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Is low fertility a problem?
This article is part of our "Perspectives" series
by Øystein Kravdal
Centre for Fertility and Health, Norwegian Institute of Public Health
Department of Economics, University of Oslo
It is a commonly held notion among policy makers and the public in rich countries that low fertility is a disadvantage or a “problem”. However, are there actually very good reasons for concern?
Note first that there are two main types of effects of fertility: First, the number of children born to a couple has implications for these two persons’ well-being, as well as the well-being of the children themselves. This may be referred to as an individual- or family-level perspective. Second, there is an aggregate-level perspective, in the sense that the children born to a couple contribute to the population growth and age structure, which in turn may affect all people’s quality of life. Below, I discuss briefly what kind of individual- or family-level arguments that, in principle, might justify a description of low fertility as “problematic”. The aggregate-level arguments are better known and therefore only summarized in a few words, along with a combined individual- and aggregate-level argument.
Note also that low fertility is partly a result of societal changes that are widely appreciated. These include women’s larger investments in education and stronger desire for paid work, as well as a weakening normative pressure with regard to family matters. However, it is also a consequence of inadequate institutional adaptation to women’s stronger work orientation, and to economic insecurity among young people, which there is less reason to be satisfied with. The key issue in the discussions below is whether there are arguments that might justify concerns about low fertility for other reasons.
The individual-level perspective
The possibility that people would have a better life if they had more children
Having a child, or another child, has several implications for the parents’ lives, for example with respect to the number of hours worked, their economic situation, how they spend their time outside work, and whether they feel that life is meaningful. In addition to these “social-behavioural” consequences, pregnancies trigger physiological processes of importance for the development of certain diseases, especially some types of cancer (Kravdal et al. 2012). Furthermore, children are likely affected by the number of siblings they have, through both social and physiological effects.
People are probably to some extent aware of these consequences, and decide to have a child, or another child, if the expected advantages – for themselves and the offspring - exceed the disadvantages. They are particularly likely to take the expected “social-behavioural” consequences into account. It is less obvious that they have knowledge about the various physiological effects that have been identified by researchers, and even if they have, they may find it difficult to make good use of this knowledge in their fertility decision-making. (There may, of course, also be effects of this type that have not yet been revealed by experts.)
However, the “social-behavioural” implications of having a child are typically not exactly as expected (Kravdal 2014). For example, some of the benefits of having relatively many children may not be as large as believed, or there may be advantages or disadvantages of a type that the parents have not even thought about. The difference between actual and expected consequences of childbearing obviously varies between individuals, but if it is ever shown by researchers that people on average think they have underestimated the value of children - and thus would have been better off with more children than they have actually had - it might be reasonable to claim that there is a “low-fertility problem”. That said, it would obviously be very difficult for people to make such judgements about whether their life would have been better or worse with more children.
Could something be done to solve such a “problem”? In theory, an obvious step to take would be to inform couples who are about to make fertility decision about the overall underestimation of the value of children among people who are old enough to have an opinion on this. However, it is far from obvious how useful such information about a general pattern – perhaps even in an older cohort - would actually be in the decision-making.
Is it a problem that people have fewer children than they ideally would want?
Let me now return to the issue raised in the beginning about social factors having contributed to the currently low fertility in many rich countries (in addition to being “good” or “bad” for other reasons). Many of these factors affect fertility through increasing the costs of childbearing, and high childbearing costs contribute to the gap between the number of children people would have liked to have in a better world (“ideally wanted”) and the number they want given the situation they are actually facing (“actually wanted”), and typically also are close to having. (In our part of the world, people on average have the number of children they “actually want”, plus a few because of inadequate contraceptive use, minus a few because of infecundity.) It is quite often argued that this gap between “ideally wanted” and “actually wanted” constitutes a welfare loss that could or should be eliminated not least by subsidization of childbearing costs (e.g., Commission of the European Communities 2006; Fahey and Spéder 2004).
To spell the idea out in some more detail, there are obviously many benefits from having a child, but many people may conclude that these are not worth the costs (broadly defined). They consider themselves better off by using their time and money in other ways. However, if the economic costs were reduced, for example by state subsidies, or if the non-economic burdens were somehow reduced, the balance of the pros and cons might change for some of them, and they would then have more children and thereby attain a higher level of well-being. (Also those who would have more children anyway would, of course, benefit if some of their childrearing costs were paid by the state.) The limitation with this line of reasoning is that other people have other priorities. They may for example have a strong interest in luxury cars or dream about a nice waterfront summer house. These commodities may, in their view, not be worth the current price, but may become attractive enough if properly subsidized. Why should governments encourage or facilitate the first type of “consumption” (having a child) and not the other (buying a nice summer house), if the latter gives a comparable increase in individual well-being, and there are no positive externalities of childbearing? (Other demographers have made a similar point, see e.g., Lutz 2007).
Furthermore, to the extent that low fertility is a result of a poor economic situation among adults of reproductive age, it would make sense to see this as a low-income problem rather than a low-fertility problem. A reasonable response would be to provide income support so that everyone has the means to purchase what is considered most essential, rather than reduce the costs of childrearing. Some people will then make use of the additional economic resources to have the child that they want so strongly, while others may have a different view of what is of pressing importance in their lives.
There are special cases where the conclusion may be less obvious. For instance, some people may be faced with childrearing costs that are definitely higher than “normal”, if, say, childcare happens to be exceptionally expensive where they live, or if they need to undergo expensive in-vitro fertilization treatment. Would it be more reasonable to help cover such particularly high costs for relatively small groups than, for example, to subsidize childcare more generally – as I just argued against? In other words, is low fertility “problematic” if it is a result of these special situations? I will leave that unanswered and just point out that many people would probably consider costs related to health limitations as belonging in a special category (although health limitations with implications for childbearing may not be seen as more of a concern that other health limitations).
The aggregate-level perspective
A quite different issue is that there may be adverse aggregate-level effects of low fertility - through ageing and low population growth. In particular, there have been concerns about the economic implications, although there may also be economic advantages, as well as local and global environmental benefits (Blake and Mayhew, 2006; Bloom et al., 2010; McDonald et al. 2006; Lee and Mason 2014). If the disadvantages dominate, it would be reasonable to consider low fertility as a “problem” and contribute to solve it by giving people stronger incentives for having children (provided that these incentives are not more costly than the disadvantages they are meant to remedy). Additionally, there is what one may call secondary or indirect externalities: The effects that a couple’s fertility has on their own and their children’s lives – for better or worse – may also have implications for others (which they are not likely to take into account in their decision-making), and some of these may well be negative.
To summarize, there are valid aggregate-level arguments for claiming that low fertility is a “problem”, but since there are also aggregate-level arguments in the opposite direction, the most reasonable attitude would be that the jury is still out in these matters. Turning to the individual-level perspective, one might say that there is a “low-fertility problem” if people have underestimated the value of children and thus have ended up with fewer children than would be in their own interest. However, there is no empirical evidence for this, and such evidence would also be very hard to establish. The argument that low fertility is a “problem” because people “ideally want” more children than they actually have, which is quite often heard in discussion, is not convincing.
Blake, D., and Mayhew, L. (2006). On the sustainability of the UK state pension system in the light of the population ageing and declining fertility. The Economic Journal, 116, F286-F305.
Bloom, D., Canning, D., and Fink, G. (2010). Implications of population ageing for economic growth. Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 26, 583-612.
Commission of the European Communities (2006). Demographic future of Europe—from challenge to opportunity. Brussels: Commission of the European Communities.
Fahey, T., and Spéder, Z. (2004). Fertility and family issues in an enlarged Europe. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.
Kravdal, Ø. (2014). The estimation of fertility effects on happiness: Even more difficult than usually acknowledged. European Journal of Population, 30, 263-290.
Kravdal, Ø., E. Grundy. T. Lyngstad, and K.Aa. Wiik. (2012). Family life history and late mid-life mortality in Norway. Population and Development Review, 38, 237-257.
Lee, R., and Mason, A. (2014). Population aging, dependency and consumption. Science, 366, 229-234.
Lutz, W. (2007). Adaptation versus mitigation policies on demographic change. Vienna Yearbook of Population Research, 19–25.
McDonald, G.W., Forgie, V.E., and MacGregor, C. (2006). Treading lightly: The ecofootprints of New Zealand’s ageing population. Ecological Economics, 56, 424–39.