Re-evaluating Extinction – Why Declining Birth Rates Cause Alarm

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[Written by Kaisa Saarinen]

[Image and animation by Rafe Uddin]

The global birth rate has decreased starkly over the past few decades. In the early 1950s, there were 36.8 births per 1000 people; today the figure stands at 18.5, and is expected to continue falling. The spatial distribution of these births is also not equal; children are significantly more likely to be born in Sub-Saharan Africa than in East Asia. These statistics have yielded a variety of regional discourses. In countries with declining birth rates, the numbers are often discussed in concerned and alarmist tones. In a world where the ‘population explosion’ is recognised as one of the most difficult problems of our time, contributing to the global environmental crisis, there is a need to critically examine why the fact that fewer children are born is presented as a serious problem.

One of the most interesting cases is Japan, where the number of children born has been consistently declining for several years, leading to headlines like “Number of babies born in Japan in 2018 drops to record low”. It must be noted that Japan’s total fertility rate of 1.42 is far from the lowest in the world; leading that race is Singapore with its figure of 0.82 expected children per woman, while some European countries such as Poland and Portugal also have lower fertility rates than Japan. Indeed, Portugal has an age structure almost as skewed towards the elderly as Japan’s.  Nevertheless, in the popular imagination, Japan has somehow become representative of the demographic crisis; its declining birth rates have been fervently problematized in both international and domestic discourse, therefore making it an ideal case for exploring the politics of birth rates.

In an attempt to explain why Japanese birth rates have been decreasing, a myriad of potential explanations have been put forward. Just to name a few takes on the issue: bad work/life balance leaves people too drained to date or reproduce; men have become “herbivorous”, subverting the sexual expectations of conventional masculinity; people these days are too “selfish” to have children; the high availability of porn and dating sims has rendered young people complacent about 3D relationships – there are a staggering number of such opinions being thrown about both in the Japanese and the English media. In the context of the latter, there is an ever-present hint of playing into the stereotype of “weird Japan”, reinforcing its otherness.

Yet the trend of declining birth rates is not weird at all; in fact, the inverse correlation between income and fertility has been reinforced by several studies. It appears that there are delicate relationships between socio-economic conditions, the status of women in society, and birth rates. Nevertheless, states have sometimes attempted to reverse this trend by aggressive natalist policies; one of the most extreme cases has been Ceaucescu’s Romania, where the ‘Decree 770’ severely restricted access to contraceptives and abortions and required women to undergo monthly gynaecological check-ups in the 1960s. These policies led to an initial baby boom, but even in this extreme case, birth rates soon declined to their former levels, indicating that the state can only influence the process of reproduction to a very limited extent. While natalist policies that are excessively invasive on women’s agency are now considered unacceptable in most countries with declining birth rates, another significant deterrent from their use is the fact that they don’t work. As societies first modernise, and women become more highly educated and involved in the workforce, birth rates tend to decrease naturally, which is what triggered the natalist campaign in Romania.

At the same time, studies indicate that once this modernisation has occurred, low participation of women in the workforce is paralleled by lower birth rates; states like Italy have both low female employment rates and low birth rates, while Sweden represents the other side of the coin. Unsurprisingly, Japan has been relatively unsuccessful at integrating women into the workforce, and 70% of women stop working for at least a decade after having their first child. In Japan, this has been identified as a key policy, but practical progress has been slow. Public support for parents, especially working mothers, remains insufficient. In other words, the best way for states to pursue natalism is to support working women – and Japan’s demographic crisis is best explained by the failure to do this.

In the demographic discourse, fingers tend to be pointed at individuals (women, men, young people in general) and their particular attributes (selfish, lazy, seeking instant gratification). The mainstream arguments tend to be economic:  Who will pick up the work? Who is going to pay pensions and taxes? Who will care for the elderly? These are valid concerns which mustn’t simply be waved away. However, this particular set of problems should not be taken as a sufficient reason to argue we need more children. The lack of money in the public sector is never really about the lack of money but about the lack of political will; and there is potential in technology to at least partially solve the problem of elderly care, which is something currently being explored in Japan.

At the heart of the problem are problems with the gender inequality embedded within the workforce—largely stemming from the very process of reproduction—and policies that do not extend enough support to parents, despite often promising to do so. These problems exist in practically all countries, but degrees of difference are significant; a mother in Sweden receives much more support than a mother in Japan. Extrapolating from this, most of the explanations for Japan’s falling birth rates are barking at the wrong tree. The reason why these problems seem so inextricable is that the related laws and conventions are seemingly too deeply embedded within societal and cultural norms to be changed as quickly as the ‘demographic crisis’ demands. However, to return to the central thesis of this article, declining birth rates, do not necessarily need to be problematized – gender inequalities in the labour market should be addressed for reasons of egalitarianism, not in a pronatalist drive.

All interpretations of facts are political; the alarmist discourse on birth rates has been shaped by ethno-nationalist concerns more significantly than is often recognised. This is evident in the statement of Kitamura Kunio, the head of the Japan Family Planning Association, who has argued the Japanese people “might eventually perish into extinction” as a result of the declining birth rates. Kitamura’s statement is interesting because the word ‘extinction’ implies he is concerned about the biological status of the Japanese population; if the problem Japan faces is extinction, then immigration – the other logical way to solve the issue of few children and many elderly people – is an inappropriate solution. This concern helps explain the hostility shared in many nations about maintaining population size by means of increased immigration. We want there to be more of us – we fear the shrinkage of our biopolitical body, perhaps at the ‘expense’ of others.

To address the demographic crisis more constructively and humanely, there is a need to embrace more civic conceptualisations of nationalism; in this way, encouraging immigration becomes wholly appropriate. This is the issue Japan is currently grappling with, as it faces having to encourage more immigration to replace labour shortages. Nevertheless, it remains unclear whether these people will ever be welcomed to form part of the society – Japan has been notoriously slow in accepting ‘hafu’, or half-Japanese people, who frequently face prejudice fuelled by ethno-nationalist conceptualisations of racial purity. The tension between ethnic and civic nationalism is prevalent across countries where declining birth rates have become a cause for public concern; my view is that the most constructive way to move forward would be to embrace civic nationalism. 

At the same time, the overarching ‘problem’ of a demographic crisis must be critically re-evaluated. Taking a step back and looking at the facts again, a more positive interpretation emerges. The post-industrial revolution ‘population explosion’ has long been portrayed as a possible harbinger of problems to come – such as that of the carrying capacity of our planet being stretched to its limits to provide us with vital resources, which exacerbates the global environmental crisis and threatens the biodiversity of other species. In this context, it should not be controversial to say that falling birth rates are a good thing. They indicate that the socio-economic conditions have improved to levels where people do not need children as an ‘insurance policy’, and that women are taking agency over their own lives and deciding they might not want to reproduce. Repopulation is not inherently beneficial for society; by moving away from alarmist interpretations, we can recognise that we are not facing extinction but a more balanced and sustainable way of life.

[Image Description: A declining bar chart that changes from blue to red, on a purple background with “Re-evaluating Extinction by Kaisa Saarinen”.]


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