Thursday, July 16, 2009

The decadent shall inherit the Earth

The concern about excessive aging in developed countries is obviously not limited to this blog but also extends to the governments in question. Among other things, this has lead the OECD to establish the OECD Family database, which is a nice collection of data about things like fertility, public spending on family benefits and child care, parental leave, female employment etc. in the developed world.

One of the more interesting things is the correlation between fertility and the share of births outside wedlock.

The correlation is even clearer when you exclude the formerly communist countries as well as countries like Mexico and Turkey:

Now, obviously this flies in the face of the socially conservative meme that the dissolution of family values leads to the dissolution of society and people becoming too "selfish" to have children. Correlation is not causation, but I do feel that the share of births outside marriage is a useful proxy for how traditional the family structure is. The problem with the traditional family from a demographic perspective is that it often forces the mother to choose between career and children. In very traditional societies, where women do not have the opportunity to pursue careers, this does lead to high fertility rates. But once you give the women the opportunity to pursue careers, the traditional family structure makes them choose, and a lot of them will choose their careers and maybe one child. Countries with more flexible family structures that give women the opportunity to combine their careers with motherhood get a double bonus: both higher female employment rates, since those who would prioritize motherhood in a more traditional society get the chance to work, and higher fertility rates, since those who prioritize their careers have more children. Indeed, an often-noted trend in the demographic literature is the emergence of a strong correlation between female labor force participation rates and fertility in developed countries.

Note that this graph is from 2001. If I had the time to make a more recent one, it would show an even stronger relationship.


CV said...

Hi Aslak,

Very interesting point.

Clearly ... the ability of societies to combine the foundation for a flexible family structure with the ability of woman to control their fertility regardless of their labour supply decisions is a key issue.

So, for some economies there might be a win-win feedback loop in place (Scandinavia ex Sweden, France and perhaps the US (although the US is special for all sorts of reasons)).

The trick is of course how to lock in this feedback loop and especially so, how do all those emerging economies thundering towards replacement fertility and beyond arrive at locking in this positive correlation.

I mean, much will depend on their ability to do this I think.


Aslak said...

I agree. It is, I think, really a cultural issue and one which apparently is difficult to overcome in a lot of countries. I'm personally pessmistic about this for a lot of countries, but who knows? Sometimes cultural change can be very quick.

I think it's important to note that at least in the Nordic countries and France, the ability to combine careers and family life has been driven politically and is the result of a certain political agenda. I don't think countries like Spain really have something cultural against the idea anymore, but it hasn't been prioritized politically either. Perhaps this is cause for optimism?

The US is of course, as you mention, a special case here as well.

Cicerone said...

By the way, what are the measures of the UK on that topic? It seems that the UK is able to reach a fertility rate similar to France without the comprehensive family policy of France.

I would draw the line between catholic and protestant countries. Nearly all of the developed countries that are just a bit below replacement fertility are more protestant, with the exceptions being France, Belgium, Luxemburg and Ireland. France has early adopted a family friendly policy and is a more atheist country now. Luxemburg has a fertility that is between Germany's and France's, it has been influenced by both countries. Same with Belgium, it's also one of the less strict catholic countries. I would not speak of the American but of the Irish exception. All of the other developed catholic countries are below 1.5.

The exceptions on the protestant side are Switzerland and Germany. On a regional level, there are no differences. If you look at the other biconfessional country, the Netherlands, you can see differnces. But all of the other protestant developed countries are clearly above 1.5.

An interesting case are the baltic countries. Latvia and Lithuania are catholic and Estonia is protestant. So what happened? Estonia is out of the low fertility trap since a few years and is heading for rates common in other protestant countries. Latvia and Lithuania are still below 1.5. Orthodox countries are pretty much developing the same way as the catholic ones.

What describes the Irish exception?

Cicerone said...

Ok, edit: Latvia is more mixed between the confessions. It's fertility rate is at 1.45 in 2008, and maybe it'll follow Estonia's way, as the majority of the christians are protestant.

Anonymous said...

That is interesting. If the model (regarding more Protestant and more Catholic countries) holds across the Atlantic then the most Latin American countries might be similar to Catholic Europe (although perhaps with some variation).

By the way, Bulgaria's TFR seems to have moved up to 1.48.
Here is a link about Bulgaria's birth rate:

Randy said...


The thing about Estonia is that it's also a biconfessional country, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox, i.e. ethnic Estonian and Russophone. The information that I have suggests that the ~1.5 figure is an average of two significantly different populations, the ethnic Estonians behaving more like Nordic people and the Russophones behaving like, well, Russophones.

A similar divide may also be at work in Latvia, but I've not nearly enough knowledge to comment there.

One thing that has been noted about France and West Germany is that people in France are much more tolerant of different alternative family arrangements involving (say) daycare than their West German counterparts.

As for France, I wonder how much the various financial subsidies influence cohort fertility in the end. Wallonia and Francophone Switzerland presumably have similar cultures but also evidence relatively higher TFRs than other regions in their countries. Food for thought there!

Yes, yes, links are needed. I'll post them later.

Cicerone said...

Switzerland is very interesting. It seems that the different ethnic groups in Switzerland follow their companions in the main countries, demographically seen. French speaking Swiss people have fertility rates around 1.55 to 1.6, Germans have 1.45 and Italian speaking people have a TFR of a bit below 1.3. Funny, isn't it? It seems that even a union of these peoples that has lasted for at least 200 years cannot break different fertility patterns between different ethnic groups.

Randy said...

It's cohort fertility that matters in the end, of course; TFRs are only so useful.

For whatever it's worth, Québec does _not_ share the fertility patterns of France: Cohort fertility is 1.6 versus 2.0 or so in France, and the rise in TFRs recently is only the standard process of postponed fertility being partially recuperated. Québec's fertility patterns seem to be shared with English Canada's, actually.

Wolfgang said...

"It's cohort fertility that matters in the end"

It's direct-replacement fertility that matters in the end.

In the process of normal demographic transition, populations reach lows in fertilities which from then on increase again until they eventually reach or surpass generation-replacement fertility (the well-known 2.1 value). The developed countries with the currently highest fertilities are those having reached their fertility lows at first and therefore are already longer in a state of increasing fertilities.

The faster demographic transition occurs, the lower fertility actually falls. In Hong Kong which in 1960-1965 still had a fertility as high as 5.3, actual fertility fell (together with the theoretical direct-replacement fertility) below one child per woman in 2000-2005. Because in countries such as the Scandinavian and France, demographic transition was a slow continuous process, fertility levels there never reached really low lows.

Italian fertility for instance has been rising from 1.25 in 2001 to 1.41 in 2009 ( But whereas 9.8 million Italians are in the 35-44 age cohort, only 5.4 million are in the 5-14 cohort. So we can predict that the substantial decrease in fertile Italians will lead to a further substantial increase in fertility within the next 10 years. And this fertility increase will happen independently from other causes.

That the most "developed" countries are not only leading in the demographic transition but normally also in becoming less traditional and more decadent, is nevertheless an intriguing insight.

Aslak said...

Wolfgang, if I understand you correctly, you're saying that populations will naturally tend towards stable growth "independently of other causes", as you say. What would the mechanism be here? Much of the recovery in TFR in Europe is explained by stabilizing age at birth (see Nor is there a historic track record for what you're suggesting. Given the wide disparity in population density, there seems to be no reason to suggest that in the modern world there is anything like a "saturated population" in any given country.

Wolfgang said...

The concept 'saturation' as I use it in the demographic saturation theory is not an EXTERNAL but an INTERNAL property of populations. A population having reached saturation cannot grow further in number, independently from space, food and so.

Within a purely materialistic world-view (where organisms are essentially complex machines, in principle reproducible ad infinitum), a mechanism for internal saturation of populations (also entailing infertility) is hardly explainable. But even then, (internal) demographic saturation can be used as a purely heuristic hypothesis in order to make better demographic predictions.

I've been carefully watching the demographic evolution since I got convinced of demographic saturation many years ago, and I honestly can say that nothing happened I did not expect. So I have become quite confident that the limitations of human populations will continue to become more and more evident, and that the predicted substantial population declines will continue not to show up (in the absence of substantial emigration).

What now after the fact can be explained for some countries by "stabilizing age at birth", I've predicted 1997 in this way: "The groups having reached saturation at first, are the first with very low (sub-replacement) fertility, but they will also be the first whose fertility will increase again because of population aging."

By the way, what does the 'stabilizing age at birth' hypothesis predict for Hong Kong? At least from a superficial glance at the population pyramid, it seems not likely to me that the average number of lifetime births of the 45-49 cohort there comes close to the 'magic rate of 2.1'.

"Nor is there a historic track record for what you're suggesting."

What do you mean exactly?

Aslak said...

Well, what I meant by no historical track record is that there's no evidence of your theory as of now that isn't better explained by more conventional theory and there's plenty of evidence to the contrary -like Russia, where the population has been declining substantially despite net immigration.

As for Hong Kong, when age at birth stabilizes there, the total fertility rate will be substantially below replacement rate, but somewhat higher than now. This may not be a big problem for them since they can always attract immigrants from mainland China.

But then, I must admit to having a materialistic world view... As you say, time will show if you're right.

Wolfgang said...

Aslak: "... and there's plenty of evidence to the contrary - like Russia, where the population has been declining substantially despite net immigration."

I have dealt with this in the chapters 'The effect of migration on direct-replacement fertility' and 'The emergence of natural decrease' of my site. A quote from the first:

"Let us look at the breakdown of the Soviet Union which triggered substantial migration, not only because of an aggravation of the socio-economic situation but also because inhabitants coming from other republics became foreigners and often felt discriminated against in the new nations. The lingua franca Russian has been replaced more and more by the national languages, and inhabitants may not have been able or willing to learn these languages. In many cases the result has been emigration. But whereas older emigrants have tended to return to the nations where they or their parents had come from, younger persons often have preferred to emigrate to richer countries outside the former Soviet Bloc (Warsaw Pact). But if a substantial part of the migrants to e.g. Russia have been older people seeking a less unsecure life, and young people from Russia have emigrated to richer countries, then this obviously has negative effects on natural increase in Russia, even if the net migration rate is zero or positive. The reason is simple: immigration of older persons increases the number of deaths, whereas emigration of young persons reduces the number of births."

A quote from the second:

"All countries the natural increase of which in one of the five-year periods once fell below –0.2% per year in the absence of war, belong to the former Soviet Bloc after breakdown of communism [12]. These countries are considered by the 2006 revision as forerunners in the demographic transition insofar as they are the first which seem to confirm a prediction of standard demography, namely that low fertility eventually leads to a substantial population decline by natural decrease. However, such predictions of negative natural increase were not made for these Eastern countries [13] but for countries in the West which were more advanced in the demographic transition."

[13]: "On the contrary, still in 1992 the UN estimated that the population of the former Soviet Union would grow from 289 million in 1990, to 308 million in 2000, and further to 416 million in 2150 (Long-range World Population Projections: Two Centuries of Population Growth, 1950-2150. Sales No. E.92.XIII.3.)."

Aslak: "As for Hong Kong, when age at birth stabilizes there, the total fertility rate will be substantially below replacement rate, but somewhat higher than now."

Within the demographic saturation model it is easy to predict from the current population pyramid of Hong Kong with 260,100 in the 0-4 and 353,489 in the 60-64 age cohort (data from US Census) that fertility will again reach replacement fertility of 2.1 within 20 years.

Randy said...


"[W]hereas older emigrants have tended to return to the nations where they or their parents had come from, younger persons often have preferred to emigrate to richer countries outside the former Soviet Bloc (Warsaw Pact)."

Older people have emigrated to countries outside of the former Soviet Bloc as well. Russia, as by far the richest of the various CIS states, with a dominant cultural influence in the region thanks to the continued high fluency in Russia, and a workforce that depends substantially on migrants (temporary and otherwise) from the states on its periphery, has also received large numbers of young people.

"[S]uch predictions of negative natural increase were not made for these Eastern countries but for countries in the West which were more advanced in the demographic transition."

That's because people expected there to be natural population stability, and thought that what was going on in the North Atlantic world in the 1970s and 1980s was a blip.

One thought on demographic saturation (carrying capacity)? Italy and Japan might have much smaller land areas than (say) Kazakhstan or Congo and thus have less carrying capacity, but because of centuries and milennia of sustained investment Italy and Japan are able to support larger, denser, wealthier and healthier populations than either of those two countries. At the same time, it's Italy and Japan that are experiencing net natural decrease.

Wolfgang said...

Randy: "One thought on demographic saturation (carrying capacity)?"

Demographic saturation (of populations, not of regions), as I use it, has nothing to do with carrying capacity.

Randy: "At the same time, it's Italy and Japan that are experiencing net natural decrease."

Both are good examples of countries with a saturated population, where birth numbers remain close to death numbers.

Because Japan has a history as a "closed country" and migration is negligible, it actually represents an ideal example of demographic saturation. Its population is between 127,7 and 127,8 million already for some years now.

Italy's population is still increasing because of migration. According to, Italy had 576,659 births and 585,126 deaths in 2008. Interestingly more female deaths (female: 299,643, male: 285,483) corresponded to more male births (male: 296,138, female: 280,521). If this is a general trend, then we can expect an increase in the proportion of female births in the near future.

Aslak said...

Look, Wolfgang, you're proposing that there is some kind of natural balance where populations will stabilize and even that gender balance is inevitable. With respect, this is more of a mystical concept than a scientific one. Italy's sex ration at birth is where it should be and it's sex ratio at death is not surprising in an aged society because of higher female life expectancy which means there are simple more women around. Time will obviously show who is right, I remain deeply skeptical.

Antiglobalist said...

I'm getting more and more convinced that TFR values are pretty much misleading. Let's take Iran for example. They have a TFR of 1,71 which could give one the impression that Iran is loosing population, while in fact they still have 17.7 birth/1000 population and only 5.72 deaths/1000!, it's far away of loosing population.