This transformation took many centuries in Europe and North America as people moved from farms to cities; basic public health measures steadily reduced the risk of contagious disease and modern medicine prolonged lives to unprecedented lengths. In developing countries, this demographic transition is certainly underway, though these countries vary widely at their places along the spectrum.
Very low birth rates and the resultant population decrease have received considerable media attention, particularly in Europe and parts of eastern Asia. In the past, when demographers projected national and global populations, the projections commonly assumed that birth rates would decline worldwide but only to the “two-child” family, i.e., two children per woman or per couple on average. An assumption that fertility would fall below this rate would have some unpleasant consequences: a decrease in population size and a population top-heavy with retired seniors who would depend upon the social taxes paid by a dwindling number of younger workers. While it may not have been desirable to project such a gloomy scenario in the past, this is exactly what has transpired in many countries.
In Europe and eastern Asia, fertility remains at what is seen as catastrophically low levels, and countries have been slow to react. While such attitudes are now changing rapidly, any increases in the TFR (Total Fertility Rate) are few and modest at best. Reasons for low fertility can vary quite a bit across countries and some examples of those differences are used.
In Germany, it remains socially unacceptable to leave one’s child in all-day daycare and most kindergartens close at 1:00 PM, placing a significant burden on parents. The administration of Chancellor Angela Merkel has placed great emphasis on providing a more accommodating climate for couples with young children, by increasing child payments and, ultimately, providing day-long childcare. Germany’s policies become more in line with family-friendly France whose support of young families is legendary.
In Italy (also in China), childbearing outside of formal marriage is generally not socially acceptable, as it is in Sweden where over half of births are outside marriage. Young people in Italy face a tight job market, and as a result, marriage and childbearing can be delayed. In Eastern Europe, birth rates had been comparatively high prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. After that event, collapsing economies brought the birth rate down with them quite rapidly; this region now has Europe’s lowest fertility. In Japan, raising children is not only perceived as expensive, but most family duties fall to wives as husbands often work long hours and participate very little in domestic chores.
The future course of TFR determines the level to which countries experience societal aging. What might we expect? The degree to which generous family policies affect birth rates is debatable, but the simple fact remains that countries with such policies have the highest TFRs. There is potential for change in low fertility rates, reflected in the results of the Eurobarometer surveys conducted by the European Commission. In the 15 countries surveyed in 2006, the “personal ideal family size” was above two children in all countries except Austria. This ranged from 3.0 among women in Ireland to 1.66 among men in Austria. The current TFR in Ireland is only 1.6.
One of the most striking features of the pyramid of aging is the very high proportion of the “old, old” which is defined as those age 80 years and over. In 2055, 19 percent of Japan’s population falls into that category, including 634,000 centenarians. At the same time, the country’s population size has shrunk from 128 million today to 90 million. The consequences for the country’s pension and health care systems are without precedent. Today, the state of Japan’s birth rate is being treated as a national crisis, it may safely be said that it is too little, too late.
Although future changes in fertility likely have the most noteworthy effect on changing the pyramid, past and future increases in life expectancy have had and have their own effect, particularly in the numbers of the old old. Currently, life expectancy at birth in Japan stands at 79 years for males and 86 years for females. These are without historical precedent and continue to rise as the projected pyramid. Japan’s life tables for the years 1921-1925 show that life expectancy at age 75 stood at 5.3 years for males and 6.2 years for females. In 1995, those figures were 9.8 and 12.9 years, respectively. As high as these life expectancies are, they are still increasing. In 2004, life expectancy at age 75 was 11.2 years for males and 14.9 for females. A woman who survived to age 75 could expect to live to age 90.