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Societies that are traditional + affluent have low birth rates

August 9, 2007

Although complex factors are said to affect birth rate, ranging from female literacy to attitudes towards contraception, affluence is thought to be an influencing factor. It is generally believed that affluent societies produce fewer children than poorer ones, for a myriad reasons! After an initial decline however, the affluent populations of America and north-western Europe are showing signs of some stability and even growth in fertility rates, and apparently this is not just because of immigration. On the other hand, in other affluent societies like Japan and South Korea, birth rates are still falling. The picture in Japan looks particularly scary (graph from the Economist):

In fact Japan’s population as a whole will decrease to 95 million – it was 128 m in 2005. And the over sixties will constitute the biggest group!

Italy also has one of the lowest birth rates in the world…but the population is rising again…although slowly.

What makes Japan different? The latest issue of the Economist (cover story: 26th Jul-3rd August) provides the answer:

As traditional societies modernise, fertility falls. In traditional societies with modern economies—Japan and Italy, for instance—fertility falls the most. And in societies which make breeding and working compatible, by contrast, women tend to do both.

In other words, if men help women with family responsibilities this encourages their women to have more kids…

Rich countries have more working women than poor countries
Women in affluent economies tend to go out to work…in fact that is one of the main reasons why the economy is thriving! O.K. Lets get back to the basics: More women in the workforce can mean a thriving economy. Quoting from an earlier issue of The Economist:

…the increase in female employment in the rich world has been the main driving force of growth in the past couple of decades. Those women have contributed more to global GDP growth than have either new technology or the new giants.

And this isn’t even counting womens’ productivity at home…in housework and rearing kids. But if a woman is working full-time and she doesn’t have help or support at home, she will have fewer kids. Maybe just one, not sufficient to replace the population.

But in western countries not only do men help out at home…companies provide flexible work timings, shorter working hours for women and good day-care is available everywhere. In a traditional society, women are encouraged to stay at home and many drop out of the work-force after marriage. The men seem to make up for it…by working very hard and very long hours. Like in Japan.

The Economist cites another big disadvantage of traditional societies…men often tend to socialise with other men at work, and its often a part of the company culture to do so… This results in even longer hours away from home…combine this with a nuclear family structure and its the woman alone who is left holding the baby. This discourages even a stay-at-home mom from having more than one child.

I cannot help but see this in the context of India. We are a traditional society, and today our birth rates are high…because the majority of women either look after the family full-time or they do it in conjunction with part-time agricultural work. Also the joint family is still common in some urban areas. But with increasing urbanisation (India is moving towards this), increasing women in the work-force and the break up of the joint family…women will need help. From their partners and from the companies they work for. But right now at least boys are pampered in our society and thus it is unlikely that traditional male attitudes towards housework and rearing children will change in the near future. But its possible, as I think it is happening in Italy (birth rates are stabilizing)…but this is just a guess.

If our society and our corporations adjust to the change (more women working) India need never face the prospect of a declining population.

(Photo copyrighted to me)
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5 Comments leave one →
  1. B Chopra permalink
    August 9, 2007 2:02 pm

    One thing I observered: In west, especially in European countries like Italy, Germany, France, Spain.. usually “strong, independent” women don’t have kids, you know why? It does seem that women are putting work first, and family second… this is resulting in Birth rate below the mark.. and It’s a concern for their country and may be it’s cultural issue too!!

    w.r.t India.. yes men should equally contribute to household work, Husband should encourage their women to work and equally Women should like motherhood (How wonderful it is to have a Baby!) and Govt. or corporates should consider providing incetives to women for the cost of their time while maintaining baby.

    Hey really a Good post 🙂

  2. August 9, 2007 2:54 pm

    I certainly hope that India does a good job of putting policies in place that are friendly towards the working mother. It is very difficult to do in a culture that is male dominated (and I am not talking about India here, I mean the corporate culture). Corporate culture is set up with men in mind, and changing it can be hard. But I think it needs to be done. I, for one, could not imagine having more than one child.

  3. August 9, 2007 4:36 pm

    I agree with B Chopra.

  4. krenim permalink
    August 9, 2007 8:52 pm

    You know low birthrates is actually a pretty good thing! There are enough people in most countries of the world.The current economic structure of people retiring at 60 and living on the state for 25+ years is clearly unsustainable.The retirement age was set at a time when the average life expectancy was 70 and work was very laborious.In the post industrial world(West & Japan) that no longer applies.Besides who wants to live potentially 25 years of adulthood in an old age facility ?

    The problem is selling it to politicians, you see old people have the vote and the kids who are eventually going to subsidize their retirements don’t.Alas!

  5. August 9, 2007 10:04 pm

    Bharat, nice to hear your progressive views on women. 🙂

    Aikaterine, I think India has some way to go when it comes to companies making a working environment comfortable! I don’t know when it will change or start to change. sure, some multi-national companies are encouraging women employees…but they are too few.

    Krenim, but thats the problem! If populations keep declining, you have fewer and fewer productive people supporting the old. Ofcourse one can raise the retirement age which I think japan will have to do… but even then you need a decent ratio of the young to the old…

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