Is the reduction in the number of births in France really bad news?

First of all, in this area, as in so many others, France is not a special case. The birth rate is plummeting in Japan, Korea, Germany, Italy, Russia and China, all of which are below the replacement level. There are few developed countries, such as the United States, where population renewal is assured; and even fewer, such as Israel (the only developed country where women have more than 3 children on average).

The birth rate is also falling in countries where it remains very high; even in countries where it is still above 5 children per woman (Niger, Mali, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo); and throughout sub-Saharan Africa (where it is still at 4.6 children). The three regions of the world where birth rate growth will remain significant are sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian peninsula and the Middle East. At this rate, by 2050, there will be more people living in Nigeria than in the United States, including over 130 million in Lagos alone.

All in all, the general decline is such that it is now likely that, despite continued growth (with rare exceptions) in life expectancy, the world’s population will never reach the 12 billion predicted for 2100, or even the 10 billion predicted for 2050.

The reasons for this decline are the same everywhere: dislocation of the social pressure to have many children, the liberation of women who want to have a professional life, and the inability of public services to provide the necessary support in terms of health, education, housing and childcare. Only countries or communities in which women are dominated, and where nothing is done to finance the lives of the elderly other than through their children, have very high birth rates. In short, the birth rate is high in countries where the need, ideological or material, to pass on wealth is dominant.

While the slowdown in the growth of the planet’s population is good ecological news, it can become a catastrophe for those countries that can no longer ensure the renewal of their own population.

Firstly, for the poorest among them, such as China, who have not set up retirement systems capable of ensuring a decent life for the growing numbers of elderly people. And then, for all the others, including France, who will not be able to find enough young people among their citizens to replace those who are retiring. And if we carry on like this, countries with low birth rates will have to bring in more and more young people from regions with high birth rates, with all the consequences that this entails.

An ideal scenario would undoubtedly be, on the scale of two centuries, a stabilization of the planet’s population at a level close to or below current levels. This would require massive action to free women from the constraints that weigh on them in countries where they remain dominated, and action of a completely different nature in countries where the birth rate is collapsing. And in these countries, including France, longer parental leave will not solve the problem. Not even by employing all the techniques that worked so well 80 years ago in France: generous family allowances, a proactive housing policy, crèches, nursery schools… This is no longer enough.

At least two factors are changing the situation. On the one hand, and fortunately, women want to have a career, and motherhood remains an obstacle. Secondly, and less fortunately, there is no shortage of reasons to worry about the future, and many couples have no desire to give birth to a child who will be 80 years old at the beginning of the 22nd century, in a world that looks set to be a terrible one.

These are the two issues that need to be tackled in Europe, Japan and China, and soon throughout the world. On the one hand, the burden of motherhood must not remain the sole responsibility of women. On the other hand, we need to recreate the conditions for a credible, happy future for the world. These two issues boil down to a single one: creating the conditions for experiencing the joy of transmission. And not, as in the past, to suffer the need to transmit. That’s another matter altogether.

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