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.

Continue reading

Reading Sarah Ruden’s The Gospels

Sarah Ruden is an scholar of ancient literature who has translated classic works such as The Aeneid. Her new book is an English translation of the 4 first books of the Bible’s New Testament, the Gospels.

If you buy a standard Bible, there is usually only a 2-page preface to a 500+ page book. Ruden’s introduction and glossary takes up closer to 50 of the first pages. I would pay just to read the introduction. Ruden describes what it was like, as a professional translator of classics, to approach the Gospels. A reader who is already familiar with the Bible will learn as much from this introduction as from the translation itself. It’s rare to hear the Gospels discussed simply as books instead of as weapons wielded by all sides of the culture wars. I found it interesting to learn about how the Gospels, stylistically, compare to other ancient texts.

Ruben’s enthusiasm for listening to the voices of ancient writers is contagious. She makes it all sound so interesting that anyone, regardless of their previous stance on god (the lowercase g is her idea of what the ancients would write), will want to keep reading. Speaking as someone who has already read the New Testament, I have never been more excited to read the Gospels as I was after finishing Ruden’s introduction. Ruden promises to deliver to modern readers the voices of the ancient writers, with as much accuracy as possible.

Continue reading

Church Attendance and Covid

Today is the last Sunday of 2020. The disruption to employment and rise of remote work might be the bigger story of 2020. However, for a significant fraction of Americans, 2020 is also the year their ability to meet as an in-person church was curtailed. Gathering in a room with many people singing is an efficient means of spreading the virus. For some, church has been an online-only experience since March.

Social scientists are interested in religiosity. Christian devotion has often been measured by asking how many times a person goes to church.

My colleagues who study the economics of religion will have an important issue to study. How does the switch to online church in 2020 affect Christian engagement in the future? How will this affect our ability to track long-term trends on religiosity?

If it is true that large gatherings are safe in a year from now, it will be interesting to compare in-person church attendance in 2022 to 2019. If it turns out that attendance has decreased, then we would need to see a break in the trend to conclude that Covid is the cause. Here’s a graph of church attendance in an article from B.C. (Before Covid).

A book that was published in the 1950s made it sound like, even then, people who attended church weekly were in the minority. Joy Davidman published Smoke on the Mountain in 1953.

The inspiration for this post was reading this line about “remote” church experiences:

Others, instead of stirring their stumps, listen in comfortable living rooms to a sermon on the radio, arguing that it is “just the same.” They have forgotten that one of the first necessities of a Christian life is a congregation…

Overall, Davidman is disappointed in how few of her American countrymen attend church. Early in life, she was a militant atheist. She’s a Christian at the time of writing, but still somewhat militant.

Davidman frowns on radio church, when in-person church was available. However, virtual church today is closer to the traditional visual church experience. Going forward, it will be important to consider whether people who use the internet for church experiences should get counted.

Here are some examples of what churches have been up to, virtually:

Trinity United Methodist Church in Birmingham, AL 

Truro Anglican Church in Fairfax, VA 

Nativity, a Catholic church in Burke, VA 

Larger churches have been podcasting and Youtube-ing for years. One of the top productions is Bethel Church of Redding, CA. They even already had their own Bethel.tv ecosystem, so shutting down in-person services for Covid probably coincided with an increase in viewership for them.

Least Hypocritical Artist: Rich Mullins

I’m creating a new award: Least Hypocritical Artist Award. Rich Mullins is the winner.

The most human and not-overly-polished collection of works by Rich Mullins can be found here. You have to order it as a CD. I do not know of any digital platforms selling it. I bought a used copy for less than $3.

Since I have a CD player in my kitchen (left there by prior home owner) I have been listening to this album all week. Rich Mullins is a tremendously talented musician. These album tracks are live concert performances with jokes and introductions. Maybe I appreciate it especially this month because concerts and public gatherings cancelled for Covid. A DVD of a live concert is also included with the CD.

Because of social media, artists are getting in trouble when they say something that doesn’t fit the polished image their managers try to cultivate. Public figures disappoint sometimes. The spectacular fall of Jerry Falwell last month is an example of someone who presented a certain image to the world that turned out to be false.

Rich Mullins claimed to be a Christian, but he didn’t claim to be perfect. Rich Mullins put his whole heart and life out there. No surprises. You can’t disappoint your fans if you never tried to hide anything. Mullins was a bit self-deprecating in public but radically generous in his private life. He followed the example of St. Francis of Assisi. He lived very simply despite his modest professional success.

Mullins tragically died in a car accident at the age of 41 in 1997, when I was still too young to fully appreciate him. You can find his best selling albums and you can buy his popular songs on iTunes. This album is the best one that I have found for getting to know the man.

Views on Christian Atonement

An outsider to the Church might assume that Christians agree on all of the details concerning Jesus-saved-us-from-our-sins. Things are not as simple as they appear. I recall a podcast episode in which investor Peter Thiel pushed back against the idea that the New Testament is tidy or straightforward. Thiel said “I think Christ is a very complex, very ambiguous figure in many ways, which makes the interpretation quite difficult.”

Some of that complexity is captured in an excellent new article “The Atonement Wars“. This explores exactly what happens to Christians and their guilt of sin, in light of Jesus’s death on the cross and resurrection. I recommend the whole article.

Here is a view from the Greek Orthodox tradition that might be unfamiliar to American Protestants who are used to thinking about Atonement in dry legal terms.

“Ontological theories” is a broad term to comprehend the teachings of many Greek-speaking church fathers, mainly in the eastern half of the old Roman Empire and mainly from 180 A.D. onward….

This scheme is an “ontological” (whole being) substitution by Christ to deal with the entire power of sin in humans, rather than primarily a legal substitution addressing the guilt of sin before God’s justice. It is sometimes characterized as a “medical” model, stressing the healing of sick humanity rather than the judicial acquittal of a guilty humanity. Much of subsequent Eastern Orthodox theology, such as stressing the Incarnation and Resurrection, and experientially participating in the divine “energies” so as to become more and more God-like (“theosis”), is an elaboration of this ontological approach pioneered by Irenaeus. As with the Ransom Theory, the various flavors of Ontological atonement were subsumed by Aulen under the “Christus Victor” or “classic” rubric.

The Atonement Wars

If you read modern theology books and blogs, you probably have not had many opportunities to hear what the Church Fathers have said. The church fathers are people such as Ignatius of Antioch whose writing did not make it into the Bible but who were writing much closer to the time of Jesus than we stand today. “The Atonement Wars” explores the views of early Christians on salvation. I also recommend a separate blog devoted to the church fathers on the Letters to Creationists site.

Whether you attend church twice a week or never, I recommend this clear writing on ideas that shaped our civilization.