A new book by the productive demographer Vegard Skirbekk has the commendable title Decline and Prosper!. It is a valuable resource, presenting much research on fertility around the world. It also raises questions about how to deal with high fertility and population growth in many countries.
By Frank Götmark
The book, in paperback from Palgrave Macmillan 2022, has the subtitle “Changing global birth rates and the advantages of fewer children”. It’s refreshing to see such a title after several alarmistic, one-sided books on the subject, like Empty planet: the shock of global population decline. On the last page of Decline and Prosper, Skirbekk concludes, “It is my view that countries should accept – if not embrace – low fertility and focus on how to make the most of a world with fewer children”.
The book’s focus is fertility (i.e. children per woman, birth rate) rather than population growth. It reads partly like a textbook on demography, and the title is thus a bit misleading. But Skirbekk makes clear that the literature on fertility per se is huge. I marked 124 references in the book that I would like to check or read. The reference lists comprise in total 139 pages.
The book has 20 chapters, each relatively short, ending with a sort of summary and then references. Skirbekk starts by introducing basic demographic concepts needed to grasp the research. Here I miss the concept of population momentum which combined with high fertility helps explain strong population growth in many countries (the mechanism is dealt with briefly on p. 333).
The chapters cover measurements of fertility, its limits and history, the demographic transition, global fertility, childlessness, education, planned childbearing, fertility preferences, delayed parenthood, finding a mate, the economics of fertility, the role of disasters and religion, evolutionary aspects, population projections, population growth, and the past and future. Overall, the book is quite focused on “the West” and low fertility, rather than high-fertility countries, although they are also discussed. This is clear in e.g. chapter 19 under the heading “What countries should be doing”, where problems of high-fertility get a third of a page, and low fertility almost two pages. Skirbekk repeatedly emphasizes the tension between “West” and “South”, religion-linked population growth, and other global factors.
In chapter 1, the author stresses that “The increase in education is probably the main reason why global fertility has decreased” and that “it appears to be the most effective way to reduce fertility without resorting to coercion”. This argument and its evidence are elaborated in chapter 8 where he presents the fertility-education relationships as causal. This is backed up by results from so called natural experiments. However, several recent studies are lacking here. A review from 2019 on the role of education in low- and middle-income countries concluded that its effect on fertility is weak. Another study from 2019 examined both education levels and the strength of family planning programs in Sub-Saharan Africa, and showed that family planning programs had a greater influence on contraceptive use than women’s education. A model published in 2020 was also consistent with a strong role for family planning programs.
The international family planning revolution took place over about 35 years (1960-1995) and several researchers have concluded that family planning programs were important for declining fertility in developing countries from about 1970. A separate chapter covering family planning programs therefore would have been motivated. In the book, family planning and its history are mentioned, mostly briefly, on pp. 8, 97, 99, 166-167, 198, 359-63, and 368-369.
Education, especially secondary and tertiary education, help reducing fertility, and there is evidence for this. But is it the main factor? The content of education may be critical, but few quantitative studies seem to exist on this aspect. Is sex education included in the curriculum? What about teaching on gender roles and family size? To what extent is contraception included, in developing and other countries? Where such teaching does exist, it is very rarely linked to environmental aspects (this is true also in my own country, Sweden). I presume that family planning programs covered such aspects – which is worth a separate study.
Migration and fertility are mentioned in passing, and perhaps deserved a separate chapter. Migration-related conflicts increase, and influence elections in many countries. But there are many chapters already in the book, where lots of interesting studies are described. For instance, in pre-modern societies, 27% of newborns died in their first year, and 48% died before puberty (p. 41). As Christianity spread, monogamy replaced polygamy; pre- and extra-marital sex faced harsh penalties, even imprisonment (p. 44). Marriage and its social conditions, and early forms of contraception, contributed to reducing human fertility.
An interesting graph on p. 92 illustrates how replacement fertility (‘no population growth’) is related to the average life expectancy: when it is 30 years, replacement fertility is 5 live births; at 50 years, it is 3 live births; and at life expectancy of 80 years it is 2.1 live births. Clearly, mortality is critical, and will remain so. In Europe, childlessness was common, even more common a hundred years ago than today: 20-30% of women remained childless (p. 109). Between 1940 and 1979, childlessness increased from a low level, especially among the least educated men. Few people prefer to remain childless: the proportions are highest in (East) Germany, Austria and the Netherlands (about 10%) (p. 123). In most developing countries the proportion is lower than 5%.
The complexities of finding a partner in the West, especially for women, get much attention in the book. Can the Internet offer help and affect fertility? In the US 1999-2007, regions that got such access earlier had stronger declines in adolescent fertility, which was confirmed in Germany too, but in addition childbearing increased among women 25+ there (p. 167). Women in Europe want more children than men do, while in poor countries the opposite is the case, according to surveys. Television may be helpful in reducing fertility: the show Shuga, addressing safe sex and unwanted pregnancies, reached 40 African countries and up to 550 million viewers (p. 183). Many other interesting examples are given.
Chapter 13 discusses the role of the economy in influencing fertility, and the financial costs and benefits of children. Skirbekk notes that the “dollar models” of G.S. Becker and other economists are partly unrealistic; 40% of global pregnancies are unplanned. Yet a subheading here (“It’s still the economy, stupid”) makes clear that economy matters: people, and fertility, respond to changes in the economy, and to uncertainty. The dramatic drop in fertility in Eastern European countries after the Soviet Union fell apart (see the fourth graph here) could have been added as an example.
Skirbekk and colleagues have done important work in quantifying the association between religious affiliation and fertility level. The findings have been reported by Pew Research Center: globally between 2010 and 2015, the average fertility rate of unaffiliated women was 1.7 children, and the figure for women affiliated with any religion was 2.6 children. Moreover, average fertility was 1.6 children for Buddhists, 2.4 for Hindus and Jews, 2.7 for Christians, and highest (3.1) for Muslims. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the fertility rate is higher for Muslims than Christians, according to a recent review. Across European countries, the fertility of Muslims is 47% higher than the national average. The consequences are discussed and dealt with in several chapters.
In the introduction, Skirbekk emphasizes that “low – but not too low – fertility is best” and mentions the environment. Ecosystems and wild nature do not get much attention, but on pp. 335-337 the author describes the threat of population growth to biodiversity, the natural environment, and climate conditions. This section could have been expanded, since ecosystems are critical for humans, not least for food. Environmental ethics and the purpose of our lives could also have been discussed. But demographers often neglect environmental matters, and it’s good to see that Skirbekk includes the threats and the need to “bend curves”.
Returning to family planning programs in the last parts of the book, Skirbekk describes their remarkable success in East Asia (pp. 359-63) and Iran (p. 368). He states that historians concluded the programs also had an intention by rich countries to reduce and control foreign populations. TOP has earlier described the delusions of historians, especially the influential professor Matthew Connelly who argues that “the West” (mainly the US) conspired to force population control on the Third World. The demographer John Cleland described Connelly’s book Fatal Misconception as “bizarre and fundamentally flawed”. Cleland remarked, “To equate efforts to reduce population growth with coercion is to ignore the fact that most poor countries pursued clear demographic goals by entirely voluntary means”.
I would have liked to see research on “optimal population” presented in the book. What is the size of a global human population that can be supported sustainably on the Earth without degrading the ecosystems humanity depends on? If all people had the standard of the average European, one study calculated the optimal population at 3.1 billion, less than half of the present 7.9 billion. A recent study by the economist Partha Dasgupta arrived at a range from 0.5 to 5 billion people, depending on standards of living and average income.
The paper book lacks an Index, making it hard to search for a subject or author. References are after each chapter, also making it time-consuming to search for them. The E-book might therefore be a better choice. The text contains much data (numbers given in the text), perhaps more of this could be provided in figures (the book contains 29 Figures, and no Tables). There are very few typos in the book, it is well written, and easy to read. I recommend it to anyone interested in human fertility and demography.