A total fertility rate of 1.5 is about two-thirds that required for
population replacement. Australia’s current rate of 1.75 (and falling)
is not far above that critical point. Debate about these trends is
overdue, both here and elsewhere.
Many countries have fallen below this figure. Demographically speaking,
Japan, Russia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain and most of Eastern Europe
are in deep trouble. Some well past the point of no return.
Governments and intellectuals – so long focussed on the problem of
world overpopulation – have been slow to come to terms with these
trends. Now that they are starting to do so, we lack good theories to
guide future policy. Policy inaction is clearly no solution. We are having
to scramble to make sense theoretically of something that was never
expected to happen.
Why should so many countries be heading towards demographic
self-destruction? We can understand war, economic depression, and
political repression cutting into reproduction. But all of these countries
are at peace, and in many cases living standards (especially in health)
have been rising, while civil and political liberties are expanding.
Socio-economic and socio-political explanations thus seem wide of the
The most commonly-heard account today is that fertility falls with
modernisation, as women are freed from religious imperatives, as they get
better educated, as work takes precedence over family, and as the Pill
makes childbearing optional.
On this view women today are having the number of children they always
wanted to have. Falling fertility is simply the exercise of reproductive
free choice, for the first time in history, and if this means risking
depopulation then so be it, since there is no turning back. Pro-family
financial incentives – baby bribes – simply won’t work because
better-educated modern women won’t be bribed. For convenience, let’s
call this the modernisation model.
This is a widely held view, but how well does it fit the evidence?
Start with the cross-national comparisons. We tend to focus on societies
like our own, but in fact the English-speaking societies – Australia,
the UK, the US, Canada and New Zealand – are all above the 1.5 mark
(though barely so, in Canada’s case), so they are not yet in crisis
These societies have also been relatively migrant-friendly, which has
boosted their fertility and rejuvenated their age structures somewhat. So
migration policy has to be an integral part of this debate.
But it is only part of the story. Migration is unable to solve the
problem of fertility rates that have fallen below the 1.5 mark. As
demographer Peter McDonald observes: "Replacement migration and
increases in labour force participation rates can be successful ways to
avoid hyper-ageing, but only if fertility is in the range of about 1.6 to
2.0 births per woman."
The worst cases of fertility free-fall are not in Western Europe, but
in East Asia, in southern Europe, and in the ex-Communist states of
Eastern Europe – in most cases societies still close to their
What about the trends across time? Does the modernisation theory fit
the facts diachronically? Take the Australian case. The twentieth century
saw three phases in fertility: a steady fall from four children per family
in 1910 to two in 1935; then an upswing from two to 3.5 in 1965 (the baby
boom); and since that time another and deeper fall, from 3.5 in 1965 to
1.75 today. That is: bust, boom, bust.
Any good explanation will fit all three phases. The Pill came onto the
market around 1965, and so perfectly matches the post-1965 fall. This neat
fit may be deceptive. The contraceptive story in no way explains the
previous two phases of bust and boom. Some better account is at least