In this episode of Thinking in English, I want to talk about declining populations! In many wealthy countries, fewer children are being born, which could have serious social and economic consequences in the future. So, how do you make people have more children?

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Vocabulary List

To anticipate (v) – to imagine or expect something will happen

We don’t anticipate any trouble 

To shrink (v) – to become smaller

Your sweater will shrink if you wash it at too high a temperature 

fertility (n) – the quality of being able to produce young or have children

She was prescribed fertility drugs to help her have children 

contraception (n) – any of the various methods intended to prevent a woman becoming pregnant

The clinic offers free contraception

Innovation (n) – a new idea or method, or the use of new ideas and methods

He is selling the latest innovation in computer technology

Affordable (adj) – not expensive

They sell very affordable clothes

Flexible (adj) – able to change or be changed easily according to the situation

My schedule is very flexible!

Immigration (n) – the act of someone coming to live in a different country

Immigration increased by 25% last year

Over the last few weeks, both the USA and China have released the much anticipated results from their national censuses. Censuses have a long history: the Romans used a census to keep track of all males eligible to serve in the military. The modern census is a system of recording information about the population of a country: including where people live, their ages, jobs, education level, family sizes, and ethnicities! It is one of the most important resources available to help researchers understand how the population of a country, region, or city is changing! And in China and the USA, there is one concerning population change revealed by these census results.

The population in both China and the US is going to start shrinking. Now, this isn’t really surprising (people have been predicting this in both countries for a long time). What is surprising, however, is that the populations are going to start shrinking sooner than previously predicted. This population decline is being caused by low fertility rates: in simple terms, people are not having enough children. In order for a country to maintain its population, on average a woman must have two or more children. But in many developed countries, this is not the case. And in a place like South Korea, the average is now less than one child per woman! And as less children are being born, it means that the average age of the population gets older. And having an older population can have serious economic and social consequences.

There are a number of reasons for population decline, especially in wealthier countries. For example, in wealthy countries, there is a reduced need for children to work in family businesses so families don’t need so many children. Better education for women has allowed access to better jobs, and this often means women decide to have children later and are more aware of contraception methods! There are many other reasons – if you can think of any reach out and let me know! 

How about the consequences of population decline? Well, a falling population would mean less tax being paid, so public organisations and infrastructure like the police, electricity, buses, etc, could suffer. There may be a crisis in looking after elderly people – more old people and less young people to support them. Innovation and change is normally brought by younger people with new ideas, so less young people could mean less innovation.

The USA and China are not the only countries facing these problems. And they are only just beginning to experience the effects of population decline. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and many Western European nations have been facing low fertility rates for many years now. So they could potentially learn from the experiences of other countries that have been trying to increase fertility. 

Some countries, like Russia, have tried to pay people to have children! But these policies don’t often work without a strong system to support families. So, how can a government encourage people to have more children? 

Affordable Childcare

One method that has shown to be effective in increasing the amount of children born is giving parents affordable childcare. In many countries, child care is incredibly expensive and it can be difficult for working women to afford care for their children! The town of Nagi-cho in Japan, which has been facing the challenge of population decline for years, has an average birth rate of 2.8 babies per woman (twice the national average!). Why? Well, they offer a lot of support to families, including financial support. But, most importantly, the average cost of sending a child to nursery is half the price of the national average.

South Korea has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, but has spent billions of dollars in support for families. They have offered housing benefits, fertility treatments, and even extra holidays for people to try and get pregnant. But nothing is working yet. Perhaps this is because in big cities, public child care is limited (with long waiting lists) and private childcare is expensive. Making childcare cheaper could encourage people to have more children, as it would make financial sense!

Flexible Working 

Modern working life is unfriendly to families. This is especially true in some East Asian countries – including China. People work long hours, have stressful conditions, and tend to live in big cities with small apartments: it is difficult to find the time or space to form relationships and have children. 

A solution to this could be making work more flexible. For example, more part-time work, flexible working hours, and the option to work at home. Countries that have more part time jobs do have higher fertility rates, but this is not ideal because part time jobs make the workforce smaller. In places like Sweden, they have managed to keep people in full time jobs but with more flexible hours. According to Professor Gunnar Andersson, head of Stockholm University’s Demography Unit, “We have an understanding that during some part of their life women and men have small children and sometimes they have to go home early from work.”

There are other methods! A study in Germany, for instance, showed that the more people with high speed internet access in their homes, the higher the fertility rate. The same thing has been noticed in Finland, which actually increased its birth rate during the pandemic. 

Men Sharing Responsibility

A researcher at the University of Seoul in Korea found that fertility rates increased when men helped out more at home. I’ve recorded an episode before about women’s unpaid work in the home. Women tend to have less free time than men, because in every country they tend to be responsible for the majority of the household work. If couples share responsibility for household chores, the research suggests that people with 1 child are far more likely to have 2 children! 

In Scandinavia, fertility rates increased in the 2000s. One reason is that both parents are offered generous leave after having children. However, just having parental leave is not enough. After all, Japan has the longest paternity leave in the world, but one of the biggest problems with population decline. What is important is that men use as much leave as possible! If fathers are involved in care of their children, it is proven that couples are likely to have more children!

Does it matter?

Does it really matter if fertility rates are low? Well, not necessarily. Think about western Europe. Fertility rates have been lower than 2 in western European countries for 40 or 50 years (remember that women need to have more than two children on average for a population to grow or stay the same). However, the populations in these countries have continued to grow! How? Migration! Immigration from other parts of the world has allowed the population to keep increasing!  And for the USA, which is a country of immigrants, this will be a similar situation. 

However, for East Asian countries, like China, Japan, and South Korea, migration is not as easy to accept. These countries are reluctant to accept large-scale migration in the way Europe does, and this means the population decline is far more concerning in East Asia!

Final Thought

In this episode of Thinking in English, I have discussed the issue of population decline, and some potential solutions. Across the world, fertility rates are decreasing, and there could be potential negative consequences. The 3 solutions I suggested were flexible working hours, affordable child care, and men sharing household responsibility! In my opinion, policies should be designed to allow people to have as many children they would like. If you don’t want to have children, that’s fine, if you want to have five, that’s fine. But it shouldn’t be too difficult, too expensive, or too  inconvenient to have children! 

What do you think? How about in your countries? Is your population declining? What is your government doing to encourage people to have children? 

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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