Depopulation has never been popular with humans--growth is almost universally valued over decline. So, the impending population drop in Japan is a fascinating topic for the potential lessons that it may offer, and The Economist, in particular, regularly revisits this theme, recently with a special report that emphasizes the economic downside of an aging population. Married women are not quite replacing themselves and their husband, and more importantly many women are postponing marriage to increasingly older ages and, unlike in many other countries, are not having children out of wedlock. At the same time, Japan's famously high life expectancy keeps the older generation alive longer than in any other population.
In almost every other rich country of the world, immigrants (and especially their children--the small things for which societies are thankful--whether they acknowledge it or not) have kept the population from declining even in the face of below replacement fertility of the native population. The Japanese have steadfastly refused to employ this option, so their options for maintaining economic productivity come down to three: (1) keeping older people in the labor force longer (the kind of thing that the French recently rioted over); (2) allowing women greater scope in the labor force (breaking down the intense gender barriers that exist in East Asia); and (3) having more children immediately. The Economist suggests that "if Japan tackles its demographic problems swiftly, it has a chance of being a model of how to deal with ageing, rather than a dreadful warning." But, given what we know about population momentum, the birth rate option will not provide a "swift" solution. It will take at least two decades for the demographic momentum to swing around in Japan if an increase in the birth rate is the demographic option exercised, and it will require that the average woman not just have two children each, but more than two children each for this generation of young women. What are the odds of this happening?