This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Is Fertility Really Collapsing in Europe?

This week's Economist has as one of its cover headlines this item: "Europe's Fertility Collapse." Now, to be fair, the article itself doesn't carry that headline nor a message that would imply quite such a dramatic headline. Rather, it notes that "Recession is bringing Europe's brief fertility rally to a shuddering halt." There is quite a bit of dissonance between those two messages. In fact, a footnote to the article indicates that it was clearly inspired by a paper published in March in the journal Population and Development Review. In that paper, John Bongaarts of the Population Council in New York, and Tomas Sobotka of the Vienna Institute of Demography discuss a new method of decomposing period fertility rates into their "tempo" (timing of births) and "quantum" (number of children born) components. They show that the rise in fertility in Europe from 1998 to 2008 (not a collapse!) was due largely to women deciding to have children that they had previously postponed, with women coming closer to their preferred family size--which is a bit higher than people feared it was back in the 1990s. Indeed, they suggest that "This new trend suggests that the potential adverse consequences of population aging and population decline will likely be substantially smaller than feared in the 1990s" (p.83).

The Economist also notes correctly that the recession has led to a slight reversal (not a collapse!) of this decade-long increase in fertility. However, Bongaarts and Sobotka believe that this reversal will be relatively short-lived, and that European women will return to a pattern of below replacement fertility--low, but not real low--closer to two than to one child per woman. 

There can be little argument that the current, probably temporary, drop in fertility in Europe is due to the economic uncertainty of the times. The Economist, which sees itself as inspired by Adam Smith, suggests that "Adam Smith thought that economic uncertainty was bad for fertility." Perhaps he said that, but I would love to see the citation!! What Adam Smith did say in his famous Wealth of Nations (1776:I:viii.37) was that
“barrenness, so frequent among women of fashion, is very rare among those of inferior station. Luxury in the fair sex, while it enflames perhaps the passion for enjoyment, seems always to weaken, and frequently to destroy altogether, the powers of generation.” 
He was, in fact, laying out the case for why we would expect low fertility in the rich countries of the world today. People of "fashion" (meaning people of wealth) have low fertility, while those in an "inferior station"(meaning economically less well off) have higher fertility.

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