In the late 1960s, Paul Ehrlich, Professor of Population Studies of the Department of Biology of Stanford University, warned that a looming global population explosion would lead to mass starvation and death by the end of the 20th century. This gloomy prediction has fortunately not come true. However, a not so encouraging trend is developing: a worrying fall in fertility rates, especially in industrialised countries.

The latest Eurostat statistics on birth rates in the EU are indeed worrying, especially for Malta. In 2017 we had the lowest fertility rate in the EU with 1.26 births per woman, well below the EU average of 1.59.

It does not take too long even for a non-specialist to understand the economic and social implications of this worrying trend. The EU, and Malta in particular, face difficult times if it does not begin to change.

A shrinking workforce can reduce productivity. At the same time, the growing proportion of older adults threatens the solvency of pensions and social insurance systems. The extended family model, already in decline, will continue to collapse. As household sizes decrease, the ability to care for the elderly diminishes. Meanwhile, older people face growing healthcare needs and costs.

When all these factors are combined, the challenges facing EU countries to achieve their goals of full employment, economic growth and social cohesion become daunting. The political debate in the EU and elsewhere has so far focused mainly on three issues: promoting increased immigration of working-age people, encouraging more childbearing, especially among younger couples, and reinforcing social policy to manage the negative consequences of these trends like encouraging more women to join the workforce and raising the retirement age. 

This debate has so far produced more heat than light. Solid evidence derived from empirical socioeconomic research is not so conclusive. It seems that population policies that work in our country do not necessarily apply in other countries. It is often difficult to tell whether improvements in fertility are the result of policy or of other factors.

The causes of the decline in fertility can be very varied. One reason that seems to feature in most research in Europe and America is that when people get richer, families get smaller; and when families get smaller, people get richer. The reasons behind fertility decline are indeed complex and involve many factors influenced by economic forces and entrenched attitudes about women in the workforce and as mothers. One credible reason for fertility decline is that unemployment, as well as low-paid employment, is heavily concentrated among young people. With such economic uncertainty, many are just scared to go ahead and have families, worried about whether they can support them.

However, in countries like Sweden, which has the second highest birth rate in the EU, strong government support for public childcare and generous parental leave options make mixing work and family much easier for young couples raising children than in most other countries. The Swedish policies for achieving higher fertility rates include more flexible work schedules, quality childcare and extensive parental leave on reasonable economic terms.

Similarly, France in recent decades introduced various policies intended to achieve two objectives: reconciling family life with work and reversing declining fertility. Childcare subsidies were boosted while families are rewarded for having at least three children.

Research by RAND, a European non-profit research organisation, dispels some fallacies often proposed by politicians on the best ways to deal with falling fertility rates. One of these fallacies is that immigration is a feasible way of reversing population ageing or its consequences. At best immigration can slow down the effects of an ageing population. The stress on the social infrastructure of high immigration is a high cost to pay for ignoring long-term population planning.

Another fallacy is that governments should not actively plan for population growth in the long-term and tackle problems as they emerge. This attitude is no more than kicking the can down the road for future generations to solve. While no single policy intervention necessarily works, policies designed to improve broader social and economic conditions may affect fertility indirectly.

Population policies take a long time to pay dividends. It often takes at least a generation to see results in the form of increased fertility. This reality makes policies politically unattractive. However, the current administration’s dislike for long-term planning will make the demographic time bomb facing Maltese society even more dangerous.

Policies that remove workplace obstacles and career impediments to childbearing are a critical element of a solution to fertility decline. One must hope that the government will have the political courage to define a long-term vision for improving fertility and implement it with determination.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial


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