The strange case of the missing baby
As the financial crisis hit, birth rates fell in rich countries, as expected. But a persistent baby bust is a real puzzle
HE IS not exactly leading by example, but Pope Francis wants more babies. “The great challenge of Europe is to return to being mother Europe,” he said last year, while suggesting that young people might be having too few children because they preferred holidays. Europe certainly lacks young souls, particularly in Catholic countries such as Italy and Spain. But the baby shortage is broader: mother America and mother Australia have gone missing, too.
They were certainly present a decade ago. Although birth rates were low in the former communist countries of eastern Europe, and in traditionalist places where it is hard to combine work with motherhood—think Japan, South Korea and southern Europe—many countries were having a baby boom. In the decade to 2008, the total fertility rate (the number of children a woman can expect to have in her lifetime based on present patterns) rose in much of the rich world. In Britain it went up from 1.68 to 1.91; in Australia from 1.76 to 2.02; and in Sweden from 1.5 to 1.91. America even managed to reach the “replacement rate” of 2.1, meaning its population was sustaining itself, without taking migration into account.
There were two reasons, says Tomas Sobotka of the Vienna Institute of Demography. First, women who had delayed having children while they studied and started careers hurried to the maternity wards while they still could. Births to women in their 30s, which had been rising gently for years, went up further in Norway and elsewhere. Second, fertility among women in their 20s stopped falling.
The financial crisis abruptly turned the boom to bust. Countries in the European Union delivered 5,469,000 babies in 2008 but only 5,075,000 in 2013—a drop of over 7%. That was too much for Kimberly-Clark, the maker of Huggies nappies, which announced in 2012 that it would pull out of most of Europe. In America the fertility rate fell from a peak of 2.12 in 2007 to 1.86 in 2014. Ken Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire, estimated that America was missing 2.3m babies.
The crunch was unsurprising: anxiety about jobs and money puts people off children. But a rich-world baby bust that began predictably turned into a puzzle.