Sharp decline in global birthrates might be leading the world to a grim future
The documentary "Birthgap" strongly contests the decades-long narrative of world-wide overpopulation while causing heated controversy among trans activists
The lifetime of several generations has been marked by a trained belief that the world is overpopulated and our planet cannot keep up with this unprecedented and unsustainable growth. Climate change, biodiversity loss, extreme urbanisation, poverty and hunger have long been parroted as evidence for this phenomenon. These are indeed pressing problems that demand our attention, but even if overpopulation was the number one culprit for the socio-economic issues humanity is facing today (which it seems it isn’t), the ludicrous solutions some organisations propose for tackling this issue should be disconcerting for everyone.
A 2023 documentary, called “Birthgap” examines the steady decline of global birthrates (the total number of births in a year per 1,000 individuals) in the last couple of decades. Today, about 70% of the world’s population lives in a country below replacement level (for a stable population growth or a positive replacement fertility, the average number of children per woman should be 2.1; put another way, the number of women having two or more children should be in balance with those having one or none). These findings are based on UN data, they also align with the information published by other organisations which study population trends, like the WEF and the World Bank. Around the 1950s, the average woman was having 5 children, while today, this number has nearly halved (2.3 in 2021) and this trajectory is expected to continue, leaving some countries with a loss of 20% of its current population by 2050 — my home country Bulgaria, Romania, the Baltic region, Croatia.
The global population is projected to reach 9.7B around 2050, but these will be predominantly ageing nations — the UN estimates that the number of 65+-year-olds will surpass twice the number of children aged five or under by 2050.
Birthgap’s director and producer, data scientist Stephen Shaw, spent seven years studying plummeting birthrates in culturally, economically, and politically diverse countries on five continents. He spoke to fertility doctors, policy makers, historians, professors, and interviewed 230 people to try and discover what’s hidden behind the raw numbers and the lived experience of shrinking nations. Economic fluctuations is one of the primary factors driving this trend historically, however, no one has identified a common reason causing the precipitous drop in birthrates in polar opposite parts of the world, and the issue has rather been attributed to local conditions — long work hours (Japan), high youth unemployment (Spain, Italy), high education costs (US).
The conundrum Shaw faced during his research, was that despite the accelerating collapse in birthrates, family structure hadn’t changed in decades — the average mother (specifically in the developed part of the world) was having 2.4 children in the 1980s and this number hasn’t changed to the present day. Months into his work, though, the British data scientist stumbled upon a reality which he understandably describes as harrowing — instead of families getting smaller, the percentage of people not having children was increasing. He called this phenomenon unplanned childlessness.
In Italy and Japan, for example, the rate of childless people was 1 in 20-30 in the 1970s, around the 2000s, that number increased to 1 in 3. It’s no secret that in modern societies, people tend to delay parenthood until their mid-to-late 30s, prioritising education and career pursuits when their fertility is at its peak. The shocking, and probably tragic fact, however, is that about 80% of the individuals who are childless today, have actually expected or planned to become parents, but due to life circumstances, they have become childless for life; for 10% not having kids is a deliberate choice while another 10% are prevented to for medical reasons. Shaw’s interviews revealed a lack of proper awareness across populations about their reproductive capacity and an overreliance on costly modern medicine (embryos freezing, IVF), whose success rate isn’t as encouraging as one might anticipate. It turned out most of us tend to think our fertility window starts closing in our 40s, while in reality, the chance to conceive diminishes substantially around 30.
Childlessness is a factor which hasn’t been researched extensively and doesn’t yet reside in the public conscience although population growth has long been part of the public debate. Interestingly, it doesn’t feature at all in the reports of organisations like the UN. It has mainly surfaced in academic research and social studies, and the public is just starting to hear about it.
The inadvertent explosion of childlessness began in the late 1970s, likely caused by the oil crisis. Today, the primary reason for it seems to be not finding the right partner early on (or not at all) and many putting off parenthood for too late in life. Very common answers among the people Shaw interviewed to the question of when they were planning to have children, was “Not now” and “I don’t know”, even though they were already in their late 20s and mid-30s. Some of them expressed concern with the rising cost of living and financial instability. According to Shaw’s findings, though, people don’t necessarily start having more children when their financial situation improves, they tend to invest their capital elsewhere. Moreover, our parents and grandparents arguably lived in more uncertain times than we do. This goes to suggest that the root cause might not be economic difficulties but rather psychological perception and modern societal norms.
Shaw likens the childlessness crisis to a rollercoaster — some regions like Sub-Saharan Africa are at the very back having highest fertility rates (4.6), others are somewhere in the middle — US (14% below replacement level), UK (22%), France (24%), while those at the front are in most dire position — South Korea (71%), Japan (55%), Italy (56%). However, it’s a downward spiral — once birthrates begin to fall, the process accelerates over time and the regions with highest birthrates gradually catch up, struggling to go back to their original fertility — countries like Ethiopia and Malawi where families on average have 4-5 children, have one less child every 10-15 years. Practically, we are all headed in the same direction, the only difference is certain regions will face this crisis later than others.
What are the consequences and are there any solutions?
Obviously, population growth is a complex matter, with political and economic factors to consider as well as vast differences across and within countries and continents. As Shaw himself has said on several occasions, population trends are tricky because they take decades to pan out. In that sense, it’s a process which unfolds gradually so it’s hard to notice. Climate change and women empowerment are perhaps the most sensitive facets of the population growth debate. That’s probably what led to a screening of the “Birthgap” movie to be suspended in the beginning of May. Regardless of how some people feel about this question, though, the ramifications are unavoidable for everyone.
When it comes to climate change, we tend to focus on the raw data and disregard more nuanced aspects like quality of lifestyle and consumption habits, for example. Evidently, the most populous regions have the lowest carbon footprint. Shaw also points out that controlling the size of the population is very ineffective way to tackle climate change, because the footprint of people in reproductive age is insignificant and even if we restrict reproduction, it will take around 40 years to see any positive impact on the environment. It’s rather a matter of changing lifestyles and bridging the economic gaps between countries.
Without enough young people to support the elderly, our financial, healthcare and workforce systems will naturally have to carry the burden of falling birthrates, but what Birthgap also uncovers, are the less obvious and perhaps overlooked consequences — a life-long trauma and grief which people who wanted to have children but ended up being childless, are forced to accept, and the potential rise of suicides among the elderly who cannot bear the long-term loneliness they have to live with. As demonstrated in the film, some cities are already becoming desolate yesterlands, as Shaw calls them.
Despite the efforts of governments to stimulate birthrates in countries like Japan, Hungary, Denmark, Russia — through financial support for young families, extended parental leave, and tax reduction, these measures don’t seem to have a long-lasting effect. Such public policies should rather be combined with restructuring of the education and workforce systems to enable life-long learning and career advancement at an older age, as well as shifting the public perception that the perfect time to have children actually doesn't exist. There’s also potential benefit in bringing communities closer together where young and older generations would be able to support each other.
Cambridge University suspends screening of the documentary but reschedules it after public pressure
One wouldn’t think demographic trends could be a strongly contentious matter but in the politicised landscape we’re living in, I guess anything can. Few weeks ago, Shaw was invited to screen his documentary and hold a discussion on a Cambridge University campus. He was already on his way from Tokyo to the UK when the university suspended the screening because of concern for disruption of the exam period. When an email went out to promote the event, a group of student activists, who don’t seem to have even seen the film, announced they were going to protest it because of its alleged anti-feminist undertone. They expressed their outrage in the university newspaper, claiming Shaw’s documentary was “incredibly condescending”, “misogynistic” and “transphobic”.
When the organiser of the event — student Charlie Bentley-Astor, asked the university if she could refute these claims by publishing a response in the newspaper, she was declined that opportunity.
Only thanks to a lecturer from another campus, Stephen Shaw was able to show his documentary to a substantially smaller but very engaged audience, which kept him talking for almost five hours.
It’s curious how a documentary which, not only never mentions the words trans and feminism, but also doesn’t preach any anti-feminist behaviour, quite the contrary, was called out for its supposed transphobia and misogyny.
Throughout the movie, Shaw is very factual and rather restrained, not explicitly expressing personal views, not giving any emotional evaluations or judgments but rather letting the story unfold organically. This is also evident in his appearances on the Jordan Peterson’s podcast, Chris William’s show Modern Wisdom, Redacted, and other shows.
Cambridge University’s initial surrender to the emotional blackmail of an entitled minority, although preposterous, is not too surprising given that we live in a society that cannot define what a woman is anymore, and not only biology but objective reality and truth have become malleable concepts subject to grotesque interpretations. The madness of the social warrior culture which emerged in recent years, has reached almost a point of no return. Trans activists and woke mobsters aren’t required to provide any basis in fact or reason to successfully silence voices they find uncomfortable. Their claims, however absurd and untrue, aren’t judged on their merit but on their political value and ability to bring social acclaim. Luckily, the tide is turning and there’s a lot of pushback from sane voices but I think it will take a few years or even decades for reason to prevail.
Despite the misplaced criticism of a few trans activists, Shaw’s documentary is already fulfilling its purpose to raise awareness and start a conversation, as more and more people, with large audiences at that, are beginning to talk about it. Having watched the whole documentary, I think its central message, rather than “let’s abolish feminism and trans rights”, is much closer to “we’re facing a serious problem, we don’t need to panic but we can make conscious choices to address it locally within our communities and more broadly as a society through awareness and education”.
The first of the three-part film is available online, the other two can be seen on the documentary’s website behind a supporter paywall. All three parts are expected to be released to a wider audience later this year.
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