.

David Fitzsimons
David Fitzsimons
3 years ago
Reply to  Steve Gwynne

Follow up. If we had a rational plan to handle the transition to a sustainable population don’t you think we would have heard about it by now?
I’m guessing you know there’s a catastrophe coming but you don’t care – I’ll level with you, nor do I. Your jargon makes you sound like a middle manager with a PowerPoint (‘global safe operating space’ – scoff).

Michael McVeigh
Michael McVeigh
3 years ago

Just wait until a ‘good’ male Pill is developed and see what happens to birth rates in the West.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

That via injection has been around for 20 years..

David Jones
David Jones
3 years ago

The liberal Western response to this tension hopes that individuals and families will find solutions.

That may be true of “classical liberals” but for the type of people more often dismissed as “liberal” – i.e. progressives and social democrats of many different stripes – there is a clear role for public support of childcare and adequate paid maternal, paternal and parental leave policies. It seems to make a difference in northern Europe.

Al Chapman
Al Chapman
3 years ago

China’s catering drop in population growth actually began in the early 1970’s. The one child policy in 1979 happened as the increase in population growth was already decelerating precipitously. It is only recently that China has been able to accurately measure its population. For example the ‘upto 55 million dead’ in the 59-60 famine could only be determined by statistical analysis years later. This incidentally barely made a blip on the rate of increase in birth rate. Only now are consequences for the ballance of young and old in the population of China being realised as a near future looms where there are scores of elderly for every tax paying working age adult.
In contrast India’s rise and fall in population growth rate is a gentle sine wave over time not China’s violently precipitous peaks and troughs.
Why? Who knows, maybe it’s a product of farmland availability, size of country, political stability over eons? Child birth policies can not dent these forces, they are too short term.
China’s rise is more like a flash in the pan that peaked in 1970 in terms of accelerating population growth. But there are lots of Chinese…its just that they’re getting really old.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago

Very nice piece, thank you.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

More Woke rubbish..8 billion Humans now rising to 10 billion by 2050 29 years,…Killing the Planet by Wiping out Forests,Farmlands, Animal Species….More people more Pandemics,traffic, disappearance of Ecology ….rubbish article….Cat chasing its tail, is NOT Logical…Single households, mostly use Less Electricity, Water,food consumed

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Robin Lambert

But the wrong ones have too many and the right ones too few.