August 29, 2012 (pop.org) - More and more countries are hearing the death knell of low birth rates.

We live in an age unique in human history. Per capita incomes have never been higher, lifespans have never been longer, and people are better fed and educated than ever before. At the same time, birth rates have fallen to historically low levels. In fact, they have fallen to levels so low that they will extinguish whole populations unless something is done.

The developed countries are suffering a severe birth dearth and, as a result, an enormous shift in global power will soon be upon us. Europe will recede demographically, while America will be hard-pressed to hold its own against younger and more populous countries. More and more countries are undertaking programs to raise their birth rates, although none of these policies has as yet made much of a difference.

Let’s take a quick tour around the world, thanks to the research of our own Elizabeth Crnkovich:

Asia

In Japan, the headlines are increasingly strident: “The Asian Tiger - Japan - is in Danger of Extinction,” “Number of Children in Japan Falls for 31st Consecutive Year,” “Japan’s Population Marks Sharpest Drop Since 1950,” and “Japan Underpopulation So Bad Families Resort to “Rental Relatives.” Even The Economist, normally staid, has noted that “Japan is ageing faster than any country in history.”

The bare facts are shocking enough: Japan’s fertility rate, at 1.1 children per woman, has never been lower, and it is still falling from year to year. Japan already has the oldest population in the world and, with virtually no immigration, there appears to be no way out of the looming democide. The elderly will die, and there will be fewer people and far fewer workers in the Home Islands in the years to come. The solution is obvious, but the Japanese people have to want more children for there to be more children.

China’s lower birth rates have a different cause. The Chinese people want more children, but the government for the past three decades has said no. The one-child policy has decimated China’s younger generations, and created a society where the young are not replacing the old.

While China currently has the world’s second largest economy, all bets are off if the birth rate remains depressed for another generation. The economy will follow the falling numbers of young workers downward.

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Taiwan’s birthrate is “dropping like a stone…” says an editorial in the Taipei Times. The majority of people realize there is a demographic problem. It could hardly be otherwise, since the total fertility rate—the number of children per woman—is an anemic 0.9. Few are motivated to do anything about it, however. Taiwan is now heavily urbanized, and city folk tend to have very small families. When asked, younger Taiwanese say that they are not interested in having children because they cost too much money, or take too much time. Women are more motivated to get a college degree and seek professional employment than to marry and have children. In this highly secularized society, children are not seen not as a blessing, but as a burden tying down the women who bear them. Goodbye, Taiwan.

Singapore, whose fertility rate stands at an anemic 1.1, is a dying city-state. The average Singaporean is now 39 years of age and climbing. While the city’s economy appears to be doing quite well, and the city itself is replete with new buildings, offers top-notch health care, and enjoys low crime rates, its population is aging fast. In order to keep everything running smoothly, Singapore must rely on immigration, the last resort of a once-reproductive population.

Hong Kong has a birth-rate of 1.09, slightly lower than that of Singapore. As a result, its government has reversed its policy on family planning. Instead of promoting smaller families, as it once did, the government now urges its citizens to have more children to help offset population aging.

It may be a matter of “too little, too late,” however. People already have ingrained in their heads that small families are better, or they just don’t think they have the means to support bigger families. Governments telling people to have more children is not going to change an anti-child mentality at this point. One might call this a voluntary one-child policy.

To illustrate this point, consider that the South Korean government beginning in 2010 has spent billions of dollars in an attempt to raise the country’s birth rate. The jury is still out on this effort, but the latest total fertility rate of 1.15 is still way below the replacement level. Seoul is spending money that it hopes will make it easier for young couples to make ends meet, and to support pregnant women. We at PRI are not sanguine that this belated effort will make much of a difference, since the birth rate was so low to begin with. The economy of this “Asian tiger” is hurting for lack of “cubs.”

Europe

The situation in Europe is no better. In Italy the dawn of the sexual revolution has meant the death of the family. Young people are now not as eager to start families, and the TFR is hovering at 1.4. Young people are happy living the single life and only marry, if at all, after they have reached their thirties and forties. Adult children see no shame in living in their parents’ homes well into middle age.

Venice, famous as a destination for honeymooners, is a dying city. It is losing inhabitants and becoming more and more just a tourist attraction. The city even held a mock funeral for itself when its population dropped below 60,000. Will holding a mock funeral boost the birth rate? It seems unlikely.

Another Catholic country with an anemic birth rate is Spain, whose TFR is 1.48. The Spanish parliament reacted to the problem by promoting births and instituting pro-natal policies. But the relatively small bonuses and benefits offered seem insufficient to resurrect population growth. The problem is exacerbated by that fact that many Spaniards, unable to find employment at home, seek it abroad in countries such as Germany. When the young flee, this hardly helps Spain’s declining birth rate and decreasing population.

We’ve told you before about Russia, whose women average 1.2 children. The nation is hemorrhaging people, a bleeding wound which a huge baby bonus has failed to staunch. The countryside is full of ghost villages as the remaining Russians move to a few large cities.

Germany’s fix for falling fertility, now standing at 1.4 children per woman, is to rely on immigrants, immigrants drawn in by the strong German economy. Spaniards and other Europeans help to bolster the German economy, to be sure, but that is not going to help their native countries.

Other countries with very, very low birth rates include, but are not limited to, England, Greece, Portugal, Holland, Belgium, and France. As the Telegraph put it: “We are not so much living in an age of crisis as facing a crisis of age.”

Where is the population bomb when you need it?

This article was originally published as the August 28 Population Research Institute Weekly Briefing.