Menarché and Low Fertility

Earlier this morning I read this intriguing paper by US researchers Robert Drago & Amy Varner. The title of the paper is “Fertility and Work in the United States: A Policy Perspective” and it addresses the important issues of gender equality and the historical trend towards declining fertility in the United States. Now while I was thinking of how to write a post on this general topic I wandered over to Brad Delong’s blog and found he had this highly relevant post entitled Menarché vs Monarchy.

OK, what’s this all about.
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Japan’s Population Challenge

In one of those strange coincidences the world’s second and third largest economies are both scheduled to have elections next month – Japan on 11 September, and Germany on the 18th. The coincidences go further, since these two societies are leaders in another, non-economic, sense: they are leaders in the great global ageing revolution. Japan (at 42.64) and Germany (at 42.16) have the highest median ages of any OECD country (Italy comes third at 41.77, while the US is still a sprightly and young 36.27). The two countries also share the problem that they cannot pump up economic growth by introducing more liquidity (money) into the system, or at least the impact rates of doing so have become very low (see this post on the German problem) .

In fact the comparison goes even further since at the end of the day the elections are about pretty much the same issue: how to make the respective economies grow fast enough to be able to pay for the growing pension and health needs.

The Financial Times today has an interview with outgoing Japan economics minister Heizo Takenaka, and Takenaka is quite explicit: changing demographics is Japan?s biggest challenge.

?From now on, the total population of Japan will start falling,? he said. ?That means if we don?t create a system in which the private sector can carry more responsibility, the burden on taxpayers and on the state will become unsustainable.?

The facts indeed are compelling. Japan is in the process of becoming the first major state to experience structurally declining population (correction: as David points out in comments this is misleading for a number of reasons so lets say Japan is the first post-modern state or society with a developed economy to experience structurally declining population. It was not my intention to indirectly pass any judgement on whether Russia is a major state or not). Population was predicted to start falling in 2007, but preliminary data from the first half of the year suggest that the decline may have already begun. There is no end point in sight. The decline, which is also known as the second stage of the demographic transition, is a result of continuing low fertility, and so far there is no clear way back. Most demographic models suggest that fertility in low fertility countries may bounce back a little, but not sufficiently to reach the 2.1 TRF replacement rate (normally the assumption is in the region of 1.9, and estimates vary as to whether this will arrive in 50 years, or in 100). Meantime the UN median estimate seems to suggest that the total population of Japan (currently something over 125 million) will be around the 45 million mark come 2100. Europe and the US look carefully and take note.

Unified Growth Theory

According to Oded Galor it has become evident that in the absence of a unified growth theory that is consistent with the entire process of development, the understanding of the contemporary growth process would be limited and distorted. He quote Copernicus to the effect that:

?It is as though an artist were to gather the hands, feet, head and other members for his images from diverse models, each part perfectly drawn, but not related to a single body, and since they in no way match each other, the result would be monster rather than man.?
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The Low-Fertility Trap

I suppose by-now every right thinking and reasonably well read adult knows what the ‘poverty-trap’ is, even if most of us aren’t too clear about what there is to do about it. Being stuck in one of these traps could be thought to be like being stuck in a (not necessarily very deep) well with a slimy surround wall. The more you struggle to get out, the harder it gets: your strength disippates, and the walls get to be even more slippery. This could also be called a negative feedback loop.

Well now there is the suggestion that something similar may exist in the world of fertility. As Wolfgang Lutz suggests in this power point presentation, the critical level may be 1.5. No society which has fallen below this level has -to date – returned above it. (Many thanks here to commenter CapTvK who sent me the link).
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No Answers Only Questions

One person who could rightly claim to know more about global ageing and its possible consequences than anyone else in the business is the German Director of the Manheim Research Institute for the Economics of Ageing Axel B?rsch-Supan. If there’s a conference being organised, he seems to be there. Actually his comments at both these meet-ups are well worth reading in and of themselves (here, and here).

In a sense B?rsch-Supan is almost uniquely qualified to express opinions on the topic since he has both devoted a large part of his professional career to studying the question, and he lives and works in a society which is already reeling under the impact. As he says:

“Today?s Germany has essentially the demographic structure that the United States will reach in a quarter of a century. The dependency ratio (the ratio of persons aged 65 and over to those aged from 20 to 59) is at 28 percent, and it will reach 75 percent in 2075, if we dare project that far. Almost one-fifth of the German population today are aged 65 and over. One quarter are aged 60 and over, which is relevant because the average retirement age in Germany is 59.5 years. Thus, in this sense the United States is not ?entering largely uncharted territory,? …. Rather, they can look to Europe?in particular to Germany and Italy?to see what will happen in the United States.”

I mention B?rsch-Supan because he serves as a good pretext for going over where we are to date with the issue. As he says himself. watching demography change is rather like watching a glacier melt, on a day-to-day basis it’s hard to see that anything is happening, but over time the impact is important.

One of his recent papers has the intriguing title: “Global Ageing: Issues, Answers, More Questions“. It is a good up-to-date review of the ‘state of the art’, and a quick examination of the points he makes probably serves as a good starting point, since I can’t help thinking, in the case of global ageing, it isn’t so much what we know that matters, it’s what we don’t know.

So here we go, a review of what we “know”, what we think we know, and what we don’t know:
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Europe’s ‘Tiger’

Last Friday Eurostat released the 2004 data on comparative per capita PPP’s (purchasing power parities) across the EU. Perhaps the most surprising fact which emerges is that Ireland is now in second place (after Luzembourg) with a PPP 40% above the EU average. For a country that not so long ago was considered one of the ‘poorer’ EU members this is truly stunning.

It is generally well known that Ireland had (and continues to have) one of the highest fertility and population growth rates in the EU, but this has not been regarded as especially important since conventional neo-clasical growth theory (and the new ‘super-duper’endogenous growth theory for that matter) argue that increased population means a bigger economy, but not necessarily an increase in per capita income. However, as I said yesterday, it’s all about population structure. What we are now understanding is that the right age structure can produce very rapid increases in per capita income, and Ireland is, of course, a good case in point.

In the case of the ‘Celtic Tiger’, New Economic Paradigm theorists David Bloom and David Canning, who have made a specific study of the Irish case, reached the following conclusions:
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Changing Perspectives On Immigration.

Views of immigration are changing. Back in the mists of time, when I first came to the conclusion that ongoing demographic changes were going to be important, the voices in favour of a reconsideration of immigration policy were few and far between. Perhaps the first and most notable of these voices was the UN population division. Now things are different, and a series of recent international conferences and reports highlighting the positive advantages of immigration as an economic motor only serve to underline the fact that discussion of this important topic is very much back on the agenda.
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