Recently, I wrote a post about Hans Rosling's latest TED talk, discussing the relationship between birth rates* and religion. He shows data that debunks the idea that religion is a factor in birth rates. Rather, the factors that affect birth rates are economic well being, health (in particular infant mortality), and the education of women. Rosling focuses on these factors with respect to the poorer countries in the world. He analyzes the data to show that birth rates decline with bettering social and economic conditions, and better social and economic conditions drive the birth rate even lower, creating a virtuous circle.
But what happens when the birth rate drops below 2.11, replacement level that keeps population from declining? Then you have a different problem: there are too few young working people contributing to the economy relative to the number of older people who create significant burdens on pension plans and health care services. The problem is extreme in Japan, where the birth rate is 1.39 and immigration is almost nil: the population will decline from its peak of 128M in 2008 to 87M in 2060, with more than 40% of the population over 65. Concern about this onrushing demographic disaster is said to be spurring Japan's interest in anthropomorphic robots, which they envision looking after the elderly when there aren't enough young people around to do it. (Apparently the xenophobic Japanese would rather have a robot look after them than an immigrant!)
In general, Europe had experienced recovering birth rates for the decade up to 2008. But since 2008 birth rates have plunged. A recent Economist article examined this drop.
You can see a number of countries where the birth rate has fallen below 2.11. You'll also remark that the drop started just after the economic crisis of 2008. The Economist's conjecture is that this is not a coincidence: because of the economic situation, young adults are postponing marriage and having kids, while immigrants, who in general had higher birth rates, have left now that the employment market has dried up. They show a graph of the inverse correlation between youth unemployment and partnership formation. (They look at partnership formation as a common precursor to having children, and thus one that foreshadows a drop in the birth rate, which of course has a built-in 9-month lag).
Rosling certainly piqued my interest in birth rates as such an important factor in global development. It was equally interesting to see The Economist's take on the subject, through the lens of the developing countries.
*By birth rate here, we mean the number of children born per woman.