Free pets? Baby bonuses? The solution to declining birth rates is undoubtedly clarity on immigration | Devi Sridhar

FFor the past 75 years, one of the top priorities in global public health has been exponential population growth and the Malthusian concern that the planet’s food supply would not be able to keep up. In 1951, the world population was 2.5 billion people, which increased to 4 billion in 1975, 6.1 billion in 2000 and 8 billion in 2023. In fact, governments in the two most populous countries, India and China, respectively implemented draconian policies by, like forced sterilization and one child disability.

It now seems that many countries are concerned about the opposite problem. Findings published last month the Global Burden of Disease study, which examines epidemiological trends around the world, notes that fertility rates are declining in most countries. This can be seen as a public health success: lower fertility rates tend to reflect fewer children dying in the first ten years of life, and an environment that protects women’s bodily autonomy and access to contraception, as well as girls’ education. Having mainly planned pregnancies is seen as social progress.

But if low fertility continues, as the Global Burden of Disease study discusses, population decline will follow about a generation later. In 2021, 110 countries were below replacement level. The authors estimate that by 2050, population numbers will decline in 155 countries. The problem is that with aging economies will struggle to have enough young workers to take on the necessary jobs and pay taxes and social security.

Yet the problem of low fertility does not apply to every part of the world: the population of Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to continue to grow. That region will have too many young people, and the rest of the world will have too few. One rational response to this demographic imbalance is for countries with declining populations to encourage immigration from Africa. Does it matter where people come from, as long as they want to contribute to a country’s workforce and assimilate themselves and their children into the community? Aren’t we all human?

The immigration solution faced setbacks. For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has said: “For us, migration means surrender.” If this idea of ​​a growing black or brown population makes you uncomfortable, it’s worth asking yourself what exactly this unrest is about: skin color? External appearance? Fear that another culture or religion will take over?

The other proposed solution tries to encourage people to have more children: some countries have also launched this marketing campaigns encouraging people to have children, while others have offered financial incentives. In Taiwan, a presidential candidate proposed giving people a free pet if they have a baby, while Italy and Greece have offered baby bonuses per child. Since 2006, the South Korean government has invested $270 billion (£214 billion) in social and economic programs that promote higher fertility.

So far, none of these efforts appear to have increased fertility rates. In fact, South Korea’s birth rate fell to a new record low in 2023. There are clear barriers that need to be addressed, such as the costs of raising a child (including childcare, food, education, clothing), the negative financial impact of taking parental leave, the enormous time commitment as an unpaid caregiver, including sleep deprivation – and the fear of bringing a child into an uncertain world, struggling with the climate crisis, war and conflict.

Although government interventions have been used in an attempt to address some of the factors that deter potential parents, no one seems to have come up with a program that can reverse the overall trend. The basic fact is that women now have a choice that they did not have in previous generations: socially, with widespread contraception, it is now acceptable and feasible to decide against raising children. Research has shown that unmarried and childless women are the happiest subgroup of the population. Furthermore, research shows that people who do not have children tend to report higher life satisfaction; in short, “having children is bad for the quality of life… until they move” (this image becomes natural more complicated depending on the specific demographic and person interviewed).

While it is clear that there is a worrying demographic trend in declining fertility, it would be wrong to view this solely as a failure of public policy. Lower fertility reflects the success of women’s education and equal employment, gender equality, access to contraceptives and options, and people’s ability to make choices based on the kind of happy life they want to live.

But it is also true that if people want to have children, governments must remove the financial and practical blocks that often make it an impossible choice. So far, even extensive support has not put any rich country back on track to grow its population in the future. This means we must also consider immigration as a solution, including addressing where resistance to immigration comes from – and how we can have a nuanced and balanced debate without centering racial concerns.

Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? To submit an email response of up to 300 words to be considered for publication in our letters section, click here.