The total number of births in Europe and Latin America is getting lower, but it’s just a number. If we do not relativize it, we will not be able to interpret it.
If we compare it with the total population, through the crude birth rate, the result is lower and lower values. But since the number of women of childbearing age is also decreasing, if we measure it through the synthetic fertility index, it gives us higher values than those of two decades ago.
In addition, we enjoy greater reproductive efficiency than in the past. What MacInnes and Pérez Díaz (2009) call the reproductive revolution has led to lower fertility rates per woman resulting in higher population volumes. A smaller number of children, but with more means for their care and education, leads to a much greater survival and a notable increase in life expectancy.
A society with higher levels of education will also be more productive, so the volume of active population needed to guarantee the sustainability of pensions will be less.
Likewise, if life expectancy is extended, old age is reached in better health and the rest of the vital stages are delayed. It is also not so foolish to delay the retirement age and keep a human capital active that can contribute experience and knowledge.
On the other hand, how to establish the optimal number of births, in the case of an individual decision, a life project that everyone can or should be able to choose? Because, although demography has traditionally placed the number of children per woman necessary for generational replacement to take place at 2.1, this figure does not incorporate the impact of migration or the increase in longevity or new family models.
It is, therefore, a debatable value, as is considering that a loss of population is always negative and, therefore, worrying more about the number of inhabitants than about the quality of life of said inhabitants.
We live better than our ancestors
We do not realize that we enjoy a better quality of life than our ancestors and that becoming aging societies is the greatest demographic achievement of developed countries.
The broad-based population pyramid of developing countries reflects their booming birth rates, but it is also a reflection of relatively high age-related mortality and a marked decline in individuals between one age cohort and the next.
Our pyramids, much more elongated and which have long since lost their characteristic triangular shape, indicate, on the contrary, a continuous increase in life expectancy.
However, instead of highlighting that the survival rates of successive generations are increasingly positive, newspaper headlines focus on the negative effects of population aging and low birth rates.
Although widely shared, presenting the low number of births as something negative is still a subjective assessment. In addition, a large part of the demographic alarms are not based on scientific foundations, but are impregnated with political or religious ideologies that place the family as the central nucleus of organization of society and grant women the role of guarantor of the birth rate.
We are facing a change in the reproductive model, not only at the individual level, but also as a society, which ensures that the population continues to grow despite the fact that the birth rate is reduced.
This reduction can be explained on the basis of the opportunity cost of having children. In the past, having abundant offspring meant a higher probability of them surviving childhood in greater numbers and being able to contribute to the family economy at an early age and even guarantee parental care in old age.
The high economic cost of having children
Currently, families who decide to have children face high costs, both financial and measured in terms of time, which leads many of them to rethink that decision.
Especially in the case of women, motherhood takes its toll. They are the ones who enjoy to a greater extent reductions in the working day or leave of absence to care for children or relatives. As the number of children increases, they are more likely to drop out of the labor market, also reducing their future employability. For these and other reasons, the age of childbearing is delayed and often the desired children are not born.
This fact should be the subject of concern on the part of public policies. Equality policies that guarantee a more equitable society, labor policies that reduce job insecurity and allow the reconciliation of personal and work life or housing policies that facilitate access to it and favor the early emancipation of young people will have a significant impact. in the decision to address maternity/paternity.
On the other hand, pronatalist policies, which make ideological use of demographic statistics, prove to be inefficient in promoting birth rates. Short-term and non-progressive aid such as universal baby checks, although they improve the situation of families in vulnerable situations, will not be relevant in the reproductive decision either.
Probably, shared parenting patterns and real co-responsibility will contribute to a much greater extent to reduce the gap between reproductive expectations and reality.
A version of this article was published in the Campusa magazine of the University of the Basque Country / Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea.