Fertility rates are falling in the rich world; but there are still plenty of people to go round

Fertility rates are falling in the rich world; but there are still plenty of people to go round

“It’s funny, but it’s dark, because we know we could be causing our own extinction.” That was the sardonic response of one single 30-year-old South Korean, to a BBC reporter, to the data released last week that showed her country has the lowest fertility rate ever recorded. On average, women in South Korea are now having only 0.72 children. For a country to have a stable population, that number needs to be a little over 2. A little over because not all children reach mid-adulthood, anywhere in the world.

In South Korea, the fall in babies has occurred despite successive governments spending £226bn over the past 20 years trying to incentivise women to have more children. The BBC story focused on the trade-offs of having a career or a family, the excessive costs of private education and the competitive misery of growing up in South Korean society. However, not once, in the 2,500-word story, did the words “inequality”, “poverty” or “destitution” appear. It might be that such words are now no longer welcomed in copy for a public broadcaster that represents Europe’s most unequal large country (by income). Or it might just be that we tend to think of these issues as being the aggregate of millions of individual choices not to have children, rather than part of a wider story.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) produces and updates income inequality statistics continuously, the latest of which reports that South Korea is the 11th most unequal country of all those that it surveys. But there is no simple correlation between economic inequality in a country and the number of children people have. Israel (10th) is fractionally more unequal than Korea, yet has a fertility rate of 2.9.

The UK is even more unequal, ranking eighth in inequality, with a fertility rate of 1.6. The USA is the fifth most unequal state in the affluent world, and yet the number of children people have there is higher, at 1.7.

Why, then, is the fertility rate in South Korea so low? French media suggest that the burden of “carrying out the brunt of household chores” is a key factor. Al Jazeera points to South Korea having “one of the worst gender pay gaps” in the OECD. Reuters chose to highlight that “Japan’s fertility rate hit a record low of 1.26 in 2022, while China recorded 1.09, also a record low.” And the Guardian, a couple of weeks before the latest story broke, reminded its readers that “Britain’s birth rate is the lowest it has been in two decades”, pointing out that everything from “cultural Marxism” to “millennial narcissism” was being blamed.

What no one said, and what should be said, is that we are not alone on this planet. There are eight billion of us now and yet all these stories repeatedly focus only on events going on within the richest of nations – as if the rest of us, or the rest of nature, did not exist.

The world as a whole passed the dramatic “peak baby” moment a very long time ago, in 1990. The children that those babies produced created a further peak, but it was barely any higher than that earlier one. Today, the United Nations projections show that we will not see such large peaks again. Our total numbers will, from here on, rise ever more slowly, and almost entirely because we are now living longer.

Current projections also suggest that in the year 2086, our number will fall for the first time not due to calamity. This peak human date will be a momentous point in the history of a very young species.

It is beyond my ability to explain quite how the young women and men of the affluent world know that there are now enough of us on this planet. But clearly most know that there are enough youngsters living elsewhere that if we only stopped trying to “stop the boats”, or dog-whistling about “poisoning the blood”, there would be enough of us to go around, everywhere, for all our futures.

Young adults appear to know we should slow down, at least subconsciously, almost everywhere outside war zones. It is not concerns about climate disaster, artificial intelligence or any other relatively recent existential fears that are causing this. We know this because the slowdown in the number of babies being born in places such as Korea, Japan and Europe began many decades ago. We have always expressed shock when births fall. But they have to, for humans, eventually. South Korea is mostly just the extreme edge of that trend. And it is there, at that edge, because it is almost entirely urban.

We do not operate purely in the statistical silos of the borders of nation states. Our behaviour is affected by everything else happening in the world. The number of babies being born per woman has been falling almost everywhere worldwide, for many decades now; but the number of children we collectively have is enough. There are no new worlds to be populated, and we are more aware today of the implications of trying to settle others’ lands than we have ever been.

In short – we are not alone. We live in crowded cities spread over a planet that hosts enough people and does not need a great deal more. We have developed social security systems that, if we are careful, should care for us in old age so we do not need the insurance of an additional child. And, above all else, women, especially in the more affluent countries, are more and more able to say no to what the government, with all their billions of pounds of incentives, might suggest.

For the original article, where that was first published, and the first draft of it, click: here.

A mother and child in Seoul. South Korea has the lowest fertility rate in the world. Photograph: Pratan Ounpitipong/Getty Images