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What's behind falling birthrates and why it matters

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Many developed countries are dealing with birthrates falling below the replacement rate, around 2.1 children per couple. This is creating a troubling trend of a shrinking and aging population.

With fewer young people entering the workforce, there's a risk of not having enough workers to fill essential jobs. This can lead to disruptions in industries and could potentially slow down economic growth.

Social security systems in many developed nations rely on a certain ratio of working adults to retirees. A shrinking workforce means fewer people contributing to the system, potentially making it harder to fund pensions and healthcare for the growing elderly population.

As populations age, healthcare costs generally rise due to increased needs. A smaller workforce could struggle to support these rising costs.

Social programs rely on tax revenue generated by the workforce. A shrinking workforce could mean less revenue to fund these programs, potentially leading to cuts or increased taxes on those still working.

Many developed nations are shifting their approach from trying to simply boost birthrates to creating policies that support families. This includes things like affordable childcare, parental leave for both mothers and fathers, and workplace flexibility. Some countries offer cash allowances or tax breaks for families with children. The goal is to make having children a more realistic and attainable option for those who choose to do so.

It wasn’t that long ago that society was wrestling with the “population boom” and concerns that too many people on the planet would outstrip finite resources including food.

How did the problem become a shrinking birthrate? Raising children is expensive, and economic uncertainty can make couples hesitant to start families. Women are increasingly pursuing education and careers, often delaying childbirth. Access to affordable childcare is crucial for these women. Living in cities can make raising children more challenging, with smaller living spaces and fewer familial support networks.

Diana Elliott is vice president of U.S. programs at the Population Reference Bureau

"The Source" is a live call-in program airing Mondays through Thursdays from 12-1 p.m. Leave a message before the program at (210) 615-8982. During the live show, call833-877-8255, email thesource@tpr.org.

*This interview will be recorded on Tuesday, March 19, 2024.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi