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Fertility Decline in Industrialized Countries: Trends & Preconditions

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  • 00:00 More Money, Fewer Babies
  • 1:00 Decline of Disease
  • 2:12 Decline of…
  • 3:18 Rise of Education
  • 4:09 Contraceptives and the State
  • 5:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

While it seems paradoxical, rich countries tend to actually have populations that grow slowly, if at all. This lesson explains why fertility is on the decline in developed nations around the world.

More Money, Fewer Babies

All around the world, the economies of many nations are growing faster than ever before. With this economic growth comes significant increases in population. However, despite the fact that the world's population is skyrocketing, much of this demographic growth is occurring in the world's developing nations, those states that still have lower average incomes. Meanwhile, the richest countries are experiencing a rapid decrease in their birth rates.

But wait, wouldn't you expect for people in richer countries to have more babies since they can afford more of them? It turns out that reality often reflects the exact opposite scenario. In fact, fertility in developed countries, as measured by birth rates, has actually been in sharp decline. That being said, this is not such a bad thing; a stable population, one that only replaces itself, helps to limit instances of poverty and unemployment.

Decline of Disease

Far and away the biggest reason for the decline in birth rates in developed countries is the sharp decline in the rates of childhood diseases. In developing societies of the past and present, the flu is a killer rather than a reason to spend a few days out of school. As a result, parents in these societies would often hedge their bets on having a child who reaches adulthood by having multiple children. However, improved vaccination and public health programs have rapidly resulted in the reduction of childhood death rates. As a result, such preventative measures are no longer necessary.

That said, it's not just public health initiatives and vaccinations that have helped make sure that more children make it to adulthood. Neonatal (newborn) illness also decreased dramatically in the last 100 years for one simple reason - doctors were told to wash their hands before delivering a baby. In centuries past, doctors may have gone from performing an autopsy to assisting in a birth. This, as well as other simple increases in sanitation, have been crucial in reducing the infant and childhood death rate.

Decline of Family-Focused Agriculture

In the West, losing a child is an overwhelmingly traumatic experience. However, in developing countries, that loss is compounded by the fact that each child represents significant economic potential for a poor family. After all, children in those societies provide a sort of social and financial insurance. Whereas we may look for a job with a great retirement plan, people in developing countries may see their children as their retirement savings! If none make it to adulthood, parents may have a very difficult old age.

This is especially true with the most dominant profession of these societies: agriculture. Until recently, farming was very much a family business, and children were expected to help on the farm for quite some time. However, with the rise of the Industrial Revolution, that began to change. Suddenly, having more children was potentially no longer a promise of more help on the farm, but simply another mouth to feed. This became even truer as mandatory education became increasingly common.

Rise of Education

Education provided a sort of one-two punch on causing birth rates to plummet in developed nations. For one thing, there is a negative financial incentive to have more children if they are going to spend more time in school than doing work for the economic benefit of the family.

However, time spent in school is not the principal way that education acts as a driver for lower birth rates. In developing societies, economic opportunities for women are traditionally limited to little other than motherhood. This changed greatly with the increased education of women. Suddenly, women had more choices in their future paths. The number of women looking to start families right out of their teenage years shrank as women entered the workforce. Currently, many women are choosing to put their careers first, waiting until later to have children, if they have children at all.

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