The End of Motherhood? but Somehow the United States Better Mixes Child Rearing and the Job Market Than Do Other Advanced Societies

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Byline: Robert Samuelson

Russian president Vladimir Putin has inadvertently spotlighted one of today's momentous mysteries: collapsing birthrates in industrialized countries. Putin proposed that Russia pay women to have children to remedy a "critical" population outlook. Actually, he might have said "desperate." In 2000, Russia's population totaled almost 147 million;

Putin says it's declining by 700,000 a year. With plausible assumptions, the U.S. Census Bureau projects it at 111 million in 2050. The median age (half the population above, half below) would be almost 50, up from 38 now. Could this Russia maintain a strong economy, national optimism or a capable military?

Russia's case, though extreme, isn't isolated. There's no more population "explosion." In wealthier countries, motherhood is going out of style and plunging birthrates portend population loss. This is a hugely significant development, even if we don't fully understand the causes--experts didn't predict it--or consequences. One way or another, the side effects will be massive for economics, politics and people's well being. Indeed, they may already have started. Is it a coincidence that Germany and Italy, two countries on the edge of population decline, are so troubled?

First, some facts. On average, women must have two children for a society to replace itself. The actual number of children per woman is called the "total fertility rate," or TFR. Here are the 2005 TFRs for some major countries: Germany, 1.4; Greece, 1.3; Italy, 1.3; Japan, 1.4; Poland, 1.2; and Russia, 1.3. Low fertility rates don't instantly lead to population declines. They can be offset by immigration, longer life expectancies and greater numbers of young mothers. But ultimately, low fertility rates suggest falling populations (table).

"The forthcoming and dramatic depopulation of Europe and Japan will cause many problems," writes Ben Wattenberg in "Fewer," his excellent book on the subject. "Populations will age, the customer base [for businesses] will shrink, there will be labor shortages, the tax base will decline, pensions will be cut, retirement ages will increase." All plausible. In 2000, one in six people in Germany and Japan were 65 or older; by 2050, the projections are for one in three. Of course, projections go wrong. But they could as easily underpredict population loss as overpredict.

Up to a point, we understand plunging fertility rates. …