How Will Rich Country Fertility Ever Get Back Above Replacement?

For population to be steady or rising, the average women needs to have at least two kids. In almost every rich country- including the United States, all of Europe, and all of East Asia- this isn’t happening. In the extreme case of South Korea, where total fertility averages about one child per woman, the population will fall by half each generation. If this were to go on for 10 generations, South Korea would go from a country of 50 million people- larger than any US state- to one of 50 thousand people, far smaller than any US state. This sounds crazy and I don’t expect it will actually happen- but I can’t say what exactly will stop it from happening.

Global population growth has fallen from a peak of 2.1% per year to the current 1%, and is expected to fall to 0 by 2100. The remaining population growth will happen in poor countries, then stop for the same reasons it did in rich countries- the demographic transition from poverty, argicultural work, and high infant mortality to high incomes, high education, and low infant mortality. As the graph below shows, higher income is an incredibly strong predictor of low fertility- and so if economic growth continues, we should expect fertility to continue falling. But where does it stop?

2019 TFR from Population Reference Bureau vs 2019 PPP-adjusted GDP Per Capita fron World Bank

Some have theorized a “J-curve” relationship, where once incomes get high enough, fertility will start rising again. You can see this idea in “Stage 5” of Max Roser’s picture of the demopgraphic transition here:

This makes sense to me in theory. As countries get richer, desired fertility (the number of kids each woman wants to have) has fallen, but realized fertility (the number of kids each woman actually has) has fallen faster. In a typical rich country women would like to have 2-2.5 kids, but actually ends up having about 1.5. There are many reasons for this, but some are clearly economic- the high cost of goods and services that are desired by rich-country parents, like child care, education, and spacious housing near high-paying jobs. Perhaps in a rich enough country all these could be obtained with a single income (maybe even from a part-time job). But it seems we aren’t there yet. Even zooming in on higher-income countries, higher incomes still seem to lead to lower fertility.

TFR vs GDP Per Capita in countries with GDP Per Capita over 30k/yr

The only rich countries with fertility above replacement are Panama and the Seychelles (barely meeting my 30k/yr definition of rich), Kuwait (right at replacement with 2.2 kids per woman), and Israel- the biggest outlier, with 3 children per woman at a 42k/yr GDP. This hints that pro-fertility religious culture could be one way to stay at or above replacement. But in most countries, rising wealth seems to drive a decline in religiousity along with fertility. Will this trend eventually come to Israel? Or will it reverse in other countries, as more “pro-fertility” beliefs and cultures (religious or otherwise) get selected for?

To do one more crazy extrapolation like the disappearance of South Korea, the number of Mormons is currently growing by over 50% per generation from a base of 6 million while the rest of the US is shrinking. If these trends continue (and setting aside immigration), in at most 10 generations the US will be majority-Mormon. Again, I don’t actually expect this, but I don’t know whether it will be falling Mormon fertility, non-Mormon fertility somehow rising back above replacement, or something else entirely that changes our path.

What would a secular pro-fertility culture look like? For my generation, I see two big things that make people hold back from having kids: a desire to consume experiences like travel and nightlife that are harder with kids, and demanding careers. I see more potential for change on the career front. Remote work means that more quality jobs will be available outside of expensive city centers. Remote work, along with other technological and cultural changes, could make it easier to work part-time or to re-enter the work force after a break. Improving educational productivity so that getting better-education doesn’t have to mean more years of school would be a game-changer; in the short run I think people will spend even more time in school but I see green shoots on the horizon.

Looking within the US, we are just beginning to see what looks like the “J-curve” happening. Since about the year 2000, women with advanced degrees began to have more children than those with only undergraduate education (though still fewer than those with no college, and still below replacement):

From Hazan and Zoabi 2015, “Do Highly Educated Women Choose Smaller Families?”

We see a similar change with income. In 1980 women from richer households clearly had fewer children, but by 2010 this is no longer true:

Fertility of married white women, from Bar et al. 2018, “Why did rich families increase their fertility? Inequality and marketization of child care”

The authors of the papers that produced the two graphs above argue that this change is due to “marketization”, the increasing ability to spend money to get childcare and other goods and services that make it easier to take care of kids. If this is true, it could bode well for getting back to replacement- markets first figure out how to make more excellent daycare and kid-related gadgets, then figure out how to make them cheap enough for wide adoption.

Does Cohabitation Predict Divorce?

My article, coauthored with Sarah Kerrigan and published last week, tries to answer the question. In short, the answer seems to be yes- cohabitation before marriage is associated with a 4.6 percentage point increase in the rate of marital dissolution. This is in line with much of the previous literature, which notes one big exception- choosing right (or getting lucky) the first time: “cohabitation had a significant negative association with marital stability, except when the cohabitation was with the eventual marriage partner”.

But we found some even more interesting facts while digging through the National Survey of Family Growth.

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Not all robots have faces

Through Twitter, I have become aware of the SNOO. I’m quoting SNOO literature

Unfortunately, babies don’t sleep well on flat, still beds in totally quiet rooms. In fact, over 50% of

babies still wake up once a night after 6 long months. That’s a problem because poor baby sleep

causes the #1 new parent stress: EXHAUSTION!

SNOO gives a perfect 4th trimester of gentle shushing and rocking…all night long. And, it quickly

responds to your babies’ fussies with stronger sound and jiggly motion…

The bed hears your baby cry and rocks them back to sleep! I can probably count the number of times I have slept through the night in the past 6 years on two hands. If used wisely, this machine sounds like an incredible gift to families. (I can also see problems if used unwisely.) If the baby is crying for longer than 3 minutes, then the machine turns off and the expectation is that a parent needs to step in.

This reminds me of Tyler Cowen’s book Average is Over.

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Emily Oster on Vaccines in February 2021

My third post on Covid data heroes features Dr. Emily Oster. Emily is a mom. Lot’s of economists are moms, but few have incorporated it quite as much into their careers. Emily has written a book on pregnancy and a new one on what to do with the kids after they are born. She does a great job explaining scientific research in a way that is easy to understand.

Emily made a big push to collect data on schools and covid back when there was crippling uncertainty about how dangerous it is to let children go to school in person.

She has a great email newsletter and substack. Her latest post is called “Vaccines & Transmission Redux Redux”. In this post, she distills the latest research to give practical advice on when kids can see grandparents once the vaccines are out.

For a long time now, some families have been avoiding close contact with elderly relatives. When can we go back to normal?

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How to get rid of toy clutter

I asked my friend Carrie what she does about the first-world problem of too many children’s toys in the house (especially right after Christmas). Her reply was genius and even includes some tips from psychology at the end. This method is economist-approved:

For [older elementary kids], they are really good about going through toys in their room with me.  I sell at consignment sales twice a year, so I will pay them a small amount for each toy I take from their room to sell (they do not get money for the family toys in the playroom).  I pay them whether or not the toy actually sells. I do not pay them what the full profit would be from each toy, but they get something for their unplayed-with toys.  This is very motivating for them and helps them truly evaluate whether they want a toy or not.  With [older girl]’s unwanted toys, I might pay her but keep them for [younger girl] if I think that she would enjoy it one day.  

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Scheduling The Day

What to do on the Monday before Christmas? My 5-y-o son was beginning a long winter break from school. Thanks to Covid, we were home all day. I wanted my son to do a few chores and some learning.

There were some fun activities I knew we would end up doing that day, such as playing chess and letting him watch some TV. One option would have been for me to order him around all day. If he balked at cleaning up his room, I could threaten to withhold TV. Instead, I made a jar of activities written on slips of paper.

He picked papers out one at a time. The only rule I imposed was that he would do that activity immediately. If he drew tidying his room, then we went straight to his room. Mixing in papers that read “30 minutes of TV” and “pick a snack to share” made the game seem fun. He would have ended up watching TV anyway. I included a paper in the bowl that said, “give Mommy a compliment.” Everyone needs some affirmation!

This tactic was so successful that it got me thinking about how adults, including myself, could benefit from something similar. Adults need structure. I contemplated whether I would want someone to put all my activities for the day in a jar. Something I have done and even paid for is to go to a gym and have a fitness instructor tell me what to do for an hour.

One reason the jar game worked is that my son could not do all the fun activities first before the more unpleasant tasks (i.e. math worksheet). Almost every successful writer says that they write first thing in the morning. They don’t procrastinate.

If you’d like to hear from a real live human who actually does the writing scheduling thing, you can listen to Jennifer Doleac’s recent interview on The Hidden Curriculum podcast. She really does the thing! No wonder she’s so amazing and professionally successful. (She’s also generous with her time and supportive of young scholars.)

I think many of us could think of an excuse for not scheduling every hour of our work days a week ahead of time, as she does. I feel like I have excuses, but I also bet I could get closer. A great book on productivity is Deep Work. Something I took away from that book is that, even if you can’t go full Doleac, every person can do better.

The author, Cal Newport, points out something we all know by now: constantly checking email and social media eats up your day and reduces productivity. After arguing that it’s optimal to block out hours for exclusive intense focus, Newport deals with the objection that some people need to be accessible to others throughout the day. A manager or teacher needs to read and respond to emails promptly. Newport’s response was something like “Ok. However, you can probably check your email LESS frequently than you currently do.”

The New Year is coming. Let’s try again. Let’s try harder. I want to waste LESS time than I currently do. And I’ll so some more of the surprise jar game with my son.

Joy Recommends Toys 2020

We at EWED are making recommendations for holiday gifts. This post is about items that my kids are actually using.

I’ll be putting up links for your convenience. I have gotten lots of kid stuff from neighbors, either buying through websites or just be getting hand me downs. I love the idea of re-using kid items and clothes.

FUN remote-control car. “RC Cars Stunt Car Toy, Amicool 4WD” It doesn’t get stuck. It can flip over and go over many terrain types. It’s not large, meaning it doesn’t take up a lot of room in your house, but it delivers a lot of fun! Can be fun both indoors and outdoors. ($25)

Bikes: You have probably heard about balance bikes. We started on a Strider balance bike (no wheels, kids just kick to go forward).

I wanted to make the transition from balance bike to pedal bike and skip the training wheels stage. I was able to do that, but another item was necessary. Get a pedal bike that is SMALL. I actually got mine from a neighbor, but I found a link that looks similar. The bike in the link has training wheels, but I assume you can take them off. If the wheels of their first pedal bike are SMALL, then they can’t get hurt and the can’t go very fast. My 5-year-old thinks this is really fun. I don’t have the headaches of either him getting injured or worrying that he’ll take off and be out of sight quickly.

Great cheap toy for a toddler. My 2 year old loves the Melissa & Doug Minnie Wooden Magnetic Dress-Up. This has inspired hours of play and conversation. ($10)

Let’s be honest. The kids are getting screen time. When the pandemic hit and daycare (temporarily) closed, I decided to get much more lenient than I had been before about screen time.

Magnus Kingdom of Chess is a great tablet game ($8). My 5-year-old son plays it on an iPad mini. I had made some unsuccessful efforts to interest him in real chess before buying the game. He loves the video game, but what’s amazing is that since he’s started playing the video game, he has become much more interested in playing actual chess with me. In fact, he asks me to play him in chess now. Before I used to worry that how would he even succeed if he hadn’t mastered chess by age 5. Now, he’s actually asking me to play him in chess and I’m thinking secretly ‘I don’t have time for this. Shouldn’t you be playing outside?’. (In our case, my son got some help from parents with playing the game. He might have had a hard time doing it completely by himself.) Let me be quite clear, my son has NOT mastered chess, but his understanding of the pieces really went up because of the video game.

There are also several completely free great apps made by Khan Kids and PBS Kids.

Joy on Books for 2020 Holiday

I have, I’ll have you know, bought some adult books and read some of them in 2020. Two that I hope to eventually review properly here are One Billion Americans and The Property Species. For now, I’ll just say that I recommend them if your interests overlap with mine.

The books that I read are usually children’s books. I read them out loud, every night.

These are some classics that my 2-year-old is currently asking for on a nightly basis. She is in the repetition stage and also edging into the stage of development where she will flip through a book and “narrate” from the bits that she remembers. “Cow jumpin’ da moon!” is one of the lines she will use when flipping through Goodnight Moon.

Two classic books that are a little more complex for 2 are Make Way for Ducklings and The Little Engine That Could. Sometimes I’ll only read half of the words to keep the pages flipping faster for her.

I’ve got another classic recommendation. I don’t think it’s bad to recommend classics that you have already heard of. At this point, there are so many classics that people still need to choose between them. The Narnia series is really great. The plots are good. Kids are always being told to “be nice”, but children are going to see a portrait of goodness in these books that will serve them well. What does it mean to be good and why do we bother? We just got to the part where King Caspian abolishes the slave trade on an island.

Even though I’m currently reading through the series with my 5-year-old, I would recommend a different strategy to most parents. Wait until age 6. Start off with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe just one page before Lucy goes into the wardrobe. That way your kid will immediately start meeting magical creatures. Once your child is invested in Narnia, they can probably sit through the entire first chapter on a second read-through.

Two more random kid’s recommendation: (1) We got Germs out of the public library last year. When my son was 4 (well before Covid), he asked for that book every night for months. We checked it out over and over. In the time of Covid, I think this is a great intro to the immune system.

(2) Aunt Flossie’s Hats is a good way to sneak in some history without it feeling like school. The story involves a woman relating memories to her granddaughters. (bonus points for being anti-racist)

Affording a second child

I have been reading Matt Yglesias’s book. I’m going to quote his podcast with Tyler here:

I also think that a lot of the way society is structured disincentivizes educated professional people from having a second or third child, even though it’s not that the objective financial cost of doing it is so high.
But you think about Democratic Party micro-targeting of everything. They’ll say, “Well, okay. If this little extra boost will help lift some people over the poverty line, we should do that. But if you’re making $140,000 a year, you don’t ‘need’ help with your childcare costs.” That’s how the people in the think tanks think.

Matt Y

On the margin, people who don’t live in poverty still feel financial pressure. They still worry about whether they can “afford” more children.

The following Facebook post stood out to me yesterday. I went to high school with this woman (call her Rachel). She teaches at a public elementary school in New Jersey. She is married with one daughter.

It sounds like Rachel wants another child, a sibling for her daughter. As a working mom, I can sympathize with her desire to not quit her job.

More answers from her peers include “I’ve been also looking for this answer. Anyone I know who has had more than one, one usually stays home and the partner works. I don’t know how people do it!” and “I have to say this month has been TERRIBLE! Paying $250 a month for my baby at daycare and then having my oldest there a few days a week bc my in-laws can’t handle zoom 😳 I’m literally working for health benefits.”

This response is probably from someone who is one stage of life ahead of Rachel, “It was hard but we lived off one salary till the kids were 5 years old. We didn’t go out or do much at all. Cost of daycare for twins was insane. Once they were in school most of the day I got my job…”

Matt Yglesias wants Rachel to have another child, and a third if she wants a “big family”. That’s not how we get to one billion Americans, it’s simply how we avoid population shrinkage.

I’ll probably deal with more of Matt’s ideas in future posts. Even if you disagree with all his policy recommendations, it’s a great book to get you thinking.

I did some quick Googling and it seems like Rachel’s job pays over $40,000 per year. It wouldn’t be crazy to assume that Rachel’s household income is “6 figures”. If their daughter is currently in daycare and they have a second child who needs daycare, then they could be looking at a daycare bill over $20,000 per year during the crunch time. That crunch time wouldn’t last very long, BUT that is a daunting bill to pay when you are also paying for rent and diapers and don’t want to eat beans every day. New Jersey has relatively high property taxes, rents, and daycare costs.