The Magazine

America’s One-Child Policy

What China imposed on its population, we’re adopting voluntarily.

Sep 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 02 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Like China today, 30 years ago Japan was supposedly on the verge of eclipsing America economically. But like China, Japan was also in dire demographic straits. In 1950, the average Japanese woman had 2.75 children during her lifetime. That number dropped to 2.08 by 1960. By 1995, it had fallen to 1.49. In 2010, the Japanese fertility rate is 1.2.

Japan’s demographic momentum kept its population slowly increasing during the late 1990s and early 2000s; in 2004, it peaked at 127.84 million. And then the contraction began. In 2008, Japan lost 145,000 people and by 2025, it will have lost 6 million. By 2050, it will have shed an additional 17 million people, leaving its total population around 100 million and falling. And a declining population is necessarily an aging population, meaning that you’re faced with both a decline in demand for goods and services (because the population is getting smaller) and at the same time a labor shortage (because so many of the remaining people are too old to work). In 2050, the largest five-year cohort in Japan is expected to be people aged 75-79. While health care will likely be a growth sector, this is not a recipe for a robust economy.

Culturally speaking, Japan’s fertility problem is a marriage problem: As Japanese women began attending college at greater rates in the 1970s, they began to delay marriage. By 2000, the average age of first marriage for college graduates was over 30. At first, these women simply postponed childbearing; then they abandoned it. Today, college-educated Japanese women have, on average, barely one child during their lifetimes.

These changes created some new cultural stereotypes in Japan. For instance, it is not uncommon to see dogs paraded around in strollers by childless, adult women. But the most prevalent new demographic archetype is the parasaito shinguru or “parasite single.” These creatures are college-educated, working women who live with their parents well into their 30s—not because they are too poor to pay rent, but because they spend their salaries on designer clothes, international travel, and fancy restaurants. The parasite singles are Japan’s biggest consumer group because, unlike real adults, their entire paychecks are available for discretionary spending. Sociologist Masahiro Yamada, who coined the term, explains, “They are like the ancient aristocrats of feudal times, but their parents play the role of servants. Their lives are spoiled. The only thing that’s important to them is seeking pleasure.”

The Japanese government has been trying to stoke fertility since the early 1970s. In 1972, when Japan’s fertility rate was still above replacement, the government introduced a monthly per-child subsidy for parents. Over the years, the government tinkered with the subsidy, altering the amount and raising the age allowance. None of which made much difference: The fertility rate fell at a steady pace. In 1990, the government formed a committee charged with “Creating a sound environment for bearing and rearing children,” the fruit of which was a Childcare Leave Act aimed at helping working mothers. 

In 2003, Japan passed the “Law for Basic Measures to Cope with a Declining Fertility Society,” followed two years later by the “Law for Measures to Support the Development of the Next Generation.” To get a sense of how daft the Japanese bureaucrats and politicians are, one of the new provisions required businesses to create—but not implement—abstract “plans” for raising the fertility level of their workers.

In the face of 35 years of failed incentives, Japan’s fertility rate stands at 1.2. This is below what is considered “lowest low,” a mathematical tipping point at which a country’s population will decline by as much as 50 percent within 45 years. This is a death spiral from which, demographers believe, it is impossible to escape. Then again, that’s just theory: History has never seen fertility rates so low.


Next to Japan’s, the U.S. fertility rate looks pretty good at 2.06. The massive, continual influx of immigrants we receive is enough to keep the U.S. population slowly growing. But America’s fertility rate has been falling since the founding. 

Colgate economist Michael Haines combined the 1790 census with other data sets to determine that in 1800 the fertility rate for white American females was 7.04 and for black was 7.90. (All early American demographic data were kept separately for the two races.) Fertility rates for both groups have fallen steadily. The only significant uptick came at the end of World War II with the Baby Boom. For 20 years, fertility rates spiked, reaching as high as 3.53 for white women and 4.52 for black women in 1960.

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