When a couple decides to have children, they rarely, if ever, contemplate the effect this has on the nation. But population scientists do. The effect that birth rates have on society is critical—as basic as knowing whether a nation is sustaining their population or not. But, trying to figure out if birth rates are going up or down is also complex, not unlike taking our temperature by feeling our foreheads.
A good barometer of birth rate assesses the average number of births per woman, and is generally noted by country. For a country to sustain its population in the future, the replacement rate is 2.1, or 2.1 births to every woman. What has occupied the minds of population scientists over the past 20 years is the fact that birth rates have dropped around the world, especially in Europe, but also in China and Japan. Interestingly, many countries in Africa do not have this problem, with birth rates well above 4.
Also notable is the fact that in the past 20 years, the population of the world has dropped, falling an average of 1% per year. You can imagine how much this issue has occupied the minds of population scientists who seek to explain the phenomenon. Contributing factors include changing attitudes about family size, the cost of raising a child and the wider availability of contraceptives. The birth rate may also be dropping because child mortality on the whole has dropped. Or, because women who choose to have children later create a temporary lull in the birth rate. One concern with population drops is that countries whose populations become too small may not be able to afford to support its infrastructure, causing economic decline. So, on the one hand, it’s expensive to raise a child. On the other, it’s also expensive not to.
A recent study however, does show a change in these trends. Fertility rates now show a recent increase in developed nations. For years it has been thought that for some reason, developed nations, including most of Europe, have steadily dwindling populations. But this may not actually be the case. For example, in the 1970s, the US fertility rate was at a low of 1.74; lately it’s been relatively stable at 2.05. It appears that children are still wanted in a modernized world.
It’s quite hard to see these trends in my daily medical practice, as I perform as many vasectomies as I do vasectomy reversals. It’s even harder to render an opinion when the information is so diffuse and generational. So, to population scientist, I am a professionally “neutral contributor” to fertility rates. Like to think I do more good than that though…