South Korea’s birth rate fell below replacement rate in 1983. Replacement rate, if you’re somewhat less interested in demographic statistics than I am, is 2.1 births per woman. Now, South Korea’s birth rate has fallen below 1 birth per woman. Far below. They’ve achieved a truly stunning birth rate now of 0.88 births per woman. It is the lowest birth rate in the world.
The South Koreans are hardly alone. Birth rates across the industrialized world are below replacement rate, especially in Western European and East Asian countries. In the United States, the birth rate has been below replacement rate since 1971, and has fallen to a 32-year-low as of last year.
A lot of reasons have been proposed – everything from economic recession to cultural factors. No doubt most of these factors do contribute to the problem. But what if the biggest reason is that humans, as a species, are being consumed like fuel in a gas tank? The engine that is consuming us, of course, is the corporation.
I am not against capitalism or corporations. However, I do think capitalism needs careful management, especially in certain areas. Health care, for example, is not something you can shop around for when your appendix has just ruptured. The principle of competition applies differently to this field than to others. Perhaps family life is another of these areas.
Here is the central problem: corporations do better when their employees don’t reproduce. If the employee is female, she might get pregnant and start taking time off to go to medical appointments. When she gives birth, she will definitely need to leave the workplace. Caring for a child is a huge time commitment. The only way to get out of that time commitment is to hire a nanny, which is and probably always will be out of the financial reach of most people.
This is why tech start-ups rely on the labor of young, unmarried, childless guys. This type of worker won’t get pregnant, either on purpose or by accident, or need maternity leave, or ask for a place to pump breast milk at work. They won’t whine about spending 100 hours per week at work instead of experiencing the joys of fatherhood. When they get old enough to do that, they’d better suck it up, or find a job at a different company.
This is how employers reward childlessness. They ask for a level of commitment from workers that makes it hard for those workers to do anything else with their lives besides try to succeed at their jobs. If they don’t, they will probably be out-competed by those that do.
Eventually, employers might run out of employees. But with billions of humans on this planet, this seems pretty unlikely to be a problem in the near future, or medium future. When it becomes a problem in one area, a sufficiently large employer – a corporation, usually – can solve the problem by moving, or by incentivizing workers to move.
Why was this never a problem in the olden days, however defined? Corporations have been around for a long time. European colonization of large areas of the world was achieved in large part by entities such as the British East India Company, chartered in the year 1600 by Queen Elizabeth I.
From studying my own genealogy, I happen to know that during the 17th century, my own ancestors’ average family size was… large. I haven’t calculated it exactly, but it must have been on the order of 12 or so. This was standard for the region (the American colonies) and the time period. My ancestors didn’t work for any sort of corporation. They were almost uniformly farmers. That is, they lived in an agricultural economy, rather than an industrialized economy. Their birth rate was much closer to that of modern Niger (nearly 7 births per woman – the highest in the world) than that of the modern United States.
On a farm, children are helpful. They function as free labor, so the more, the better.
Before modern corporations, before the British East India Company, before there was much civilization to speak of, there were bandits. Raiders. Vikings. Pirates. People who ventured out in smaller or larger groups to seek economic gain without much thought for the impact on other people’s lives. They were more physically violent than today’s corporations, but in their demographic makeup, they probably weren’t that different from tech start-ups. Men on the younger side, being stronger and more capable than small boys or old men, would have been preferred as recruits. Women would have been a liability, not necessarily because of their physical capabilities, but because they did not have access to birth control, and there is a time in most pregnancies during which the pregnant women is not good for much. Newborns would not be much use to bandits. Nor would small children.
These people were exceptions. Most people around them were farmers, herders, or perhaps hunter-gatherers. An industrialized country is like a country composed almost entirely of bandits. Agriculture itself has been taken over by corporations, with only a very small proportion of the population making its living in that sector – less than 1.5% in the United States right now, and less than 5% in South Korea.
In Niger, the figure is almost 76%.
So there you have it. Employing almost everyone at corporations or similar institutions, rather than in agriculture, seems to be the culprit. Maybe wealthy countries just need to encourage their citizens to move to the countryside and create more family farms.
On the other hand, there is no real reason to boost the birth rate up over 2.1 births per woman. The world’s population was 6 billion when I was a kid, sometime in the 90s, and it has grown to over 7.5 billion now. That’s an increase of 25%, in about 20-25 years. The number of new people born during that time exceeds the number of people in the entire world as of 1804, when the world population first reached 1 billion. We don’t need more people overall, and in fact it would probably be easier to maintain a healthy natural environment while maintaining high living standards for all if we had somewhat fewer humans around.
However, the world population doesn’t rise and fall uniformly. South Koreans are making too few babies to comfortably support all the elderly, and in Niger, most women are probably having far more children than they actually want. Perhaps Niger could use a bit more industrialization, and South Korea somewhat less. Perhaps most subsistence farmers in Niger would choose a different line of work if they could, and South Koreans, notorious for their work ethic, could probably use a little more leisure time in their lives.
In any industrialized country, in order to boost the birth rate closer to replacement rate, the key is to prioritize family life at the expense of corporate profit. There is a raft of policies that would accomplish this, including:
- More parental and other family leave
- Better legal protections for pregnant workers
- Shorter work weeks
- Subsidized, high quality early childcare
- Abolition of at-will employment in most sectors
It is very important that these policies be enacted via legislation at the national level, because any company that adopts these policies on a voluntary basis will be out-competed by more ruthless rivals. Any state that adopts these policies at the state level may find that companies will leave and go to a state with less family-friendly laws.
Otherwise, the natural resource that is humanity will be drained away until there is not much left, either of people or of our economies.