A Demographic Crisis

Shenan J. Boquet
February 6, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Human Life International

A few weeks ago, the prime minister of Japan had a startling message for his citizens. The country, said Fumio Kishida during a speech to lawmakers, is "on the brink of not being able to maintain social functions."

The reason for this dire warning? The country's rock-bottom birth rate.

Japan is one of the most rapidly aging nations in the world. Citizens in Japan are an average 49 years old - the second highest globally, next only to Monaco. The population in the country peaked 14 years ago, at 128 million inhabitants. Since then, it has been steadily falling, due to the nation's measly birth rate of 1.3 children born per women, far below the replacement rate of about 2.1 children per woman.

Combine one of the lowest birth rates in the world with the country's dim view of immigration, and what you get is a situation in which the population is set to plummet to just 87 million inhabitants by 2060, with no sign of turning around.

A Sudden Awakening

Prime Minister Kishida's remarks may be some of the highest profile and urgent addressing the looming demographic crisis facing many developed nations. However, they are part of a growing chorus of alarm.

Elon Musk, for instance, has repeatedly warned about a looming demographic crisis, warning that if trends aren't reversed, civilization "will crumble," and that "population collapse due to low birth rates is a much bigger risk to civilization than global warming."

And it's not just conservative or libertarian thinkers who are taking notice. Many economists, politicians, and media outlets noted with alarm that China recently announced that last year its population shrank for the first time in decades. A Reuters headline on the drop blared, "China's first population drop in six decades sounds alarm on demographic crisis." Business Insider gloomily reported that "the country's shrinking population is a grim omen for the rest of the world."

Even the New York Times is openly acknowledging the problem. Leading economist and Times columnist Paul Krugman recently highlighted the significant challenges posed by China's shrinking population. In the past few weeks, in fact, the Times has run a series of equally fascinating and disturbing (as well as woefully belated) stories examining the real-world impact of rapidly aging populations in places like Japan and China.

As one headline declares, "As Asian Societies Age, 'Retirement' Just Means More Work." The article profiles a number of elderly Japanese who are exhausted after decades of work, and yet who have found that they cannot afford to retire. The combination of low pension payments, and the lack of children who might support them, means that they must keep working as long as they can, simply to put food on the table.

Another article investigated the growing problem of aging business owners who can't find younger Japanese who are interested in taking over their businesses when they retire. The average age of business owners is 62 years old. However, without a younger generation to step in, the Japanese government projects that as many as 630,000 profitable businesses might close by 2025. The Japanese economy has been stagnating for years now, a reality that is set to hit many other low-birth countries.

A Scramble for Pro-birth Policies

It's easy to feel a sense of whiplash in the face of the rapidly changing conversation. For decades now, most media organizations, and certainly the overwhelming majority of the global elite, have peddled an apocalyptic, neo-Malthusian story of imminent social, economic, and environmental collapse due to a population explosion.

Many of the main talking points in that story were set by Paul Ehrlich, whose best-selling doomsaying book "The Population Bomb" sold tens of millions of copies. To this day, Ehrlich continues to be celebrated and feted in liberal circles (and even, alas, at the Vatican) despite the fact that none of his predictions of mass starvation and societal collapse due to excess population have come true.

Now, however, many first-world nations are openly scrambling to find and implement policies that they hope will reverse birth rates before it is too late. As the UN reports, more than a quarter of countries around the world now have pro-natalist policies such as offering "baby bonus" cash payments, and funding fertility treatments (including, unfortunately, highly morally problematic procedures such as IVF).

The need to find policies that will reverse the birth rate was the emphasis of Japanese Prime Minister Kishida's speech. "It is now or never when it comes to policies regarding births and child-rearing - it is an issue that simply cannot wait any longer," he said. "In thinking of the sustainability and inclusiveness of our nation's economy and society, we place child-rearing support as our most important policy."

Across Asia and the West, countries have been implementing such policies. In Russia, women who have ten children are awarded with a payment of one million roubles. China, meanwhile, after brutally enforcing their one-child policy for decades, is actually starting to close birth control clinics and offering longer maternity leave to encourage more births. In Canada, families are offered generous monthly cash payments based upon their family's income.

The Demographic Death Spiral

However, as the Times reports, "Such measures have done little to alter the aging trend line, as fertility rates have plunged, and many countries have resisted large-scale immigration plans."

The catch-22 is that the slowing economic growth and growing burden on younger generations to work harder and longer to support an aging population, is in turn making the younger generations less likely to prioritize welcoming children.

However, there is also a much deeper, more insoluble problem: as each generation has had successively fewer and fewer children (because its embrace of the contraceptive mentality), they have successively normalized a culture of childlessness.

In the past, for most young adults their top ambition was to enter a happy and stable marriage, and to bring new life into the world. No longer. In China under the one-child policy, for instance, cultural expectations radically shifted. For many Chinese, welcoming more than one child is now unfathomable. It's simply not how things are done. "Normal" people have one child, and then pour all their attention and resources into that one child.

As a consequence, there has been a catastrophic loss of cultural wisdom. Raising a large family involves a certain set of skills that used to be passed down from generation to generation. However, under the one-child policy in China and the turn towards anti-natal secularism in the rest of the world, many young people simply don't know where to begin. The mere idea of welcoming more than one or two children is terrifying.

Now that China is actively encouraging couples to welcome two or even three children, most couples are simply shrugging their shoulders. This is what is called a "death spiral." And it remains to be seen whether any number of pro-birth policies can reverse the trend.

The Need for a Culture of Life

Pro-natal polices are, without a doubt, an important part of encouraging couples to welcome children in a world fraught with uncertainty. However, it will never be enough.

What many demographers and economists need to realize is that the demographic crisis we are facing is not simply an economic or social problem. It is a spiritual problem.

The more and the longer our culture has emphasized the harmful aspects of child-rearing, and the more we encouraged our citizens to focus on purely temporal concerns, such as getting a good job and buying nice homes, cars, clothes, and vacations, the less people are interested in the forgotten goods of marriage and family. For many people, the only thing that matters is their own individual satisfaction.

Getting married and starting a family, more than anything else, requires immense courage and hope. To welcome a new life into the world is as much to say that one believes with all one's heart that life is good and that the future looks bright.

Although welcoming children can and does bring immense happiness and satisfaction, it requires having a selfless and a hopeful heart to take the plunge. It requires husbands and wives, welcoming the gift of life, to be willing to accept that for the rest their lives they will be committed to another person; will feel their child's sufferings and joys as one's own; will be responsible for the other's wellbeing. It requires them to recognize that all of this responsibility is not a burden but is in fact the only path to true freedom. To believe and to live the truth that freedom is found in responsibility. To recognize that, in fact, responsibility and love go hand in hand.

In his Letter to Families, Pope St. John Paul II acknowledged that for many couples now, welcoming a child seems to them to be a daunting task. "It is true that for the parents the birth of a child means more work," he wrote, "new financial burdens and further inconveniences, all of which can lead to the temptation not to want another birth."

"Does this mean that a child is not a gift?" he goes on to ask. On the contrary!

The child becomes a gift to its brothers, sisters, parents, and entire family. Its life becomes a gift for the very people who were givers of life and who cannot help but feel its presence, its sharing in their life and its contribution to their common good and to that of the community of the family. This truth is obvious in its simplicity and profundity, whatever the complexity and even the possible pathology of the psychological make-up of certain persons.

"The family," wrote the sainted pontiff," has its origin in that same love with which the Creator embraces the created world, as was already expressed 'in the beginning', in the Book of Genesis (1:1)."

"Just as the Resurrection of Christ is the manifestation of Life beyond the threshold of death, so too the birth of an infant is a manifestation of life, which is always destined, through Christ, for that 'fullness of life' which is in God himself: 'I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly' (Jn 10:10)."

How noble is this vision of the family, and of procreation! In getting married, and starting a family, a couple is not simply contributing to the social or economic welfare of the world. They are not simply ensuring that a nation's pension plan can function, or economic growth continue. No, they become participants in Divine Love. They embrace life in all of its fullness! They become more "fully alive"!

This is the message that might inspire more couples to welcome the gift of life. No number of cash payments, or tax breaks, or exhortations to think about the welfare or stability of their nation, can inspire as much as this radical Christian vision of parenthood and childrearing. To be a parent is not a dry "social responsibility." It is the path towards opening one's heart to the transcendent. To embracing a life of adventure. To drawing into the world an eternal soul, made in the "image and likeness of God," that may one day worship the Creator for all of eternity.

As never before, the world needs the wisdom and the hope embodied in the Catholic Church's teaching on life and the family. Let us pray for every person, Christian and non-Christian, that they will be open to this message of the Gospel of Life. And let us pray for our bishops, priests, and laity that they may be inspired to find new ways to preach this Gospel of Life to a world thirsting for this living water.