Who’s afraid of ‘demographic winter?’

FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas - The Philippine Star

The enactment of the Reproductive Health Bill into RA 10354 promises the creation of a population policy that reduces unwanted fertility (or to meet unmet needs for contraception), fosters women’s empowerment and increases employment opportunities for women, resulting in later childbearing and wider birth spacing that slow population momentum.

Although the new law has been passed, it is worthwhile backtracking  and seeing the arguments of the pro-RH sectors, regarding the correlation between poverty and overpopulation. Dr. Ernesto M. Pernia, UP economics professor and fellow of the Institute for Development and Econometric Analysis, in his forthcoming book, says  the population crisis is “a factor in slow economic growth and worsening inequality, and complicates the task of poverty reduction. More children than desired in poor households is due to lack of information about and access to effective methods of contraception. Unwanted pregnancies lead to induced abortions. Poor households’ larger than desired number of children than rich families could be gradually reduced by education and gainful employment that raise the cost of children and parents’ motivation to invest in children. Thus, the availability of a good family planning program coupled with education as provided for in the RH bill, and employment is the effective way out of the vicious circle of high fertility and poverty (UPSE 2008).

“The foregoing suggests that population management must be a part of good governance to accelerate economic growth, lessening inequality, and hasten poverty reduction. A national population policy, at the core of which is a well-funded family planning program that provide accurate information and access to  all methods of contraception is pro-poor, pro-women, pro-people and pro-life (UPSE 2004). Family planning programs at the local level as well as various private sector initiatives to address the population issue are likely to become more effective under a national population policy framework.”

The question that remains for some people is whether the new law will result in population decline, or what is called “demographic winter.” A documentary film, titled “Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human family,” raises fears of the decline of the stable, intact family over the past four decades, threatening whole societies with decline and chaos. The film is an independent film written and directed by Rick Stout and produced by Barry McLerran with executive producer Steven Smoot.

Dr. Mercedes Concepcion, one of the country’s foremost experts on population and development, and  Dr. Ernesto M. Pernia, professor of economics at the University of the Philippines,  say people  need not fear demographic winter, as it is “conveniently estimated” to take place 60-70 years from now.

Dr. Concepcion says the term demographic winter “applies to the population age structure that has reached stability, that is, when its Net Reproduction Rate (NRR) = 1. This means that women are simply replacing themselves with daughters who will become the future mothers. The NRR of 1 is reached when the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) reaches a level of about an average of 2.1 births per woman who has reached the end of her reproductive life, that is around 50 years of age. Once stability of the population takes place, the majority of the age structure shifts from one that is young, below 15 years of age, to one that is old, 60 or 65 years of age. It is conventionally estimated that it will take some 60-70 years before this condition is realized.         

“The estimated TFR from the 2008 National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) was around 3 children per woman, a far cry from the 2.1 TFR required for NRR to reach 1. The 2013 NDHS will tell us what the current TFR is and whether it is continuing its decline or not. If the decline is as slow as what occurred during the previous decades, then the population age structure will not exhibit a strong shift to an elderly structure. Even if the RH Bill provides the needed contraceptive supplies to poor women who choose to plan their families, it will take several decades for the TFR of the two lowest income quintiles (representing the poor) to decline to the level of 2.1 needed for an NRR of 1.”

Promotional material on the Internet re demographic winter defines the term as  “the worldwide decline in birthrates, also referred to as a ‘birth-dearth,’ and what it portends.”

Demographer Philip Longman (author of The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity) observes: The ongoing global decline in human birthrates is the single most powerful force affecting the fate of nations and the future of society in the 21st century.

“Sometime in this century, the world’s population will begin to decline. At a certain point, the decline will become rapid. We may even reach population free-fall in our lifetimes. For some countries, population decline is already a reality. Russia is losing three-quarters ‑of-a-million people a year. Its population (currently 145 million) is expected to fall by one-third by 2050.   

 What is population stability, and why is the number 2.1 so important? Answer: “Population stability is the point of equilibrium at which a country’s population is neither growing nor declining. In order to maintain current population, the average woman must have 2.1 children during her lifetime. Essentially, she needs to replace herself and a man. Because some children will die before reaching maturity, slightly more than two children are needed. Hence, 2.1. A birthrate of more than 2.1 equals population growth. A birthrate of less than 2.1 means long-term population decline.”

The causes of demographic decline of the post-war era have converged to create “a perfect storm” for demographic winter. Men and women are delaying marriage, so they’re less likely to have more than one or two children. In the West, one in two marriages ends in divorce, and the children of divorce are less likely to marry and form families themselves. More married women are putting off having children for careers.

Economist Robert J. Samuelson wrote in a column in The Washington Post: “It’s hard to be a great power if your population is shriveling.” He warned that Europe’s, Spain’s and Russia’s populations have turned  dramatically grayer. By 2040 there will be 400 million elderly Chinese. If the low birth rates persist, who will operate the factories and farms, who will develop the natural resources? Who will care for a graying population? The cost of subsidizing senior citizens will increase.

In our time, the problem is not declining, but increasing, birth rates.  Fortunately, the new RH law with carefully crafted rules and regulations, will help women and men plan families they can feed, clothe and shelter.

Dr. Pernia  says, while demographic winter is occurring in varying degrees in highly advanced countries, it will probably take close to 100 years for the Philippines to reach that stage.

“Moreover, the problems of ageing in a more developed country are probably easier to tackle than those of rapid population growth in a poor country. And because the prospect is still so distant for the Philippines, there  is ample time to prepare for it and learn from the best practices adopted by advanced societies.”

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My e-mail:[email protected]


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