Birthrates in the UK and similar countries have collapsed. It spells doom for our economy, and our culture.
In order for a population to remain steady over time the fertility rate must be 2.1 children per women. With more than 2.1 the population will grow and with less than 2.1 it will decrease. Not a single Western country has a fertility rate at 2.1 or above; Ireland and the US get the closest with 2.0.
This means that, without non-Western immigration, the population of the West will decrease. This is probably the greatest threat facing the West right now. This is so partly for economic reasons and partly for cultural reasons.
There is mixed evidence on whether, in general, population growth leads to economic growth. But in the current situation of the West, a decrease in population would have disastrous consequences for economic growth. The McInsey Global Institution estimates that declining population will lead to a 40% reduction in economic growth.
The situation for the West is even worse when we remember that the economic model of the West is that future generations pay for current ones. Virtually all Western countries have budget deficits. This means that they must borrow, and the repayment will have to be done by the next generation. The same goes for social security and pensions. The working people of today pay for those who are now retired. This model is fine so long as we can ensure that future generations will be more productive than current ones. But with population decrease this cannot be guaranteed.
Culturally, this population decrease might also mean the death of Western Civilisation.
Now, what “Western Civilisation” means is contested. Some people just use it as a dog whistle to mean “white people”; let’s discount that racist view. The better view is that Western Civilisation is about culture.
But what culture? It is either Hellenism, Christianity, the Enlightenment, or the neo-liberal/progressive individualism of late/post-modernity. But, whichever of those views is correct, for the West to survive it needs to have a population that is inculcated in those set of values. Unlike with the ethnic view, non-Western immigration can be a solution to the decreasing population.
But that non-Western immigration would have to be done at a rate where it would be possible for the people coming in to be assimilated to Western values (whatever your preferred interpretation of that might be). Assimilation takes time; and the higher the rate of immigration the more difficult it is. This is assuming assimilation even happens. One common complaint against immigration nowadays is that not enough is being to done to help the migrants assimilate.
What can be done to solve this problem that the West is facing?
There seems to be three solutions. One is to get the fertility rate back up to 2.1. This would solve the underlying problem.
The second would be to change the economic system so that each generation would pay for itself without having to rely on the next. This would prevent most of the negative economic consequences, and it would mean that only low levels of migration would be needed to maintain the cultural West.
The third would be to dramatically increase non-Western immigration. This would solve the economic problem but it would be at the cost of changing the culture of the West.
East Asia has the same problem as the West, but at an even more advanced stage. The fertility rate in Japan is 1.4 and in Singapore it is 1.3. Singapore has attempted to solve the problem through increased immigration: 64% of the population of Singapore are non-citizens. The Singaporean government proposed in 2013 to increase the population of the country by 100,000 each year (mostly) through immigration. This proved very controversial.
Japan, on the other hand, has decided not to rely on immigration. Unlike Singapore, Japan is much more ethnically, culturally and linguistically unified: this might explain their much greater reluctance to take in immigrants. Only 1.6% of the population is non-Japanese and there is little appetite for increasing that number. Japan is attempting to solve the problem by getting people to work longer, making changes in its social care system, investing in new technologies and encouraging women to enter the labour market. Whilst the government is also encouraging people to have more children the signs are not encouraging.
What can the West do to avoid those problems? Changing the economic system so that each generation pays for itself would be very difficult. Austerity measures are very unpopular and they have not even succeeded at getting countries to a budget surplus (this is an advantage Singapore has over us: they always get budget surpluses). As for mass non-Western immigration, this would appear to be politically very difficult to achieve.
One just has to look at the concerns over Eastern European migration to the West, or Mexican migration to the US. This is not a value judgement in favour of or against those concerns. It is a purely descriptive point. Given that fact, it would appear that non-Western migration at a pace sufficient to replace a missing generation of children would be politically impossible to achieve. And even if it were the case the question would remain whether assimilation can be done so that Western Culture (whatever that means) is preserved.
The final solution would then be to increase the fertility rate. How could this be done? Russia has attempted to do so by encouraging larger families. Putin created an award which he personally gives out to families of more than 7 children, and in addition the government provides generous support for large families. The Russian government also restricted access to abortion (Russia, the first country to legalise abortion, has the highest abortion rates in the world after China).
It is unlikely that such campaigns to encourage people to have children would succeed in the West. In Italy (fertility rate of 1.4, like Japan) a campaign to encourage women to have children was criticised as sexist and fascist.
Furthermore, not having children is seen as increasingly socially acceptable and, even in countries with liberal abortion laws like the UK, there is very little appetite for restricting the limit at which one can be obtained.
As for financial incentives to have more children, the UK government has done the opposite by capping Universal Credit at 2 children. In any event, the expectation that people go to higher education and start a career before having children means that the average age of first-time mothers in the West is over 27 years old. This does make it unlikely that a woman would have more than two children. It would take a massive change in social norms to change to create the situation where increasing the birth rate would be possible.
So barring radical economic or social changes the West is screwed (pardon the pun). If you want to try and do something about it, get off the Internet and go have three babies (notwithstanding what Millennials might think, sex is fun).
Rajiv Shah is a PhD candidate in Law at the University of Cambridge. Subscribe to the Quad. Or, read Rajiv’s last article here. Our featured painting is Cole Thomas’ “The Course of Empire: Destruction”.