Just before Christmas there was a lot of public concern about America’s declining birthrate, which closed out 2012 at its lowest point since 1920. But in trying to understand why American fertility is on the wane, it’s important to understand that fertility decline is a global phenomenon. Ninety-seven percent of the world’s population lives in countries with declining fertility rates. And as bad as America has it now, things could be worse. We could be Japan.
Japan’s fertility rate has been below—far below—the replacement level for decades. And the demographic chickens are finally coming home to roost. Low fertility rates cause the age structure of a society to shift so that you have more old people than young people. Which means that once your final above-replacement generation gets ready to shuffle off the mortal coil, you have a whole lot of people dying every year and not very many people in the age-cohorts where childbearing occurs.
That’s precisely where Japan is now. The cohorts of people born around 1945 are beginning to pass on. But they didn’t have enough children and grandchildren to sustain Japan’s population. So in 2012 there were 1.245 million deaths in Japan, but only 1.033 million births. That leaves Japan with a population decrease of 212,000. That’s the biggest drop in population Japan has seen since World War II. In a country with a total population of 127 million, it’s a pretty sizable decline—almost 0.2 percent.
Next year, the drop will probably be even bigger. (You can have a look at Japan’s disfigured age structure here; note how there are more Japanese people between the ages of 70 and 74 than there are children under 5.) From here on out, Japan is going to continue hollowing out and despite what some Pollyanna environmentalists think, the consequences are likely to be quite bad for the Japanese who are left. And if that’s not all grim enough for you, there aren’t any obvious policy levers that can be pulled to pry Japan out of this death spiral.
Of course there are some places where fertility rates aren’t cratering. Among that lucky 3 percent of world population I mentioned up top are the Palestinian territories. Earlier this week Palestinian demographers projected that the Arab populations of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem will reach parity with the Israelis in 2016 and surpass them by 2020.
Israel has the highest fertility rate in the developed world, at 2.67 children per woman. In the Palestinian territories, the fertility rate is 4.7.
All of which is to say that no matter where in the world you live, the old Trotsky line is true: You may not be interested in demographics, but demographics are interested in you.
Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. His book on demographics, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster (Encounter) comes out next month.