Where are the missing babies?

Falling fertility means our global population is set to shrink this century—unless policies make parenthood easier

May 14, 2021
China abandoned its One Child Policy in 2015, but there has been no surge in births since. Photo: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Alamy Stock Photo
China abandoned its One Child Policy in 2015, but there has been no surge in births since. Photo: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Alamy Stock Photo

China is to formally announce the results of its 2020 census—which are set to reveal that the country’s population has been barely inching ahead since 2010. This a nation where population had been growing by double digits per decade in the second half of the 20th century.

On the other side of the world, the United States has also released preliminary results of its own 2020 census, showing that although its population increased by 7.4 per cent over the previous decade, this was the slowest rate of expansion of any decade since the founding of the country, save during the Great Depression.

The data so far foreshadows what population experts have been whispering for years: eventually, global population will shrink. The United Nations Population Division, which has been the primary compiler of data and forecasts, has predicted that this will begin by the turn of the next century. However, a study published in mid-2020 in academic journal the Lancet predicts that the decline will begin much earlier, largely due to decreasing fertility, by the 2070s.

Neither China nor the US has yet released the fine details. In both cases, deliberate policy measures may be blamed. The Brookings Institution has concluded that efforts to slow immigration into the US from 2017 onward—coupled with a sharp decrease of incomers prompted by Covid-19—has led to the smallest influx of new people since the 1970s. From 2017 to 2019, immigrants numbered 200,000 per year, in contrast with the 400,000 to one million incomers in the early part of the decade.

In China, fingers have pointed to its “One Child Policy,” formally implemented in the late 1970s but officially abandoned, at least in part, by 2015. The programme limited families in urban areas—a swiftly rising percentage of China’s population—to a single child each.

However, a close look shows that these explanations are not sufficient for either country. At the heart of this has been the transformation of the traditional role of those who produce babies: women. The rate at which babies are being born around the world has been falling since the middle of the 20th century. While the decline has been greater in some countries than others, it is seen nearly everywhere—except for sub-Saharan Africa.  

This trend has been evident in most of the industrialised world for many years. Among the wealthy OECD nations births per woman have fallen, on average, from 2.8 in 1970 to 1.7 in 2016, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. Britain is no exception—fertility here peaked in 1965 at 2.93, but fell to 1.65 in 2019. Moreover, immigration into Britain is boosting fertility, even at current low levels, according to the Office for National Statistics. Roughly 28 per cent of babies born in 2019 were to foreign-born mothers, the highest percentage on record. Without these, British women are producing on average 1.57 babies each.

The chief driver of falling fertility rates appears to be the changing economics of the household. Everywhere that the “sole-male breadwinner” model is breaking shows fertility falling in turn. Even in emerging economies, including those where religious authorities exhort women to adopt “traditional” roles in the home and have more children, fertility is falling. Prime examples of this include Iran and Turkey.  

It is not only that each new baby represents another “mouth to feed,” raising household costs. For educated and skilled mothers in particular, each new baby also carries an “opportunity cost.” Women who have invested time, effort and capital in obtaining skills are forced to limit their participation at work, curbing future income. The longer and more consistently women withdraw from work, the more severe the earnings penalty is likely to be. 

That is not to say that public policy does not matter. Among countries where fertility has been falling for decades—and where female participation in both higher education and training is high—the pace at which it has done so has varied. Countries such as France and several Scandinavian nations with robust childcare systems in place have seen less notable declines. Other factors, such as the ability and willingness of institutions to adjust to mothers at work, also make a difference.

Yet while the One Child Policy is surely a major factor in the drop in Total Fertility Rates (TFRs) in China, from 4.85 live births in 1970-1975 to 2.52 a decade later. By 1990-1994 China’s TFR had slipped to 1.83 per woman, hitting a low of just below 1.6 per woman in 1999, according to data from the World Bank. As of 2019, it was just below 1.7 per woman. There has, moreover, been no surge in births since the policy was largely abandoned in 2015. Meanwhile, more data from the World Bank shows that, in 2018, 52.9 per cent of Chinese university graduates were women. The absolute number of Chinese women graduating from university has also risen sharply since 2004.

The One Child Policy may also have had a ripple effect. Between 1950 and 1955, China’s Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB) was 1.07—meaning that for every girl born, 1.07 boys were born, slightly higher than the global average at the time. By 2005-2010, it was a staggering 1.17. It has since subsided slightly, to a still-lopsided 1.11. In a 2019 paper, UN researchers concluded that, globally, there are 23.9 million “missing” women, half of which are in China. They found that the drivers of the sharp tilt in China’s SRB are based on its long-standing cultural preference for male children, combined with the advent of sex-selection technology and the willingness to participate in sex-selective abortion. These “missing women” will make it even harder for China to recover its fertility rate.

The implications of a possible shrinking population have alarmed China’s economists. Earlier this year, China’s central bank became so concerned by the economic implications of low fertility that it took the unusual step of issuing a public warning to officials that they should “fully liberalise and encourage” childbirth.

Slowing population growth in the US has a different starting point. Fertility rates fell from 3.64 babies per woman in 1960 to around a low of 1.7 during the 1970s, before recovering to hover around the replacement rate. But since the deep recession of 2008-2009, the US TFR has fallen steadily below that to stand at 1.71 in 2019. In each of the past five years, the absolute number of live births has fallen; in 2020 the rate fell by 4 per cent.

Since American women began to enter the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s, they have also stepped up their completion of university education. In 2019, compared with only 46 per cent of men, 54 per cent of women in the US aged 25 to 34 had degrees, up 10 percentage points on their parents’ generation.

Women with at least an undergraduate degree have fewer children and have them later than those with lower educational attainment. The Center for Disease Control found an inverse correlation between educational attainment and the age of new mothers and the number of babies they have.

This trend is also weighing on fertility rates in less developed economies. In Turkey, the percentage of women obtaining advanced skills beyond secondary school has risen sharply in recent years. By 2019, more than a third of women aged 25 to 34 had completed tertiary education, up from only 11 per cent of their mothers’ generation. And while Turkey’s rate of university completion is lower than the average of OECD nations, slightly more young women are obtaining it—36 per cent versus 34 per cent—than men. In 2019, Turkey’s TFR slipped just below 2.1, down from 3.1 babies per woman in 1990.  

Iran shows a similar pattern. Following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, political leaders made great efforts to encourage women to pursue education in contrast to many of the nation’s nearby neighbours. Iran’s TFR rose briefly after the Revolution to 6.5 per woman, but fell steadily thereafter, and was below the replacement rate for nearly two decades. By 2018, a whopping 58.9 per cent of women finishing secondary education were enrolling in tertiary education, compared with 66.6 per cent of men.

Even with the repeated exhortations of religious leaders in both countries, it is difficult to imagine that the long-term trends of falling fertility and rising skills levels among women will be derailed. Instead, both Turkey and Iran—and the majority of industrialised countries around the world—will have to look for ways to make it easier and less costly for women to both raise families and participate at work.