Fertility: The Big Problem

Many folks want to save the world. Especially young, single, energetic folks. Especially if they also get to:

  1. Support their side in common political/etc. divides.
  2. Affiliate with statusful prestigious folks who share their cause.
  3. Network with other young energetic single folk in the process.
  4. Show off being informed on progress, options on this issue.
  5. Show off via gadget making, activity organizing, or art.
  6. Show devotion and self-control via paying exceptional costs.
  7. Have a vivid chance of making a huge personal difference.

But alas, while popular save-the-world causes offer many such perks, the cause of fertility, my guess for the world’s biggest problem today, is neglected in part because it offers few such perks.

The problem is this: If the falling-fertility trend of the last two centuries continues for another century (see fertility vs time and income here; more fertility stats here), we might well see a fully-developed world with fertility <1.5, lifespan >90, tax funded leisure for all over 65, and perhaps also >30% of GDP spent on “free” medicine for all. The resulting rapidly falling population would cut the scale economies that contribute to economic growth today. And strong intrusive innovation-limiting global governments might be required to keep young workers paying >75% income tax rates to support the retired masses. (Imagine young low-tax African nations forced at gunpoint to pay “their share” of the world’s retiree burden.)

Yes, robots might save us, yes even if they don’t growth will probably continue anyway, and yes eventually if incomes fell far enough or with enough time fertility would eventually rise again. So this is not directly an existential risk. But such a long stressful period would at least make us more vulnerable to other risks, risks that great filter considerations suggest are bigger than they seem. Yes, other potential problems may seem more serious than falling fertility, but remember those are mostly hypothetical, while falling fertility is actually happening.

This fertility problem is in principle easily reduced: just have more kids. But since that strategy offers few of the extra cause-perks listed above, I don’t expect fertility to become a popular cause. After all, we’ve seen this problem coming for a while, and it will take a long while to play out. So you can’t claim to be in the vanguard of a perceptive few who finally see the problem, or who will finally solve it. Elites have long been leaders in lowering fertility, making more-fertility folks seem lower status. The fertility problem doesn’t offer many excuses for new gadgets or networking events, and the joys of parenthood have long been explored in the arts. Furthermore, if you pick mates before having kids, having kids works poorly as an excuse to meet potential mates. Finally, your having more kids can only make a tiny dent in the overall problem, and the sacrifices you’d make to have kids would not be exceptional relative to your ancestors’ sacrifices. It is hard to tell grand hero stories here.

The good news is that we understand our likely biggest problem well enough that you can do something substantial about it, nearly as much as anyone can do. And, alas, that is also the bad news.

Now for many long quotes from two articles. First a recent article:

[The] Chinese fertility rate … now sits somewhere between 1.9 and 1.3, depending on who is doing the tabulating. … “In some major population centers—Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin among them—it appears that the average number of births per woman is amazingly low: below one baby per lifetime.” … By 2050, the age structure in China will be such that there are only 1.6 workers—today the country has 5.4—to support each retiree. …

America’s 2.06 is one of the highest fertility rates in the First World. Only Israel (2.75) and New Zealand (2.10) are more fertile. … China and America have yet to witness the effects of falling fertility because of demographic momentum. Populations increase even as fertility rates collapse, until the last above-replacement generation dies, after which the population begins contracting. The rate of contraction speeds up as each generation passes. No society has ever experienced prosperity in the wake of contracting population. …

In 2010, the Japanese fertility rate is 1.2. … the most prevalent new demographic archetype is the … “parasite single,” … college-educated, working women who live with their parents well into their 30s—not because they are too poor to pay rent, but because they spend their salaries on designer clothes, international travel, and fancy restaurants. The parasite singles are Japan’s biggest consumer group. ….

The problem with immigration as it relates to fertility isn’t the old complaint that the newcomers are out-breeding the natives. Rather, the problem is that the newcomers start behaving like natives too soon, with their [fertility] regressing quickly to the mean. … One of the best predictors of fertility is education. … It drops to 1.6 for [US] women with a graduate degree. One of the drivers of our fertility decline was the making of college de rigueur for middle-class women. …

Throughout history, governments have tried to get people to procreate. Augustus levied a “bachelor tax” on unmarried, aristocratic men. In 1927, Mussolini imposed a tax on all unmarried men between the ages of 25 and 65. … In 1944, … Stalin created the Motherhood Medal, given to any woman who bore at least six children. None of these attempts was successful. …

Singapore’s fertility rate was already in decline, having fallen from 5.45 in 1960 to 4.7 in 1965. … The government wanted to drive the fertility rate down even faster. .. Abortion was sanctioned—and even encouraged—at every stage. Parents who had more than two children were punished with no paid maternity leave and higher hospital charges for the delivery of the extra babies. Couples were encouraged to volunteer for sterilization. Parents who did so after having just one or two children were reimbursed for the medical costs of delivering those babies and their children were given preference in registering for the best schools.

The tactics were frighteningly effective. In 1976—just ten years after the campaign began—Singapore reached its target of 2.1. … But the rate kept diving, down to 1.74 by 1980. The biggest fertility decline came from the elites. … In an attempt to boost fertility rates among the elites, the government began offering big tax breaks to highly educated women who had three or more children. … None of it worked. … By 1984, Singapore’s fertility rate was 1.62 and falling. … Unpaid maternity leave for government workers was increased from one year to four years. … Yet the effort has met with total and unremitting failure. In 2001, Singapore’s fertility rate was 1.41. By 2004 it was 1.24. Today [in 2010] it is 1.1.

Next, a good 2006 Science article:

As fertility rates decline across the developed world, governments are offering big incentives for childbearing. Experts don’t expect them to have much effect.

The E.U. will lose between 24 million and 40 million people during each coming decade. … Population losses could bring a raft of negative economic consequences in the industrialized world, as well as greater stresses on social security and health care systems as the proportion of older citizens increases. … Some believe very low fertility rates are here to stay. … “While the additional [government] financial support is bound to be welcomed by parents, the overall effect on fertility is likely to be small.” … Both sides agree that falling fertility rates might be irreversible once they drop
below a certain level—what some demographers have begun to call the “low-fertility trap.” …

Demographers define a replacement-level [fertility] as 2.1—slightly more than a flat rate, to account for the small fraction of children who die before reaching reproductive age. Yet nearly all of the world’s industrialized nations have [fertilities] well below this magic number. … Only the United States, exceptional in the developed world, hits the replacement mark, with a [fertility] of 2.09. … Although [fertilities] remain high in some of the world’s poorest countries … the demographic transition is either under way or completed in most nations. … The process has taken place even in relatively poor countries such as Mexico, where [fertility] dropped from 6.5 to 2.5 between 1975 and 2005. … Demographers had [incorrectly] assumed that the decline would stop when replacement-level [fertilities] were reached. “During the early 1970s, everyone talked about the magic floor of replacement. … Nobody thought it would go below 2.1.” …

Several factors that make the [fertility] in the U.S. higher[:] … higher rate of unwanted pregnancies, … a lower unemployment rate, and a greater tendency for women to have children earlier in life, … [and] a stronger emphasis on religion and “traditional values” …

The key reason that economists and other experts are worried about low fertility rates is that they accelerate an overall “aging” of a population. … One way that many developed countries meet the challenge now is through immigration, which tends to increase the number of younger workers. Yet few demographers see immigration as the [long term] answer. …

The “window of opportunity” for family policies [to influence fertility] might actually be as little as 0.1 to 0.2 children per woman. … “Policies that would work would be so expensive that they will never be implemented.” … And some researchers have begun to think that it might actually be too late to reverse the trend in countries with the lowest fertility levels. … Once a nation’s [fertility] falls below 1.5, a downward demographic spiral sets in that makes it much more difficult to recover. … In Germany and Austria—nations with [fertility] of 1.39 and 1.36, respectively—young adults now consider their ideal family sizes to be as low as 1.7 children on average. “[In] Germany .. 30% of young people [are] not intending to have children. …

Reher maintained much of the world is now on the cusp of a prolonged period of population decline. The resulting population aging would lead to labor shortages even in developing countries. The result could be an economic disaster. … Santow … sees “nothing terrifying about a drop in the size of Europe’s population. Any decline will take time, and economies will adjust.”

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  • Josh Burroughs

    Anti-aging efforts are the other way out. Low reproductive rates are just what you need when people stop dying. If people aren’t getting older, they’ll be more likely to accept ‘retirement’ becoming a limited-time affair: you work for 50 years, then you get, say, 18 years off before starting a new career (which would incidentally be an excellent time to raise a child).

    • Hrm

      Agree with Josh. We need to achieve “functional immortality”; then we no longer need to reproduce. From a pure consent theory perspective, maintaining all existing lives is far more moral than creating new ones (since they have no ability to consent.) This is one of the big reasons I’m Childfree AND support things like SENS. Functional immortality gets rid of a whole slew of problems that have plagued us since we fell out of the trees (yes, it creates new ones, but with the infinite time we’d have to solve them, it’d likely be solvable eventually.)

      • Hedonic Treader

        Thank you for pointing out the non-consensual aspect of coming into existence. There’s a problem, however: Your future self can’t consent to his or her existence either, no matter how much you consent now.

        If you, say, consent to your future self’s torture, he/she will suffer even though you were the one consenting. Unfortunaetly,, consent is a broken concept ethically.

    • Abelard Lindsey

      This is correct. Just cure aging and the problem is solved straight away. Given the Carlson’s Curves progression of biotechnology and the emergence of DIY biology, I see no reason why aging cannot be cured by mid-century. Aging is a disease, plain and simple. It is silly to think of it any differently.

  • Makes sense, but isn’t a world economy dependent on an increasing population just a large-scale Ponzi scheme?

    • Increasing, yes. But replacement level fertility would be fine. (That’s not to say that it couldn’t increase for a while yet before settling on replacement level).

    • Gil

      Each generation has to more populous to pay for the previous generation? Yep, a Ponzi Scheme in a nutshell.

  • Robert Koslover

    Hmmm. Sounds like we can finally stop worrying about “overpopulation.”

  • lemmy caution

    You could do things to promote having kids if it comes to that.

    I actually think that reforms of the american university system would help. Parents spent a lot of time doing things with their kids that just might get them into a good college.


    It is seriously crazy. This limits the number of kids parents can comfortably have. If universities agreed to not look at that stuff for admissions, the over-regimented childhoods would decline and we could return to less intense child rearing styles and have more kids.

  • IVV

    If anything, wouldn’t population decline through lower fertility be much more friendly to human rights than various Malthusian catastrophes in which famine, disease, or war cause the population decline?

    The real question is how much of this decline is through choice and how much is through environmental stresses. If we are simply rationally deciding to have fewer children, then the world will adjust and under some future condition, we’ll decide to have more again. If environmental stresses related to high population are reducing fertility in ways that we are not consciously choosing, then if those stresses go away with falling population, we’ll have more children again later, and it’s not a problem.

    I would be very concerned if reduced fertility is due to environmental stresses that will remain in a future world with lower population. Although there may be some of that (artificial estrogens, for example) it does not appear to be the major driving force for lower fertility at this time.

  • Doug

    On the margin donating money to Mormon missions seems like a productive way to further this cause (I say this as a complete atheist with no affiliation with Mormonism). Consider that

    1) Mormons have much higher fertility then other comparable racial/socioeconomic groups.
    2) Unlike other high fertility subgroups Mormons are both politically and personally distrustful of large intrusive government and thus less likely to support expansive welfare states.
    3) Mormon culture is very work oriented, so more Mormons might make the typical person and culture overall shift towards production from leisure.
    4) Mormons are highly evangelical, so conversions have an exponential effect, making it easier to tilt the world towards Mormonism.
    5) Mormons tend to be very friendly, so the growth of this group is unlikely to cause as much tension as the growth of others.

    Of course there are a lot of potential downsides here. As an atheist I’m not exactly super pro-religion, but the reality is the best solution to the fertility problem in the first world is religion.

    • Jehu

      Doug, on your point 2, Mormons have their own internal welfare mechanisms. They really do take care of their own and they’re pretty good at shaming free-riders. They’re also an exceptionally survivable group, having maintaining refuges and stored supplies as points of doctrine. As a result they tend to fare pretty well in any post-apocalyptic or collapse fiction that doesn’t have an axe to grind against them.

  • David C

    Trends indicate average life expectancy will be in the high 80s at the beginning of the 22nd century, not over 100. It also seems unlikely that the 65 retirement age will remain the same for that entire time. At some future point, fertility will have to be 1, so it seems as though pushing for a higher retirement age (or more immigration) would solve this problem more easily and without all the potential hazards of an overpopulated planet.

  • Josh and David, yes raising retirement ages could help a lot; but will we?

    lemmy, but how could we discourage efforts to put kids ahead?

    Doug, I don’t see how to effectively promote religion.

    IVV, I don’t see the relation to rights.

    David, I lowered the postulated lifespan to >90.

  • This doesn’t sound like a low fertility problem. It sounds like an “old powerful people forcing young powerless people to support them” problem. The solution isn’t to have more kids, but to campaign for young-persons’ rights.

    That said, I’m going to try to have a bunch of kids, but only for the sake of the human gene pool.

    • Chris said “This doesn’t sound like a low fertility problem. It sounds like an “old powerful people forcing young powerless people to support them” problem. The solution isn’t to have more kids, but to campaign for young-persons’ rights.”


      So, um, who’s offering to bear all these fertile pregnancies? I notice that part, the part where women give up their bodies and lives for the better part of a year to birth infants, isn’t included in this “concern” for more babies with unmet needs being born.

      But then again, I’m a mother. Of course I’d think of it like that.

  • Someone

    The planet can’t continue to support even our current population at a good standard of living. We’re already consuming ecological services much faster than they grow. So we’re going to have a population decline sooner or later, and the world economy will just have to deal with it. Surely it’s better for humanity if this population decline happens through free choice of wealthy individuals to lower their fertility, rather than through a catastrophic ecological collapse, famine or war over vanishing resources.

    • Konkvistador

      Surely it’s better for humanity if this population decline happens through free choice of wealthy individuals to lower their fertility

      Wealth correlates with IQ which has high heritability. Think about the consequences if genetic engineering or mind uploading is more difficult than we imagine.

  • World human population is still doing OK at the moment:


  • other opinion

    Raising the retirement age (which I think is highly likely – eventually) solves a lot of the problem as others have said. It doesn’t solve the problem of increasing medical costs, however. The problem won’t be taxing young people at gun point to pay for older people’s 30 year retirement/vacation. It will be taxing young people to pay for older people’s health care costs.

  • Radek

    So, what’s the New Zealand story? Why do they have a very nice kids/woman ratio? They seem to be quite relaxed bunch of people, but how/why do they make so much more kids than people in other developed countries?

  • I agree with most commenters here. The idea of keeping the global population growing indefinitely so that it doesn’t throw off the balance of social security is very short-sighted.

    In fact, the whole economic assumption that only a growing economy is a healthy economy is bunk. We live on a finite planet with finite resources and people, clearly growth cannot continue indefinitely unless we start to expand and settle on (read: exploit) other planets.

    The ideal should, rather, be a stable population size in a society in which everyone has access to the basic needs, as well as opportunity to make more if they so choose.

    I think it’s this idea of never-ending growth; of every years profit should be greater than the last; which is inevitably leading to the compromise of human rights, and responsibilities towards future generations, and towards life on earth in general.

    I guess the old wisdom may be true, that happiness isn’t found in having what you want but wanting what you have. 😉

    BTW, Ive been reading this blog occasionally for a while, but this is my first time interacting. I just launched my own blog which you can find by clicking my name. Im looking forward to more discussions!

  • The fertility problem doesn’t offer many excuses for new gadgets

    I see plenty of high-status technology advances for which the fertility problem would provide a good excuse. Mind uploading, Aubrey de Grey’s plans, robots that handle the unpleasant parts of caring for children, alternatives to burdening mothers with a nine month gestation period (possibly made high-status by labeling them as care for premature babies).
    There are enough possibilities for reducing the costs of fertility and/or increasing lifespans that I have trouble believing there will be a fertility problem.

  • I suspect that if you presented this argument to women, they’d have a stronger visceral reaction against it than men do. As a man I do have economic and some caretaker responsibility in childraising, but the childbirth cost to women in terms of status-seeking and earnings is higher. The prospect that low childbirth is bad for society is viscerally unappealing, for the same reasons that I have a visceral reaction against arguments claiming institutionalized sexism that not only lower my status but are likely to result in more costs to me.

    Of course from an abstract standpoint you could say that currently child-free people are free-riding on the benefits of fertility-aided economic growth while skipping the un-fun and status-reducing process of having kids. But that’s no help from a persuasion standpoint.

    I suspect the best way to spread this idea is to frame it in terms of raising the status of mothers. Childless women will still hate you but at least you are perceived as being pro-woman. Men, with less at stake either way, are more likely to judge your argument on the merits.

  • Chris, there are several problems reinforcing each other. Yes, forced assistance is one of them.

    other, yes forced medical assistance is another problem.

    Someone and Levi, yes the universe is probably finite, but we are a long long way from fundamental limits.

    Peter M, those techs are far from feasible now.

    Peter W, I have been trying to raise the status of moms, and some consider me anti-woman because of that.

  • Matt

    I don’t really see a problem with dependancy rates. If you aren’t supported by kids then old people work until they die or become to senile to work. What are we, countries that actually need physical labour (the only niche where being young gives you a strong advantage)? You save on education, training and child support what you spend on supporting the elderly (and if you can’t make up the difference, then the fact of the matter is that everyone dies eventually).

    Why do people expect to be “retired”? Where does this assumption come from? It doesn’t exist in hunter gatherers or our agricultural predecessors (as per Bryan Caplan), so must be the product of modernity and likely either changes in time preference or elite emulation.

  • And strong intrusive innovation-limiting global governments might be required to keep young workers paying >75% income tax rates to support the retired masses. (Imagine young low-tax African nations forced at gunpoint to pay “their share” of the world’s retiree burden.)

    Hint: You don’t need taxes or gunpoints for it. High housing costs, high tuition, salary scales tilted against the young, and so on are used much more successfully to take money away from people who actually create prosperity. There’s no evidence of this being difficult at all – many developed countries place ridiculous burden upon their youth, and there have been no rebellions so far. (this is highly destructive economically, but really easy politically)

    If it becomes economically problematic, the old club can simply increase joining age for the following generations. The pensioners (who are already retired) and the youth (who would carry a lot of burden of supporting middle aged folks now, but would suffer only mildly from increased retirement age in the future) have shared interest in increasing retirement age, against wishes of middle-aged folks. This has been tried successfully in many countries, with fairly minor difficulties.

    There is no stable coalition of present and future pensioners, making it unlikely that runaway pensions you imagine will develop.

  • Yeah, as I said, childless women and their allies will still resent you, and accusing you of being anti-woman is the easiest way to do it. But at least some currently-childless people align themselves with child-rearers, so if you can make the argument that of proudly childless vs. folks with kids and singles who either want kids or are aligned with that lifestyle, you’re close to winning the argument.

    And it seems like that coalition the best you can do with an argument that does, after all, accuse the childless of contributing to a big problem.

  • I intuit that the strain of thought that it’s too expensive to get people to make replacement level nuclear families through policy is probably right.

    I like the idea of industrializing procreation of the common dystopic variety, which I think would be easier to make cost-effective than policy targeting nuclear families. This would require known costs, scaled up, of purchasing eggs and sperm, renting wombs, and paying foster parents or orphanages. We could target genetic donors and nurturers that would maximize our economic return. I’m surprised you don’t list it as an option here.

  • Well the evidence for scale effects is pretty weak in the modern world. Even so called weak scale effects (population growth increasing productivity growth) tend to get rejected by the data. (Despite virtually all endogenous growth models predicting them.) So I would be sceptical about the relevance of the claim that:

    No society has ever experienced prosperity in the wake of contracting population

    I say this as someone who works exclusively with models containing weak scale effects…

    • Do you really think that if Britain closed its borders entirely and produced everything at home, it would just as rich?

      • No, of course. But that’s not quite the same thing. No one would dispute that there are gains from international trade, or that at least with very low levels of (world) population there are scale effects coming from e.g. specialization. Likewise, no one would dispute that there are returns to population density, (though it’s not obvious that a declining world population will necessarily mean declining median density, given the continuing trend towards urbanization).

        My impression of what the empirical studies are telling us is that these scale effects have been pretty much exhausted in the modern world. The gains from further increases in scale are negligible. (It’s easy to tell stories in which they’re negative even: increasing product variety makes product choice more costly; increasing labour specialization makes our jobs more tedious.) The question then is how much smaller could the world population be without us experiencing a significant drop in productivity.

        Over the time scales we’re talking it’s not hopelessly naive to expect a reasonable reduction in the variance of the world income distribution, driven by technological catch-up and “development” more generally. If this is valid then certainly we could cope with sizeable drops in population. Large chunks of the world not-currently connected to world markets will be coming “on-line”. Even if inequality remains at current levels, and the trend towards urbanization halts, I’d still expect population could fall by 50% or something without a major drop in quality of life in the long-run. Sure the opening ceremony of the Olympics would be less impressive, but that’s probably about it…

  • Also if you start intrade play money market for population collapse, I’d be happy to bet play money against you. This is extrapolation from very brief and atypical trend – I expect rebounce in a few decades (over 50:50 for >2.1 global fertility by 2100) once everyone adjusts to shocks of longer education. An obvious way it will happen is more technology to help women in 30s, 40s, and 50s who want kids have them – it’s just becoming available as we speak.

    I’ve seen no evidence that serious pro-fertility efforts ever failed, or that any were ever attempted.

    Oh, and Iceland is an interesting example of fairly high fertility country with family system of extremely post-modern variety. I wouldn’t be surprised if other countries moved that way.

  • Daniel Burfoot

    Others noted that the real problem is not population decline per se, but the fact that young people are obligated to take care of the retirees. So here’s a solution: make retirement age dependent on having children. If you have four kids, you can retire at 50, three kids, 55, two kids, 60, one, 65, zero, 70.

    • Staal

      This is a decent suggestion to be considered.

  • Low-fertility societies may have high-fertility subsets, and extrapolations look quite different when you take them into account. So then the question might be, who are the members of those subsets?

    • Jess Riedel

      To me, this is the key idea. (I made a similar comment at HackerNews awhile back.) Unless all the world governments agree to some pretty totalitarian restrictions on fertility, the high-fertility subsets of the populations will dominate on the scale of 100-200 years.

      That the world’s population will continue increasing doesn’t bother me because, like Robin Hanson, I think more humans is better than fewer humans. What does bother me is that the high-fertility subset (which will “inherit the earth”) need not be–though might be–the kind of people I’d like to have around.

    • But if their high fertility is because they are less far through the demographic transition, they’ll just have the fertility fall later. Its not clear there are any groups with robust heritable high fertility. Eventually there will be, but that could take a while to play out.

      • Jess Riedel

        But if their high fertility is because they are less far through the demographic transition, they’ll just have the fertility fall later.

        This is plausible on the scale of countries (we expect India to have a fall in birthrate once their per capita income approaches the first world) and maybe even for racial groups (e.g. mexican immigrants in the US) but why do you believe it to be true for all groups (e.g religious groups)? The mormons in the US have about the same high per-capita income as everyone else, yet maintain high birthrates.

  • Dear Robin: I wonder why you haven’t brought up the topic of freezing eggs as a solution.

  • There’s a really easy policy change that would solve this problem, at least in countries with forms of government that don’t involve allowing old “childfree” people to pilfer the pockets of younger generations they played no part in raising via the ballot box. Just get rid of Social Security and Medicare-like programs. My African friend says that, in his country, your kids are your social security and medicare. If you don’t have kids, you can try being extra-nice to nieces or nephews and hope they take care of you. Otherwise, you can go fuck yourself. Hence Africa’s high birthrates.

    • Abelard Lindsey

      Here’s my future.


      What do I need kids for.

      • coldequation

        Dream on. It won’t be ready in time for you. Your future is most likely to die of old age like the rest of us.

      • Abelard Lindsey

        Guess again, dude.

        I’ve cryonics as the back up option. What do you have, dude?

      • Abelard Lindsey

        In any case, I think you’re wrong. I expect to make it.

    • Peter Jones

      Talk about a self-reductio. There is no problem of low population, since low population countries are high in wealth and all things desirable. OTOH, counties where your children are the social security system are poor BECAUSE of their high populations.

      • Margin

        Correlation vs. causation and so on.

        I don’t understand why kids can be social security for their parents.

        I never signed off on such an obligation, my parents can go fuck themselves.

      • Peter Jones

        Your inability to understand why children can be social security, which is in fact a widespread and well attested phenomenon,  seems to be based on trying to extrapolate from your own psychology, which is an unusual one to say the least.

  • Gil

    Gee, if any country wants baby-hyperinflation that bad then all they have to do is ban birth control and abortion and be hardcore in enforcing this to squash any serious black markets. In no time you’ll have a Malthusian famine and be wondering why more babies are desirable.

    It was said when the days before modern medicine were still in living memory that the sudden upsurge in population throughout the 20th century was the disappearence of the infectious diseases that swept a great many to an early grave despite an extremely high fertility rates (by today’s standard).

    However why are more babies required in this day and age when most babies will survive to adulthood? Even if the world’s women let the world population go down to 2 billlion then the world is more populous than all of human history up to 1927.

    Why presume this depopulation is going to be permanent and women are going to let the human race to become extinct? That is to say, why presume a person who’s dieting is subconciously working towards starvation? You don’t suppose when the population comes down and each person feels too well oof such that more babies are welcome then the fertility rate will start up again?

    I personally believe world population ought to come down and having sub-replacement rates is the gentle approach. As others have already pointed out requiring more babies than the previous generation to support their welfare state is a Ponzi Scheme which can only end in Malthusian failure. Sooner or later one generation of oldies are going to realise they can’t retire and if they try to get violent about it then the younguns are going to get rid of them Logan’s Run style.

    • Jess Riedel

      In 1927 we didn’t have 1 billion retirees to support.

      • Gil

        In 2011 there’s almost 6 billion people to support them. Besides why can’t younguns just tell the oldies to keep working until they drop because they have no intentions of subsidising them while they’re healthy?

  • Prakash

    A fairly simple way to refute any “not enough people” argument is to point out the unemployment rate. If the argument is true, employment should be tending to 100%. That is nowhere near the case.

    • We obviously have a shortage of customers and investors.

      BTW, we had a high unemployment rate in the 1970s and early 1980s. Did the population shrink in the course of the following two decades?

    • Peter Jones

      It looks like the people who want to maximise the population are seeking a supply of soldier, not workers


  • Prakash

    My comment went in too soon.

    There are many nits to pick with this argument.

    Pointed out by many people – Pay as you go Social Security is a ponzi scheme. Real social security invests in infrastructure or other productive activities and pays its beneficiaries through sustainable dividends.

    Plus, sweden and france have managed to improve their birth rates. Their policies can be studied.

    Elites seem to have many kids, eg. Angelina Jolie. I remember reading an article where a true status symbol among hedge fundies in NY was a large family. Also, family oriented comedies like “Everybody loves Raymond” have large families.

  • “yes the universe is probably finite, but we are a long long way from fundamental limits.” You can’t honestly dismiss the issue that easily.

    The next truly hospitable planet (mars can have a base, but can’t sustain a large population) is many many light year, and actual years away.

    We just cannot conscientiously rely on theoretical future technologies like brain uploading, deep space travel, terraforming, which are in their infancy, to solve a problem that is fast approaching.

    Perhaps we will break past the one planet barrier, but if we don’t start thinking about long term sustainability on this planet, as things are now, then I fear we’ll run into some serious natural limits that may cause suffering on a scale we haven’t yet seen. maybe. I hope not.

    • Gil

      People can’t live on Mars for long because the gravity is too weak.

      • People probably can’t live in weightlessness too long because of physiological effects, but there is no evidence that lower gravity regimes have similar problems.

      • A couple of hours after writing the above comment, I found these through HN.

        To Boldly Go: A One-Way Human Mission to Mars

        Scientists propose one-way trips to Mars

      • Dan Weber

        This is not known. Zero gravity has problems, which may or may not be fixable.

        But lessened gravity is a much different beast. It will probably have both positive and negative side effects.

  • Vlad

    Low reproductive rates are just what you need when people stop dying.

    There’s an additional issue: innovation seems to be related to youth. If an aging population will be less innovative that could be a real problem. The reason we don’t have “limited resources” is that we constantly come up with improved extraction technologies that increase the amount of available resources. But if the rate of innovation drops low enough, we might end up facing a “limited resources” problem after all.

    • Gil

      God knows old people hate change!

    • Abelard Lindsey

      This is a manifestation of the aging process itself. Curing aging and the problem goes away.

  • Curt Adams

    I wish long-term low fertility rates were a problem. A world with a standard of living high enough to produce 2 kids per family with current preferences would be a pretty nice end to genetic-cultural evolution. Unfortunately, it won’t happen. There’s guaranteed to be genes that incline their carriers to prefer larger families and they will be selected for quite quickly in a world with voluntary fertility limitation.

    In a couple centuries, rapidly rising population would return absent extreme and probably intolerable measures to restrict fertility (roughly speaking, individuals have to lose the ability to choose large families, like China’s one-child policy but with stricter enforcement.) There might be an even faster road to overpopulation via coevolution of high-fertility subcultures and genetic tendencies to closemindedness to keep offspring within the subcultures. (cf Amish, Mormons, some ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects).

    In any case, the long-term problem, assuming no existential disasters, is overpopulation, not underpopulation.

  • Raising the retirement age is not required as there’s large unemployement among the young people. The age should be lowered, actually.

  • CaptBackslap

    There’s currently a lot of surplus labor in industrialized countries. Besides high unemployment/underemployment, there are a lot of jobs that could be automated easily (as is already happening for jobs like supermarket cashier), and others that provide low enough utility that they just wouldn’t be missed in a very tight labor market (such as dog-track owners or hedge-fund managers). Overall, I think population could drop off substantially, and still have the average person experience a net utility gain.

  • Guy

    Nice encapsulation of the population issues. Generally, just at the point when a society/subgroup/ increases in competency as to reduce poverty, ignorance, abuse, etc. It stops having kids, i.e.: the ones that benefit the most in the new environment.

    I profess to have an economist’s view on the matter. The opportunity cost of having children is much greater than the “marginal utility” of having additional children after your first, especially for women.


  • Matt

    No society has ever experienced prosperity in the wake of contracting population

    I cannot puzzle out exactly what is meant by this? Societies have experienced increases in per capita wealth and nutrition with population contractions before (see Nick Szabo’s blog http://unenumerated.blogspot.com/ and his Malthusian isoclines). We all know the oft cited Black Death example.

    Societies may never have experienced absolute growth during periods of population decline (a claim of which I would be skeptical, and it’s not like we have any records of population contraction in countries undergoing post-Industrial Revolution growth) but who cares? The point of growth is to make things better for people “who exist”, it isn’t just “more”. What is the value in growth in a general sense opposed to growth that actually benefits people who already exist?

  • jemand

    so in the 1960’s the total births per woman rate was about 3.5 in the US, and now it is down to about 2. Women didn’t work as much in the 50’s, and 60’s either, so a family of 5.5 was supported on a single income. Now both parents work and support only two children between them.

    So even though there weren’t that many retirees to support in 1950/1960, a wage-earner could be supporting 4.5 *additional* people. Now, a wage-earner supports a single child, the spouse supports the other child, so he or she could support 3.5 retirees. Also, retirement times, because the life expectancy of the US is only 78 years, so retirement years would be only 13 years, as compared to the 18 years that the 50’s worker would support a child, or the lifetime a man supported his wife then.

    I really don’t see the economic problem. This sounds like it could be a pretty gentle population decline, followed by stabilization. And like people already mentioned, a major problem right now is high unemployment among younger people, a problem that goes back before just this last shock though it’s much worse now. “More people” is definitely NOT the solution when the people we have now are not employed. We need more jobs and efficient mechanisms so that those with jobs can support dependents– retirees and children.

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  • the27th

    The standard issues have already been addressed: reform entitlements and pensions to adapt to longer lifespans, develop cures for aging, and the problem will go away. In the US, simply raising the retirement age to 70 will take care of the budget issues for 20 more years.

    Instead, I’d like to make a personal comment: isn’t it a bit intrusive to tell people what to do with their wombs? The life of a successful career woman can be a lot more appealing than the life of a household drudge. You’re not just asking for the sacrifice of income, but of intellectual stimulation, adult company, and respect.

    I’m a woman who hasn’t yet had children. The prospect of having kids one day is appealing but terrifying. Up until now, I’ve been a person. My main skills have been academic; people have listened to what I’ve said and written. I’ve even received a little respect for doing what I love. The possibility of losing all that and becoming just “Mommy” is… not pleasant. I wouldn’t do that to save a thousand lives.

    • sestamibi

      Then people like you will do the rest of us a favor and die out, while others continue their genetic lines. Just how long do you think the “respect” you get will last? After you’re gone, you and your ego will be completely forgotten.

      As all the above posts conclude, where women and childbearing are concerned, all the carrots in the world will not work. Only the stick of patriarchy does. Those groups who embrace it will prosper, while others will go extinct.

      Here, read this:


  • CJ

    One way to raise the status of having kids might be to make them cost more. I mean, right now ANYONE can have kids. Not just anyone can have, for example, a new ferrari.

    So how could one make kids more exclusive? So that people with resources would view the opportunity cost comparison more favorably?

    What about making it so everyone is, at birth, given the right to have, say, 1.05 kids. Or some such. And then those rights are trade-able. But the prices are completely unregulated. (Ignore, for a moment, the issues of how this would be enforceable.)

    That would make it so that merely having a kid was a status symbol. Having more kids would be an even greater status symbol.

    Just as importantly, it could could help allocate children to those that are really interested in raising them.

    Other than the enforceability issue (which I believe could be overcome–look at China), could this work?

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  • urangst

    You never really made the case that falling fertility is a problem. Scale economies are by no means the only factor affecting growth. To increase productivity, economies of scope are at least as important, and innovations lately tilt input ratios toward capital and away from labor. And the fixation on generational income transfers conveniently distracts us from another way to fund a shrinking world: redistribution. The miracle of compound interest coupled with high and rising inequality, means there’s lots of room for that. Redistribution might well have significant positive externalities (though I’m guessing GMU is not big on The Spirit Level), and so could well be pareto optimal, or near enough, on a per capita basis. Anyway, the aging rentiers that endow GMU can afford it.

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  • ivf

    @sestamibi You have no right to suggest any one “to die”. Being mom is a omen personal matters because its her who suffer at all. So respect them if they are not willing for it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

  • John Maxwell IV

    One idea is to promote books such as *The 17 Little Miracles* that depict large families as interesting, fun, and desirable.

    • Margin

      Reminds me of Chinese propaganda to make 1-child families palatable.

      Why even bother.

      If people don’t want kids, let them not have kids.

      The correct bullet to bite is to limit socialized care for the elderly and make it private. If you can’t afford private care, and you’re over 85, you’re offered a painless death instead.

      I could live with that, I don’t want to be old anyway.

  • A_jason49

    Two major problems with this article:
    1) Quoted/Plagiarized two other articles in near entirety
    2) Increasing fertility will only lead to overpopulation and under-resourced families – The human population has never stopped expanding and has only accelerated in growth rates. This article’s old (outdated) opinion needs to be thrown away.

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