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Politics

Making Babies for Fun and Profit

29 January 2007

Making Babies for Fun and Profit

By Gwynne Dyer

“The number of women aged between 15 and 50 is fixed,” explained Japanese Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa in a speech in Matsue City last Friday. “Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can ask for is for them to do their best per head.” Then he paused a moment and hastily added: “Although it may not be so appropriate to call them machines.”

Too late. Even in Japan, a government minister calling women “birth-giving machines” is bound to raise a fuss, even if he has the excuse of being old (71) and stupid. Yanagisawa spent the weekend making abject apologies, and the debate about the plunging Japanese birth rate moved on. But he wasn’t just rude; he was also wrong. Governments CAN affect the birth rate.

Last week, France revealed that more babies were born there in 2006 than in any other year for the past quarter-century — 830,000 of them, in fact. The fertility rate, which has been rising for years, is now up to 2 babies per woman, and at the rate it is currently rising will reach the “replacement rate” of 2.1 next year. Compared to Japan’s incredibly low 1.26 babies per woman, it is a veritable baby boom, but even within Europe the French birth rate is only exceeded by the Irish.

Japan and France had roughly similar demographic trends after the Second World War. First came the “baby boom,” as a result of which Japan’s population grew from 75 million to the current 127 million and France’s went from 40 million to 63 million. But by the 1990s both countries’ birth rates had dropped below replacement level, and in the long run that means the actual population begins to shrink. Japan’s population duly started down again in 2004. By 2050, it is predicted to be only 90 million.

This is quite normal in the developed world, where among the larger countries only the United States still has a growing population (and that mostly thanks to immigration). Japan’s population is falling faster than most, but Italy and Russia are falling just as fast.

Yet the French birth rate, which was following the same pattern, suddenly turned around in 1996 and started going up again. What are they doing right? “The deciding factor (is) that it is easier to reconcile professional activity and a family life here than in most other European countries,” suggested Jean-Michel Charpin, director of the national statistics agency Insee.

The dates do more or less match up. France’s unusually family-friendly policies, like universally affordable day care and generous parental leave, were launched in the early 1990s under then-Families Minister Segolene Royal, now the Socialist candidate for the presidency — and only a few years later, the birth rate started to recover.

Even the racists in the National Front do not oppose these policies, because every ethnic group has responded in the same way to these incentives: the fertility rate among France’s immigrant population is only slightly higher than that of the population at large. If current trends persist — i.e. a declining population in Germany and a slowly rising population in France — then by 2050 France will have the second-largest population in Europe, behind only Russia.

Others are beginning to notice the French success, and Russia most of all. Russia had 150 million people when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, it’s already down to 143 million, and at the moment it is shrinking by 700,000 people every year. This has been causing something close to panic in the Kremlin, where they see the increasingly empty spaces of Siberia and the Russian Far East as a standing temptation to an overcrowded China. (That may be paranoid, but you hear it in Moscow all the time.)

“The most acute problem in modern-day Russia is demography,” said President Vladimir Putin last May, and announced measures even more sweeping than those in France to get the birth rate up. Starting this month, Russian women who give birth to a second child will get an immediate cash bonus of 250,000 roubles ($9,500). That’s a small fortune in an economy where the minimum wage is just over $300 a month.

At the same time Putin doubled the state benefit for a first child to $55 a month, while women who have a second child will get an extra $110 a month plus financial help with child care. Have three children, and you will get close to the minimum wage without working at all. That should be enough to stabilise the population. Get the alcohol problem under control — one third of male deaths in Russia are alcohol-related, and life expectancy for men is only 59 — and Russia’s population might even start growing again.

Not that the world actually needs more Russians or French or Japanese, of course. There are already ten times as many of them (and of everybody else)as there were five hundred years ago, and that’s probably already more than the planet can bear over the long run.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“This is…fast”; and”Even…Russia”)