Are fertility campaigns the right way to face an ageing population?

China and Italy. For once, these two countries couldn’t have been closer. So far, yet so close. No, I am not talking about the eternal diatribe on noodles versus spaghetti. Neither am I referring to the comparable amount of CO2 emission per Capita in the two countries, as reported by Olivier et al. (2011) and by the World Bank. Instead, I’m talking about kids. Let me explain.

We want grandchildren

That’s what the Chinese and Italian governments seemed to be asking. With different tones, though. In fact, their approach -as well as the people’s reactions- differed in many ways. Last October, almost one year ago, China abrogated its ‘One Child Policy’. On the other hand, the Italian Ministry of Public Health is currently leading a campaign to encourage pregnancy, which would culminate in the Fertility Day on September, 22nd 2016.
While the abandon of the ‘One Child Policy’ was seen by the Western World as a step towards greater personal freedom, the Italian campaign raised nothing but criticism. In the first case, the Chinese government recognized its citizens the right to choose the size of their families. In the other case, the Italian campaign put such a strong emphasis on motherhood that it looked like my grandmother every time I visit her. A continuous, tiresome, and semi minacious asking of: “So, when are you going to provide me with greatgrandchildren? Will I live to see them?!” As if children were a common good…

We last longer; natural resources don’t

Ageing population is a great concern in both countries, as well as many other nations like the U.S., Canada, Russia, and Australia. Seeing ageing population as a drawback may appear illogical. After all, increased longevity is generally perceived as a success: we live better, thus longer. However, this causes economic issues, especially when associated with low birth rates. If we’re all retired, who is going to work in order to pay for our pensions and healthcare expenses?
If we look at the OECD fertility data, we can see how, since the 70s, the number of children per woman drastically dropped, while life expectancy increased worldwide. This greatly changed the sizes of the working and retired populations: while in 1999 there were 9 people working for 1 retired, a projection from 2002 estimated that in 2050 the ratio would be 4:1 (Tinker, 2002).
Whether or not a fertility policy is outrageous or progressive, encouraging people to have more kids doesn’t come without a price: despite the low fertility, we are over 7 billion people and we already struggle to find enough resources for all of us. We all have clearly in mind the campaigns on water and food scarcity. If we are already way beyond sustainability, how can having more children help us in the long term? That is something our governments should take into account.
The problem right now, and in the near future, is to find the money to pay for “the elderly people’s expenses”, but later on it will be finding the resources for us all. It’s as simple as that: the more we are, the more food we need. In fact, simply increasing the fertility rate just won’t do the trick. Instead, choosing the right public policies could be much more effective.

Reshaping the economic system

Let me give you a tangible example. Prof. David Bloom (yes, that’s an ironic surname to address fertility and economic growth topics) and other researchers from all over the world suggested that “an increased number of women working, higher savings in expectation of longer lifespans, and fewer but healthier and better-educated young people can boost rates of income growth per person in the face of low fertility and population ageing.” That means that if we reshape the working and pension system we created, we won’t need to breed like rabbits. After all, it is definitely easier to modify a somehow abstract and artificial structure than natural resources. Even more, improving healthcare services will only have pros. Shifting the focus from treating a disease towards preventing it from occurring will save us money, as well as some suffering. To summarise: we don’t really need kids to live happily during our centenarian lives.
But I’m not campaigning for the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement either. The question is not “do we want to live longer with fewer people or shorter with more individuals around?” This is an over-simplification. And, in fact, we may actually have a chance to live longer and not alone, but this means we have to live (well) with less. If we adopt a more eco-conscious approach, either because we want to or because our governments lead us to, we may all have a share.
That is what a research group from Newcastle suggests. How? For instance by reshaping the idea of wealth. If we perceive it in terms of wellbeing rather than personal belongings, we’re already ahead of the game. In the end, we can choose two + and one -. More years, more belongings and less people has a shade of sadness, whereas more years, more people and less belongings doesn’t sound that bad to me. What about you? Will the Chinese and Italians agree on that?
Jos G.J. Olivier, Greet Janssens-Maenhout, Jeroen A.H.W. Peters, & Julian Wilson (2011). Long-term trend in global CO2 emissions: 2011 report PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, Other: 978-90-78645-68-9
Tinker A (2002). The social implications of an ageing population. Introduction. Mechanisms of ageing and development, 123 (7), 729-35 PMID: 11869730
Hertel, T. (2015). The challenges of sustainably feeding a growing planet Food Security, 7 (2), 185-198 DOI: 10.1007/s12571-015-0440-2
Bloom DE, Chatterji S, Kowal P, Lloyd-Sherlock P, McKee M, Rechel B, Rosenberg L, & Smith JP (2015). Macroeconomic implications of population ageing and selected policy responses. Lancet (London, England), 385 (9968), 649-57 PMID: 25468167
Hamza, N., & Gilroy, R. (2011). The challenge to UK energy policy: An ageing population perspective on energy saving measures and consumption Energy Policy, 39 (2), 782-789 DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2010.10.052
Image Credits: Esquire – Italy Is Planning a National Sex Day, and It’s Already Going Horribly

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I joined United Academics back in 2013 while completing my Ph.D. in Civil Engineering at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. I truly believe in interdisciplinarity and that laboratory results are useless without proper communication and outreach. That’s how science communications turned out to be my career! In 2017, I became an editor for United Academics’ "Earth & Environment" and "Design & Technology" sections.