Research News

Changing the Perspective on Low Birth Rates: Why Simplistic Solutions Won’t Work

November 16, 2022

Khalifa University’s Prof. Stuart Gietel-Basten argues that policies responding to population decline should concentrate on tackling the key institutional challenges associated with population aging and support reproductive empowerment. 


As the global population hits 8 billion people, it’s hard to imagine that most countries around the world are experiencing population decline. But low birth rates are plaguing nations and most are reacting, though not necessarily in the right way.


With researchers from the Finnish Population Research Institute and the Vienna Institute of Demography, Prof. Gietel-Basten notes that low birth rates, linked to population aging and stagnation, are a source of concern around the world. However, he argues, governments are responding with policies designed to “fix” the problem, rather than tackling some of the institutional challenges associated with aging and population stagnation.


Their analysis was published in the British Medical Journal.


“The news that birth rates hit record low levels in many countries in Europe, Asia, and the Americas in the past decade was met with some alarm globally,” Prof. Gietel-Basten said. “More than half the world’s population lives in countries with a total fertility rate below two children per woman. In South Korea, the rate fell to 0.81 children per woman in 2021, an unprecedented low for any country in peacetime. Adversities and anxieties linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, the geopolitical climate, and climate change may further contribute to fertility declines.”


Lower fertility rates, coupled with increased life expectancy, are creating an aging population, which comes with a number of economic risks, including rising healthcare costs and a smaller global workforce.


“As a primary engine of population aging and stagnation, low birth rates are often viewed as a threat to welfare systems, healthcare, and the economy,” Prof. Gietel-Basten said. “Rather than reforming their systems through altering the pension age or raising tax, many governments have sought to find a demographic solution by pursuing top-down, target-driven policies to encourage childbearing. Such policy responses have questionable justifications, limited effect on fertility and potentially harmful effects on sexual and reproductive health, human rights, and gender equality.”


Across the globe, birth rates have decreased. There are a number of theories to explain this, including women’s empowerment, lower child mortality, and the increased cost of raising children. Research shows higher education in women and more women in the workplace are correlated with lower fertility, as is greater access to contraception.


Almost all countries with a total fertility rate below 1.5 have policies in place to raise fertility. And research shows that people in countries with low fertility rates do, on average, want to have more children than they do. Many governments have launched policies intended as quick and politically favorable fixes, but Prof. Gietel-Basten argues they should follow the principles set out at the 1994 International Conference of Population and Development to deliver a sustainable response to low fertility.


“The 1994 ICPD affirmed that sustainable demographic change was key to shaping macroeconomic prospects,” he said. “However, its program of action marked a paradigm shift by focusing on reproductive health, gender equality, and individual well-being rather than governmental needs or demographic targets. The core principles remain valid today: Individuals should be empowered to realize their reproductive goals on the basis of human rights, dignity and gender equity within the context of sexual and reproductive health.”


The researchers point out that many countries have adopted pronatalist policies that use “narrowly oriented interventions” to encourage or pressure women to have more children. These include “baby bonuses” in Singapore, which pay out more for couples with three or more children; interest-free loans to prospective parents in Hungary, and the one-off “maternity capital” benefit in Russia for mothers who have two or three children.


“Of equal importance to the actual policies is the rhetoric surrounding them, which often combines the ‘mission’ to raise birth rates with a promotion of conservative family values, where women have a responsibility and duty to bear children and thus secure the future of the nation,” Prof. Gietel-Basten said. “By promoting the child-rearing role of mothers while ignoring men’s contribution, top-down pronatalist policies and discourses tend to re-impose conservative family and gender roles and reverse progress on gender equity and rights for sexual and gender minorities.”


The researchers say this is a miscalculated approach. Pronatalist policies tend to ignore the socioeconomic factors at play in their countries: Simply put, they say, if babies that are born because of pronatalist policy move away to work elsewhere at the earliest opportunity, the net population impact is zero.


The gap between fertility aspirations and actual family size is often a symptom of societal and economic dysfunction. Comprehensive policies to support the healthy growth and development of families will be more effective at reviving birth rates, as broadening access to health and social policies makes having a family a more viable option. The researchers point out that policies supporting both partners’ involvement in child-rearing are needed: Gender-sensitive family policies can offset some of the indirect costs of having a family, which are disproportionately shouldered by women, and policies to help with family finances can reduce poverty among families with children.


“The best family-friendly policies today are aligned with human and reproductive rights and support families to maximize social and economic well-being rather than arbitrary goals of the state,” Prof. Gietel-Basten said. “Governments concerned about demographic trends should give more priority to initiatives to prevent infertility and involuntary childlessness; provide skills and services to young adults; and develop educational and medical services sensitive to the needs and wishes of different families without stigmatizing child-free lifestyles.”


The researchers advocate for policies that tackle major societal issues, including urgent reform of health and welfare systems. Such slow and steady measures don’t tend to be favorable for governments focused only on their political popularity, but tackling these key institutional challenges will enable all citizens to reach their full potential and support reproductive empowerment.


As they say: “We must learn from history and push back against attempts to fix the problem by telling women how many babies they should have.”


Jade Sterling
Science Writer
16 November 2022