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Now, dangers of a population implosion

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"Honey, please, please have a baby." That could be a mother's plea to a married daughter. It's also the request, in less homey language, of many governments.

For decades, much has been written about the world's exploding population. But 60 countries, about a third of all nations, have fertility rates today below 2.1 children per woman, the number necessary to maintain a stable population. Half of those nations have levels of 1.5 or less. In Armenia, Italy, South Korea, and Japan, average fertility levels are now close to one child per woman.

Barring unforeseen change, at least 43 of these nations will have smaller populations in 2050 than they do today.

This baby dearth has potentially weighty economic consequences for governments worried about everything from economic vitality to funding future pension programs and healthcare. That's why many of them have been taking measures designed to encourage their citizens to multiply. For example:

• Starting this year, France's government has been awarding mothers of each new baby 800 euros, almost $1,000.

• In Italy, the government is giving mothers of a second child 1,000 euros.

• South Korea has expanded tax breaks for families with young children and is increasing support for day-care centers for working women.

• Last year parliament members in Singapore called on the government to do more to keep Cupid and the stork busy.

• Japanese prefectures have been organizing hiking trips and cruises for single people - dating programs to halt the baby bust.

Japanese singles are often called "parasites" because, when they retire, they have no children paying into the national pension system or helping out otherwise.

Estonia's President Arnold Rüütel last year in a television address urged the country's 1.4 million residents to produce more babies, or face a rapidly declining population.

British authorities also worry about the fertility rate. The Office of National Statistics says fertile women will need to have three children to keep Britain's population at 59 million into the future.

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