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Fertility free-fall – does it make any sort of sense?

By Alan Tapper - posted Sunday, 15 September 2002

A total fertility rate of 1.5 is about two-thirds that required for population replacement. Australia’s current rate of 1.75 (and falling) is not far above that critical point. Debate about these trends is overdue, both here and elsewhere.

Many countries have fallen below this figure. Demographically speaking, Japan, Russia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain and most of Eastern Europe are in deep trouble. Some well past the point of no return.

Governments and intellectuals – so long focussed on the problem of world overpopulation – have been slow to come to terms with these trends. Now that they are starting to do so, we lack good theories to guide future policy. Policy inaction is clearly no solution. We are having to scramble to make sense theoretically of something that was never expected to happen.


Why should so many countries be heading towards demographic self-destruction? We can understand war, economic depression, and political repression cutting into reproduction. But all of these countries are at peace, and in many cases living standards (especially in health) have been rising, while civil and political liberties are expanding. Socio-economic and socio-political explanations thus seem wide of the mark.

The most commonly-heard account today is that fertility falls with modernisation, as women are freed from religious imperatives, as they get better educated, as work takes precedence over family, and as the Pill makes childbearing optional.

On this view women today are having the number of children they always wanted to have. Falling fertility is simply the exercise of reproductive free choice, for the first time in history, and if this means risking depopulation then so be it, since there is no turning back. Pro-family financial incentives – baby bribes – simply won’t work because better-educated modern women won’t be bribed. For convenience, let’s call this the modernisation model.

This is a widely held view, but how well does it fit the evidence? Start with the cross-national comparisons. We tend to focus on societies like our own, but in fact the English-speaking societies – Australia, the UK, the US, Canada and New Zealand – are all above the 1.5 mark (though barely so, in Canada’s case), so they are not yet in crisis mode.

These societies have also been relatively migrant-friendly, which has boosted their fertility and rejuvenated their age structures somewhat. So migration policy has to be an integral part of this debate.

But it is only part of the story. Migration is unable to solve the problem of fertility rates that have fallen below the 1.5 mark. As demographer Peter McDonald observes: "Replacement migration and increases in labour force participation rates can be successful ways to avoid hyper-ageing, but only if fertility is in the range of about 1.6 to 2.0 births per woman."


The worst cases of fertility free-fall are not in Western Europe, but in East Asia, in southern Europe, and in the ex-Communist states of Eastern Europe – in most cases societies still close to their agricultural pasts.

What about the trends across time? Does the modernisation theory fit the facts diachronically? Take the Australian case. The twentieth century saw three phases in fertility: a steady fall from four children per family in 1910 to two in 1935; then an upswing from two to 3.5 in 1965 (the baby boom); and since that time another and deeper fall, from 3.5 in 1965 to 1.75 today. That is: bust, boom, bust.

Any good explanation will fit all three phases. The Pill came onto the market around 1965, and so perfectly matches the post-1965 fall. This neat fit may be deceptive. The contraceptive story in no way explains the previous two phases of bust and boom. Some better account is at least worth seeking.

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About the Author

Dr Alan Tapper is a Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Applied Ethics and Philosophy, Curtin University, Perth.

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