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Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
One of the things that forces a rich country to open its doors to immigrants is the need to find people to do work that their own population is unwilling or unable to do. And increasingly in the developed world, one of the jobs that people are unwilling or unable to do is that of a parent.
With the exception of Israel, no country in the OECD has a birth rate above replacement rate — 2.1 births per woman. Even countries like France and Hungary, which have spent large sums to encourage people to have bigger families, have not managed to get above this pivotal figure.
It is possible that Hungary’s upward trajectory has not yet peaked and that its generous programme of financial incentives, in which families with more than three children pay little to no income tax, has turned around the country’s long decline in fertility. But given that Hungary spends 5 per cent of its gross domestic product on “pro-childbirth” policies, you would hope that it would have managed to hit a higher birth rate than 1.6. That is no better than the UK, whose government removed child benefit for households earning more than £60,000 and refuses to pay anything additional for households having more than two children.
Some people insist that demographic decline isn’t a problem. There are three arguments I hear all the time whenever I raise this topic.
The first is that there are too many people on this Earth as it is and reducing the total number will be good for the planet. This misses the point that it is how you live and how your energy is provided that drives your impact on the planet: the world’s biggest population booms are not its biggest polluters.
The second is that states should not be preoccupied with what their citizens are choosing to do. This is true up to a point but given that we all, whether we have children or not, have an interest in there being someone around to look after us at the end of our lives, a country’s birth rate is a social issue and not just a personal one.
Finally, there is the argument that we already know what the solution to the rich world’s birth problem is: immigration from poor and middle-income countries.
There are a number of objections I could raise here, not least that this is a big bet on these countries remaining poor, which is neither guaranteed nor desirable. But the largest is that it is an important signal when the role of parenting is sufficiently unattractive that society needs to turn to people born in poorer countries.
The declining rate of childbirth in richer countries is about any number of things, including the high cost of housing and the increasing importance of not just an undergraduate degree but some further form of higher education qualification for accessing the best jobs — in addition to unalloyed positives like reproductive freedom. But it is also an important market signal that having children does not appear to be a very attractive proposition for those who have a choice.
And how could it be otherwise? Many rich countries have in effect closed the gender pay gap among adults who choose not to have children — but they have not managed to do so among those who choose to become parents. Forty-five years after Louise Brown became the first human to owe their existence to vitro fertilisation, we are not much closer to the first human to be born without risk to the life and health of its mother. There is no other job in the world about which people in polite society would say, “Sure, it comes with a heavy hit to your career earnings, there’s still a risk that you might die doing it, but don’t worry, we can always find someone from a poorer country to fill the gap.”
Almost all of the rich world’s pro-child policies are really just about encouraging people to have children in the first place, but very few are really pro-parent. Hungary may spend a colossal amount on this, yes, but it does very little to improve either the experience of antenatal care nor the career prospects of women after birth. Indeed, quite the opposite: the Hungarian model is expressly about incentivising women to stay at home and take on most of the caregiving burden. This may well be part of why, while the country has raised its birth rate significantly, it has not turned around its declining population, because large numbers of people still leave for a better life (and more social freedoms) elsewhere.
Ultimately, a country’s ability to attract people to do anything is a commentary on how attractive people find it. States planning pro-childbirth policies would be better off thinking about what a “pro-parent” policy could look like — whether it is a better standard of antenatal care, better social opportunities for new parents or cheaper childcare.