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Is the West's baby bust being busted?

Better living standards and ultralow birth rates needn't go hand in hand

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It has been long assumed that nations with rising incomes will experience a falling fertility rate and eventually a shrinking population. The standard reason? The wealthier a woman gets, the fewer children she wants.

But a new study suggests such a future may become the past – implying big demographic implications for policymakers.

In some rich countries, the number of children born per woman has dropped far below the 2.1 rate needed to maintain current population. In Italy, for instance, the rate is just above 1.3. To supply enough new workers, Italy would need high levels of immigration – a problem more worrisome to Italians now than a declining fertility rate.

The study, published in the journal Nature, finds that the trend line linking prosperity and smaller family size may be reversing itself. In countries that attain an extremely high Human Development Index (HDI) – a United Nations metric that factors in education and income levels, along with average life spans – the fertility rate is actually going up again.

Countries such as Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden are beginning to swing back toward replacement fertility levels, though a high HDI alone may not be enough to return them to population stability, let alone growth. (The US population continues to grow steadily, but largely because of immigration.) Other studies have shown that immigration plays only a modest, not decisive, role in rising fertility rates.


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