Surprise: Rich women still having babies

A demographic shocker: Fertility rates in developed nations may not be cratering, after all

Published September 28, 2009 4:57PM (EDT)

Here's what HTWW believed until this morning: Rapid economic growth in the developing world was the key to slowing down, or possibly even stopping, global population growth. Why? Because in rich, developed nations, birth rates tend to decline.

Some analysts wring their hands at falling fertility rates in the developed world, worrying about the consequences of aging populations. Who will keep the economy going while all those retirees soak up Social Security and Medicare? I've never been too bothered by the prospect: For one thing, if there's a shortage of labor, that should be good for workers. And if the shortage really becomes drastic, all one has to do is open up the immigration gates.

But I never considered the possibility that the basic thesis might just be wrong.

At Newsweek's Wealth of Nations blog, Rana Foroohar passes on some fascinating research from Goldman Sachs with potentially huge implications. Fertility rates in rich nations may not be falling as fast as we think, simply because women in those nations are waiting longer to have babies, and our existing models of population growth don't take that into account.

Standard estimates of fertility are still tabulated assuming that most women are having children in their early 20s, rather that late 20s or even 30s and 40s, as has become more common in rich countries with lots of women in the workforce. "In parts of Europe [this method of calculation] has probably understated true fertility by about 15 to 20 percent," notes Goldman Sachs economist Peter Berezin.

Whoops! Time for a new model... not to mention a new solution for the problem of global population growth.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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