Why the world needs fewer babies – part two

Part two of a three-part series exploring the widespread push to increase birth rates around the world. In this edition, Campaign and Communications Specialist Florence Blondel looks at some examples of individuals and governments who are encouraging people to have more babies.

The Silicon Valley pronatalists

Silicon Valley pronatalism is a recent trend where some tech entrepreneurs advocate for increased birth rates. They see a declining birth rate as a threat to humanity’s future that will lead to economic stagnation, a lack of innovation and even societal collapse.

The Collinses, Malcolm and Simone Collins, are prominent figures in this movement often promoting having a large number of children. Then there’s tech mogul Elon Musk, a modern-day baby booster who takes the gold medal for vocal pronatalism. He has relentlessly urged people to have more babies, claiming that “population collapse” is humanity’s biggest threat. In 2022, we wrote a report rebutting his claims, while he is “doing his part” as a father to twelve children and counting.

Pronatalism has a long, and often troubling, history.  Our Welcome to Gilead report details how even revered figures like Martin Luther King Jr. once held startling views (one we sincerely hope he later refuted). 

Women should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children … If [a] woman grows weary and, at last, dies from childbearing, it matters not. Let her die from bearing, she is there to do it.”

This exemplifies the historical devaluation of women’s lives in service of population growth. We should all be wary of any pronatalist movement that disregards individual choice and reduces women to baby-making machines. Hungary, a country whose leaders Elon Musk admires, exemplifies a dangerous motivation behind some pronatalism: the Great Replacement Theory. This conspiracy theory falsely claims white populations are being deliberately replaced by immigrants and minorities. 

SHOULD WE BE CONCERNED ABOUT SOUTH KOREA?

Is pronatalism the answer? It has been a major policy focus for the government since the early 2000s, but its effectiveness in raising the birth rate is a subject of debate.  At 0.72 births per woman, South Korea has the lowest birth rate in the world. This is attributed to factors like high living costs, long working hours,  changing attitudes toward marriage and societal pressures on women.   

S-KOREAN baby banner

Perhaps in some cases, well-designed incentives can encourage childbirth without coercion but in South Korea, we believe the root causes of low birth rates need to be addressed. There are underlying social and economic factors. Earlier this year the president pledged to set up the Ministry of Low Birth Rate Counter-planning and a private company promised to ‘pay employees 100 million Korean won ($75,000) each time they have a baby’. South Korea has been playing nice but as with all pronatalism policies, it has taken an ominous turn, including blaming women for the decline and enforcing anti-abortion laws, now decriminalised.  

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)  2024 edition of Society at a Glance, suggests that pronatal policies can help raise the birth rate. Fertility rates in OECD countries, of which South Korea is a member, have dropped significantly with the average number of children per woman falling from 3.3 in 1960 to just 1.5 in 2022.

The reasons people have children

There are fears of the population declining within a decade, with many old people and fewer workers to support them, thus straining social safety nets and government services. The OECD suggests that governments should consider a range of measures to support families, including affordable housing, childcare options and policies that promote gender equality in the workplace. Additionally, countries may need to adjust their immigration policies and find ways to boost productivity to address the challenges of a shrinking workforce. 

The decision to have children is complex, as it is influenced by many factors depending on where one lives. Women globally, especially in high-income countries, are waiting longer to have children, with the average age at childbirth rising to 30.9 in 2022 in OECD countries. South Korea has already thrown $280 billion at pronatal policies in 18 years but projections show a further fall in the total fertility rate, 0.68 this year. While pronatalism may seem like a solution in countries with low birth rates, it’s important to consider alternative approaches. 

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Read part one here.

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