CHILD-BIRTH STRIKE: Women in most countries worldwide are choosing to have significantly fewer children than they did 100 years ago. What does this mean for the future of humanity? Fred Pearce looks deeply into this issue in his book The Coming Population Crash: And Our Planet’s Surprising Future, which came out in April 2010. Image: Beacon Press
Aisha, Miriam and Akhi are three young factory workers in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. They are poorly educated and badly paid. But, like millions of other young women, they relish their freedom from the stultifying conformity of rural life, where women are at the constant beck and call of fathers, brothers and husbands.
There is something else. The three women together have 22 siblings. But Aisha plans three children, Miriam two and Akhi just one. They represent a gender revolution that many see as irrevocably tied to a reproductive revolution. Together, the changes are solving what once seemed the most difficult problem facing the future of humanity: growing population.
Almost without anyone noticing, the population bomb is being defused. It is being done without draconian measures by big government, without crackdowns on our liberties—by women making their own choices.
Family planning experts used to say that women only started having fewer children when they got educated or escaped poverty. Pessimists feared that if rising population prevented the world's poor from advancing, they would get caught in a cycle of poverty and large families. The poverty trap would become a demographic trap.
But the reality is proving very different. Round the world, women today are having half as many children as their mothers did. And often it is the poorest and least educated women who are in the vanguard. Women like Aisha, Miriam and Akhi.
There are holdouts, in parts of the Middle East and rural Africa. But more than 60 countries—containing approaching half of the world's population—already have fertility rates at or below the rate needed to maintain their populations long-term. The club now includes most of the Caribbean islands, Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Iran, Turkey, Vietnam, Brazil, Algeria, Kazakhstan and Tunisia. Within 20 years, demographic giants like Indonesia, Bangladesh, Mexico and India will in all probability also have below-replacement fertility.
Now is this happening? For one thing, more and more women are leading independent working lives, rather than succumbing to a life of child bearing and raising. In many countries, women are staying single through their 20s and beyond. In 1960, two thirds of American women in their early 20s were already married; today the figure is less than a quarter. The habit is spreading fast. As recently as 1980, a UN study found that nuptials were "near universal" across Asia, and half of Asian women were married by the age of 18. No more. In Japan, half of all 30-year-old women today are unmarried. In South Korea, the figure is 40 per cent.
The trend is especially marked in cities. In Bangkok, a fifth of all women are single at 45. Manila, Singapore and Hong Kong are not far behind. And, again largely unremarked, it is women who are heading the urbanization of the planet. Whether sweatshop workers in Dhaka, bar girls in Bangkok, office workers in Shanghai, students in Delhi or maids in Caracas, there are more young women than men in almost every city in the world.
Academics debate whether they are there for the jobs or the men (there are more rich educated men in cities, but more women of all sorts). But whatever the motive, they are there: in the bars, shoe shops, gyms and clubs. With jobs but often no dependants. In Japan, they get called wagamama, or "single parasites." No matter; it's better than changing daipers.
How have they gained their freedom? Some say liberation allowed women to make new choices about their lives. Equally, however, it has been the dramatic improvement in the survival rate of infants that for the first time has freed women from the social obligation for a lifetime producing and rearing babies.
Women are having smaller families and grabbing a new life outside the home because, for the first time in history, they can. In the 20th century, the world largely eradicated the diseases that used to mean most children died before growing up. Mothers no longer need to have five or six children to ensure the next generation. So they do not. Two or three is enough.