The towns that defied the global baby shortage
Depopulation isn't uniform throughout wealthy countries
What is the world’s most under-reported apocalypse? Unmitigated climate change? The threat of nuclear war? The possibility of another, deadlier, pandemic? All of those could wipe millions, perhaps billions, of people from the face of the planet. But, then again, they haven’t happened yet (even if we are pushing our luck).
Most worrying, surely, is the population-reducing crisis that is already underway. In countries around the world — including all the rich ones — births have plummeted.
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Some governments have tried to turn things around with pro-natalist policies. But, at best, the results have been disappointing. Instead of looking for a nation that has restored its birthrate to the replacement level (because there isn’t one), more local examples are surely worthy of attention.
For instance, there’s the small town of Nagi in Japan. There are varying estimates of the town’s total fertility rate (TFR). A 2022 article for the Asahi Shimbun quotes a figure of 2.95 children per woman, which is certainly well above the Japanese average of 1.4.
So what made the difference? The conventional explanation is that the local authorities offered various forms of material support to young families — including help with childcare and access to affordable housing. While not discounting these factors, an opinion piece for the New York Times offers an alternative theory. The author, Peter Coy, suggests that “maybe people in Nagi are having babies because other people in Nagi are having babies.”
Pregnancy is not contagious of course, but, as Coy points out, “we are social animals and we take our cues from family, friends and sometimes even passers-by.” While the offer of support to Nagi’s parents may have got the ball rolling, peer effects could have had a multiplier effect.
Another example of a town that’s defying the global baby bust is Larsmo in Finland. For a long time, Scandinavia was held up as an example of pro-natalism through generous welfare provision. Finland, with its famous baby box scheme, is seen as being especially good at giving its youngest citizens a good start in life. And yet that hasn’t stopped the Finnish total fertility rate from tumbling. Last year it fell to a just 1.32 children per woman — a new low.
However, there was better news from Larsmo — according to Birth Gauge, the coastal community has maintained its TFR at over twice the national level.
So what makes Larsmo special? Most of its people belong to Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority; but while the ethnic Swedish TFR is a bit higher than the ethnic Finnish TFR, this isn’t nearly enough to explain the town’s stellar baby-making record. Rather, the crucial factor appears to be religious. Larsmo is a stronghold of the Laestadian movement, a revivalist offshoot of the Lutheran church.
Though not closely related to the Amish in the US — who are also known for their high fertility — the Laestadians have a similar focus on plain living and family values.
It’s easy for metropolitan types to make fun of small and remote communities — especially if they’re religious. But perhaps it requires isolation, whether geographical or ideological, to insulate people against a culture that has normalised childlessness.
Of course, the latter has its advantages – above all, freedom from the strictures of traditional family life. But on the other hand, the old way has a future.
It’s easy for metropolitan types to make fun of small and remote communities
Easy and stupid. Those communities survive and thrive against the odds, without any pronoun consultants present within a 500-mile radius.
Strong tendency for people to attribute low birth rates to “childlessness”, but the number of women who never give birth is in line with historical norms (at least for Europe in the late 19th/ early 20th Century) – even during the Baby Boom, it remained around 10% and now going back to around 20%, as it was between the wars.
The big change is family size for women who do give birth. Family sizes of 1 or 2 children are now standard and 3 or more children considered a large family.
Your statement, while well meaning I’m sure, is in direct conflict with the data.
It’s true that few women today in western countries have 8 or more children as they did a hundred years ago, but analysis of demographic data indicates that the relative percentage of women having 1, 2, 3, or 4 children has not changed in many decades.
What has changed is the number of women who never have any children. The number of childless women, whether because they chose a career instead or simply waited too long, has increased significantly. It is estimated that within a decade over half of all women will never have children.
There’s been a dramatic increase in childlessness since the postwar baby boom. 9% of women in the 1940s reached 46 without having children, compared to 19% in the most recent census. But this is taking us back to interwar levels, not to never before seen lows.
If it continues to rise to half of women, that would be a dramatic change – but I can’t see where that is being forecast.
Here’s a prediction of 45 percent 7 years from now.
Both of those reference a prediction that half of all women aged between 25 and 44 will be childless. It does not predict that half of women will remain childless by the time they reach 44.
| Of course, the latter has its advantages – above
| all, freedom from the strictures of traditional
| family life. But on the other hand, the old way has
| a future.
For me, family life is the best, conferring a blessed freedom from the anomic listlessness of my erstwhile atomised individualism.
The transition to a smaller population will be difficult, but a reduction in global population is surely not a catastrophe?
If it happens too rapidly it really is catastrophic. Pulling out of a population decline is extremely difficult. Once the demographics of a nation are too heavily weighted towards an older population this causes the working age population to reduce the number of children they have in order to support them. This leads to generation on generation population falls which require either the current working age populace to both have children and support the elderly, impoverished themselves in the process, go back to the days when being a pensioner meant poverty or hoping for a technological deus ex machina, boosting productivity levels immensely to compensate, which may or may not come.
Older populations in particular are less able to do difficult manual labour compounding the infrastructure problem of declining populations. You may think that a 50% smaller population means 50% less infrastructure is needed but that’s not how it works. Many networks require the whole network to be operational to work at all. That means maintaining a network built for peak population with half the workers.
A civilisation which believes that having children is an optional extra or a “life style choice” is one that has lost touch with reality.
We have become a ‘civilisation’ that finds looking after its elderly, and the planet, to be an unacceptable drain on our extraordinary wealth. So much stuff to buy, things to eat, places to visit!
We live in a civilisation where pensioners spend longer in retirement and have more spent on them than at any time in human history. The average pensioner in the UK now has more disposable income than the average worker does and every year the number of pensioners increases and the number of workers falls. If you think that’s sustainable, then we really have lost touch with reality.
“The average pensioner in the UK now has more disposable income than the average worker……and have more spent on them ”
Err, so spend less on them. Find new innovative ways to deal with older age (working, retirement communities, getting a grip on the over-treatment, over-spending on the last few months of life, encouraging more women, disabled people to be in the workplace). Breeding more people to earn and look after them is your solution? When does that particular merry-go-round stop? It’s just kicking the can down the road; a Ponzi scheme. Japan is 2 or 3 decades ahead of us with respect to the age gap problems, It is not a failing state or dystopian hell, and the problems are set to start easing in 20 years or so.
Unless I missed it the one thing you chose not to mention about these towns with unusually high birth rates is their relatively large immigrant populations. Are we not supposed to notice or mention this fact for fear of our comments being deleted?
The fact that immigrants generally have a higher birth rate than native populations is well documented.
While it is true that “immigrants generally have a higher birth rate” (in the UK 1.5 children per British born woman, 2.03 per foreign born woman), the towns referred to in the article are small, and immigrants don’t generally go to small towns. The Swedish minority in Finland has been there as long as the Finns, in other words they’re just as indigenous as the Cornish minority is in England.
The Black Death and the drop in population has long been suggested as the foundation for the rise in prosperity and freedom of the peasantry. Might not falling populations result in greater prosperity for the bulk of the remaining population and be self correcting in that greater prosperity makes having more children more affordable.
No, those infertile populations will simply be replaced by foreign savages.
At some point we will reach over-population, and there will be a desperate need to reduce. I think we’ve already reached that point, and that population reduction is the very opposite of a crisis – even though it will of course bring challenges. Always reporting a shrinking population as a bad thing ignores this reality; and the subject of how to plan for this, mitigate negatives.
Totally agree. I’m uncertain why it would be labelled a ‘crisis’. It’s the natural order of all animal populations to reach a sustainable level of individuals.
Message from Japan: Consider it from your future self.
In the end, you must maintain a healthy age distribution to be sustainable as species, so overpopulation would not be a problem as you point out.
Current human populations are not like deer or rabits overpopuating in the wild.
The problem is the age distribution. Overpopulation in a developed country means “More old people, less young people”. This causes a lot, I mean a lot of problems from social securities to education. Politicians work in favor of old people to get elected, which makes matters worse.
Imagine yours, and all the other countries in the world following the same path. (Japan was once a “young” country, you know.)
Act now, and change your destiny…
Absolutely right – I agree with you. The problem comes if you have to suck in young people from outside to do the work for the old people. If you were to take in millions of refugees from war zones, you would not be the same country after 50 years.
Good points. The problem of age distribution sounds even harder to fix however.
Yes, it is. So Japan has already started “unhealthy” depopulation, and we haven’t found a way out. Articles like this therefore gives great clues to dealing the problem before it’s too late.
The main clue it suggests is through the observation that a tiny community in Finland is bucking the population shrinking trend, maybe because it is a small, religious community. Interesting observation: hardly an actionable clue, unless you have a masterplan to reverse hundreds of years of history, make the people abandon cities for small communities and become religious etc. We understand the pressures of an ageing population – let’s also understand that this is i) 100% inevitable, apparently at some higher point in a countries development (as all developed countries have found out; ii) the effects are neither disastrous, nor so bad – in Japan for example people are not willing to embrace immigration to solve it; iii) there are other mitigation possibilities, aside from breeding, eg mutual support communities for older people; and last, certainly not least, the BIG ONE – iv) there are multiple existential threats to us and the planet: pollution/limited resources (water!) /mass extinction, and climate change – high and increasing population will drive these ever upward.
Its not a crisis because its reducing as such, as you say that might be desirable and the latest stats make the case it will happen world-wide by 2050. No the problem is the rapidity – changing age demographic, where and to whom its changing and its change over all.
Interestingly, when someone looked at the population decrease in the US recently they found the decrease was caused by some not having children at all. People who had children still tended to have 2 or 3.
I hate this whole silly narrative of global depopulation. It makes even less sense than the “population bomb” it replaced.
Both narratives are spread by academics who think that People Are Stupid. What really happens is that population increases rapidly in late agricultural societies, where lots of children are needed to help on the farm, and after sudden depopulation events like World War II. Population is an S-curve; as the population increases, there is less pressure to have more babies and the increase rate automatically drops toward a steady state. This is what is happening now in every industrial society. There is no danger that Japan, China or any other country will disappear because of zero childbirth.
Indeed – it bears much resemblance to a Ponzi scheme. As long as you keep increasing the inputs all seems well, but at some point reality bites.
What does the planet Earth need more of? Well it certainly ain’t people!
I hope you did not reproduce.
I won’t take that as personally as I might! I kept my breeding efforts to replacement only, not expansion.
Those who still think the world is threatened by overpopulation should read Hans Rosling, the famous statistician, or watch his brilliant lectures about this on Youtube.
The one who said this:
“”I don’t give a damn about polar bears! I can live without polar bears.”
Whilst that may be literally true for most of us, saving ‘polar bears” is shorthand for ecosystem preservation/preventing mass extinction.
No one has mentioned the abortion effect. This is currently removing over 200,00 babies per year in the UK alone.
This means that eventually the immigrant population will overtake the Britishborn population and so alter the whole character of our country.
In addition abortion also limits the number of people to fill work vacancies, as many companies are currently finding out.
So ban abortion, make women carry their unwanted pregnancy to term so that we can fill the job vacancies with true British. Genius, you should start a political party.
Hi.. er like, yurrr… Eco Sandoid here… If there is.. yuh, like n stuff.. no one on the planet.. like, it’ll be saved and urrrm.. like they’ll be no racism…?
Unless we head towards some version of the ‘Handmaidens Tale’ we’re in dreamland thinking the trend on women not just being baby-machines changeable.
The issue is perhaps how the West absorbs and assimilates migrants from areas with high birth rates – what values do you need to demonstrate, what tests to pass etc.
Many would rage at such a volte-face in Policy but there is much to suggest the trends are irrefutable
What is it with the Left’s obsession with mass immigration?
It is some kind of fetish
Do you mean irrefutable, or irreversible?
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