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A global baby bust

Countries scramble to fix plummeting birth rates

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A global baby bust

The city of Tokyo plans to debut a citywide dating app this summer. But officials aren’t trying to facilitate casual flings. The app will require users to sign a pledge verifying their commitment to finding a marriage partner. Singles must also submit some type of identification, an income certificate, and an official document to certify that they are, in fact, single.

Officials hope the pro-marriage campaign will help boost the city’s fertility rate, which dropped to 0.99 children per woman in 2023.

Japan is one of many countries going to great lengths to improve plummeting birth rates, as experts sound warnings that the world’s population will start shrinking by the end of the century. But can a government-sponsored dating app solve the problem? Some demographers question the wisdom of certain pronatalist policies like Japan’s, arguing that low birth rates indicate a more complex predicament.

During the 1950s, women had about five children on average globally. Most countries, including the United States, are now having babies well below what researchers call a “replacement rate.” That’s the number of children most couples should have to keep the population numbers steady, and it’s about 2.1 babies per woman. According to research published in The Lancet, birth rates will fall below replacement level in all but 3 percent of the world’s countries by 2100.

The Tokyo dating app is not Japan’s first push for babymaking. The country has already spent billions on child care and prenatal expenses. In 1990, the “1.57 shock” made national headlines when the birth rate fell to 1.57 babies per woman, and Japan’s government scrambled to institute pro-family policies like child allowances, parental leave, and subsidized child care. Still, the downward trend has not improved. People over the age of 65 make up nearly one-third of Japan’s population, according to the World Economic Forum. And with a nationwide birth rate of less than 1.26, the population is likely to decline by roughly 30 percent within the next 50 years.

Last year, South Korea reported a birth rate of 0.72, one of the lowest in the world. In May, President Yoon Suk Yeol announced plans for a new task force: the Ministry of Low Birth Rate Counter Planning. Yoon admitted that the government had already spent some $200 billion to boost its birth rate through efforts such as funding for child care and infertility treatment.

European nations are beginning to feel a sense of urgency about the problem. Recently, French President Emmanuel Macron announced free fertility checks for 25-year-old women. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared just last year that women under 30 who have at least one child will be exempt from paying income tax for life.

But many people in the United States have yet to understand the scope of the so-called baby bust. According to a May Newsweek poll, 42 percent of American respondents report being “not at all concerned” about declining birth rates.

Catherine Pakaluk, a professor at the Catholic University of America and author of Hannah’s Children: The Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth, explains that the phenomenon has been percolating for decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the birth rate in the United States dropped in the 1970s, known as the so-called “Me Decade,” and hasn’t recovered. Since 2014, the rate has continued to inch downward nearly every year.

But Pakaluk traces the problem all the way back to the Industrial Revolution. When many families worked together on farms, children were seen as a huge economic bonus. As more people started working in factories and in places outside the home, children didn’t have as many opportunities to contribute to the family income. “You start to see the beginning of this kind of tension between what’s good for the household and what’s good for society,” said Pakaluk.

Another major blow came during the 1960s. Thanks to major advancements in contraceptives, women could postpone having children en masse, allowing for more time to pursue education and career. When people talk about the expense of having children, Pakaluk said they are speaking about a deeper reality. She noted that the biggest burden of having children has to do with “the opportunity cost of the mother’s time.”

Timothy Carney, author of Family Unfriendly and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that countries with falling birth rates often have what he calls “civilizational sadness.” As developed countries have become more secular, he said people have generally lost a sense of hope for humanity’s purpose. This takes away a lot of the incentive to raise up future generations.

That’s why Carney is skeptical of throwing money at the problem. He doesn’t believe that all pronatalist policies have no benefit. “They can do something,” he argued. “But I don’t think they can get any of these countries back up to replacement level unless they dramatically change the culture.”

Some measures could even have the opposite of their intended effect, Carney said. In the United States, the Biden administration recently announced an expansion to day care subsidies, a plan that would affect approximately 100,000 children. Carney said payments like these, though well-intentioned, actually incentivize people to work more and have less time for family building. Instead, he said that a lot of change must happen at the institutional level, starting with churches. “We need to make people see the joy in parenting,” he said.

Bekah McCallum

Bekah is a reviewer, reporter, and editorial assistant at WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Anderson University.

These summarize the news that I could never assemble or discover by myself. —Keith

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