Talk of the decline of the West may be overdone, say researchers

Western country birth rates are now nearing replacement levels, a new paper by Oxford researchers argues.

The publication in the journal, Population Studies, by Professor David Coleman and Associate Professor Stuart Basten, provides a more optimistic demographic picture of the future in the West, that the commonly accepted narrative. 

The research looked at trends in Western Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

The authors say while the West and the English speaking world will have to accept some “painful adjustments”, the population time-bomb scenario is simply wrong. It points out that although the Western economies have difficulties with the rising costs of pension entitlement for its ageing populations, societies are adapting through increases in retirement age and other measures. Countries in the developing world, however, are facing a variety of different challenges. It argues that these have been understated; in some cases persistent substantial population growth, in others rapid fertility decline leading to severe levels of population ageing. In many of these societies, political and social instability makes adjustment difficult.

Many countries in Western Europe have reasonably favourable demographic trends that are “more stable and sustainable than supposed” (with total fertility rates between 1.8-2.1).

In countries such as the UK, robust birth rates combined with record immigration ensure that population decline is not on the agenda and indeed that population growth has become a problem, argues the paper. Western countries, for all their difficulties, benefit from established civil society, functioning democracy, the rule of law, relatively high levels of trust in political institutions, and some degree of equality between the sexes, it suggests.

“Many commentators focus on China as the future global superpower – ever growing in economic and political stature. However, China risks falling into a low-fertility trap coupled with severe levels of population ageing,” said Basten. 

“Even when allowed two children, couples prefer one child, with my research showing that this attitude has been reinforced by the urban conditions that families are forced to adjust to and policies that are not family-friendly. Both East and West have their separate different challenges which may mean painful periods of adjustment for everyone concerned.”

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