Study finds national cultural norms, economic conditions helping create a 'demographic time bomb'

Jul 04, 2014 by Colleen Walsh
Credit: Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

In the 1960s, scholar Paul R. Ehrlich warned that a looming global population explosion would usher in mass starvation and death by the end of the 20th century.

If recent data are any indication, Ehrlich's fears may have been somewhat misplaced. For the past several decades, have steadily declined around the world. But many analysts agree that those falling figures are tied to another set of problems.

According to the experts, parts of the world are facing a new "demographic time bomb," one that threatens skyrocketing health care and pension costs as populations age. The threat also could undermine the economies of many nations by robbing them of young, homegrown workers entering the labor force.

"It was really a shocking realization that this was happening," said Mary Brinton, Radcliffe Hrdy Fellow and chair of Harvard's sociology department. For the past several years, Brinton and a team of collaborators that includes several Harvard students, have explored declining fertility rates in postindustrial societies, in work partly funded by the National Science Foundation.

Brinton researches countries in Southern Europe and East Asia where birthrates average 1.5 or below. (Demographers argue that countries need to maintain a 2.1 birthrate—the number of children born to each woman as an average—to replace their populations without help from immigration.)

What's behind this decline? According to Brinton, the complicated problem involves several factors, led by economic forces and entrenched attitudes about women in the workforce and as mothers.

During a year at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Brinton and her team continued analyzing the results of 400 in-depth interviews with men and women in their late 20s and early 30s in Japan, Sweden, Spain, South Korea, and the United States. The comparative study focused on 80 respondents in each country who completed some form of education after high school.

Using the same questions and a restricted sample allowed the team to make "sensible comparisons across countries," said Brinton. The lengthy interviews also allowed them to explore "the reasoning that different people are using, so that we can really understand how people are thinking about their lives at critical junctures in young adulthood."

Interviewers asked respondents about their attitudes toward work, marriage, family, and children, and more nuanced questions about gender roles, including queries such as "Should mothers work outside the home?" and "Do men make better business executives than women?"

The responses revealed that Japan and South Korea's similar attitudes about gender norms are likely helping keep birthrates there low. In those societies, the prevailing cultural norms hold that women should leave their jobs when it's time to have children, while their husbands should continue as breadwinners with little responsibility for household work or child care.

Sixty percent of women in Japan quit the by the time they have their first child, said Brinton, "and that hasn't budged in 20 years." As increasing numbers of well-educated women enter the workforce, "Something has got to give," she said. "What gives in Japan is that a lot of women don't get married and have kids, but instead have careers. It's either/or."

In Spain, Brinton and her colleagues noticed that while husbands tend to have more flexible attitudes toward helping with child care and household chores, allowing women to work more, the country's struggling economy is most likely the biggest factor driving birthrates down.

"I see much more negotiation and discussion between the sexes about who's going to do how much housework and how the child care is going to be arranged—more openness, more flexibility," said Brinton. "The big bottleneck seems to be that unemployment is heavily concentrated among young people. With such economic uncertainty, they are just scared to go ahead and have families, worried about whether they can support them."

In contrast, birthrates are holding up in Sweden, where interview responses indicated that strong government support for public and generous parental leave options make mixing work and family much easier for young couples raising children than in most other countries.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the fertility rate in the United States, where state support for caregiving lags well behind the Swedish model, also remains fairly steady. In the American responses, Brinton found a strong belief in family and a desire to juggle a career and children successfully, no matter what. Free from the rigid gender strictures in countries such as Japan and South Korea, parents in the United States can "fashion the way they want to live without tremendous social sanctions," said Brinton. But their desire to work hard and be good, caring parents often clashes with inflexible hours at work.

"People who are happiest in the U.S. are the ones who have some flexibility in their working hours. But it's up to you to solve those problems with your employer. You have to negotiate every piece of it."

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One advantage for workers in the United Sates is their ability to switch jobs to find a better work-life balance. American workers with good educations and strong skill sets often have the option of changing jobs or even careers, said Brinton.

"In Japan, we are not hearing in the interviews, 'If I can't figure this out with my employer, I will try to find another job.' People don't say that very much because it's much less possible.

"The United States is an incredibly mobile society," she added. "We are always trying to figure things out and see how to move on."

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User comments : 12

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Returners
1.5 / 5 (8) Jul 04, 2014
There are still people alive who retired on Social Security when it was like 5 or 10 years earlier than now.

The State of California is still offering a 90% pay at 30 years employment program for retirement. They know it's unsustainable, and they do it anyway. At that rate, you could literally have a future where there will be 60 years worth of employees on retirement at 90% pay, particularly considering average life expectancy increases by about 1 year per decade.

It was stated that if California were counted as an independent nation, they would have the second highest debt in the world, behind only the U.S. Which is sickening, since they make up 1/6th of the U.S. population, and currently taking on tens of thousands of under-aged illegal immigrants (per month now?!?!).

Employer's in the U.S. don't hire people unless they already have a job, which perpetuates unemployed and under-employed situations.

Colleges don't teach practical job skills. More on this later.
Returners
1.5 / 5 (8) Jul 04, 2014
The first two to four semesters of a bachelors degree consist of courses you will never again use in your life, whether or not you graduate. This typically means people who flunk college gained next to nothing in the attempt, and earned themselves a debt, and lost 2 or 3 years worth of potential job experience in a real job.

Calculus 1 through DE?

Professional meteorologists below PhD level DO NOT use this...EVER. I've been told by them, "We never use that," yet they are required to take it for a degree. One reason for this is nobody does any of this math by hand any more, nor should they, except the person(s) programming the weather model.

Nobody else cares, nor should they.

Engineering or materials science? Below PhD level you'll likely never use anything beyond Calculus 1, and maybe geometric series, if you ever use that, but you're required to take 4 more math classes beyond that which are progressively 2 or 3 times harder and more complicated per prerequisite level.
Uncle Ira
4.5 / 5 (8) Jul 04, 2014
@ Returnering-Skippy just because you have troubles with the math stuffs don't mean the scientist and engineer can't use him.
Uncle Ira
4.1 / 5 (8) Jul 04, 2014
Colleges don't teach practical job skills. More on this later.


@ Returnering-Skippy on this part I agree with you. You say to us the other day that you went to the college. All they teach you was to spend the whole day and part of the night here at the physorg telling us about your mental handicap and you are short and fat. Like anyone cares about that stuff.
ryggesogn2
1.4 / 5 (10) Jul 04, 2014
"The United States is an incredibly mobile society," she added. "We are always trying to figure things out and see how to move on."


The socialist democrats are trying very hard to change this.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.8 / 5 (6) Jul 04, 2014
"Paul R. Ehrlich warned that a looming global population explosion"

-And of course he was right. But Plans were already underway to do something about it. His statement only made it easier to pass abortion laws and Rowe v wade, and to resist the last vestiges of religionist opposition to family planning.

The Rockefeller foundation was a major Player in spreading family planning worldwide. The result has been ONE BILLION ABORTIONS, and hundreds of millions more births prevented through contraception.
http://www.johnst...bortion/

-In the US upwards of 1/4 of all pregnancies are ABORTED. In Russia the figure is twice that. People in traditional cultures will not stop having children when times are good. This ensures that one gen will always be born beyond the carrying capacity of the region, leading to unrest, revolution, and war.

The surviving religions were configured to maximize this equation for the Purpose of outgrowing and overwhelming their counterparts.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.2 / 5 (6) Jul 04, 2014
What irks me is liberal spin doctors like the woman above who fail to acknowledge the obvious.

"If recent data are any indication, Ehrlich's fears may have been somewhat misplaced. For the past several decades, fertility rates have steadily declined around the world."

-The REASON this was possible was because the religions throughout northern Eurasia which would have resisted family planning, lost their grip on society during the world wars. The only REASON pop growth has stabilized, and peace has reigned, is because religion could no longer restrict a woman to bearing and raising children.

Women were given alternatives to being homemakers. They were finally able to determine for themselves what they were going to do with their lives and most importantly, how many children they wanted to bear and who they wanted to bear them with.
Cont>
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.1 / 5 (7) Jul 04, 2014
A mans biological inclination is to impregnate as many women as possible in order to maximize the chance that his genes will endure. A woman however has much more invested in pregnancy, and she naturally seeks the best possible mate for each and every child she wishes to bear. And the way a woman discerns quality is by compelling men to compete.

These strategies are obviously not conducive to social stability. Tribes which were best able to suppress them would possess greater internal cohesion. Their males would be more willing to trust each other and to fight together for the good of the tribe as a whole, and they could be expected to prevail over other tribes in conflict over resources. Leaders found that religion was the best vehicle for suppressing the natural instincts of men and women.

The wars signaled the end of this State. For the first time in history, women have control of repro rights. The world now selects for quality over quantity. The world now belongs to women.
Caliban
5 / 5 (7) Jul 04, 2014
"The United States is an incredibly mobile society," she added. "We are always trying to figure things out and see how to move on."


The socialist democrats are trying very hard to change this.


But not you, rygsuckn'.

Apparently, you don't work at all. Are you a Welfare Randite --or merely "underemployed"?

Moron troll.

Caliban
5 / 5 (7) Jul 04, 2014
The State of California is still offering a 90% pay at 30 years employment program for retirement. They know it's unsustainable, and they do it anyway. At that rate, you could literally have a future where there will be 60 years worth of employees on retirement at 90% pay, particularly considering average life expectancy increases by about 1 year per decade.


Would you please provide citations for any of these claims --but specifically-- for the last one?

In any case, with proper management, pension funds are well capable of sustainig these pensioner incomes, as they are designed to do. What you seem to be concerned about is that they somehow place a burden upon the currently working.

But this simply isn't the case --like any other investment strategy, they depend upon a vigorous economy, and the tax base that goes along with it. If you cripple the economy, and reduce the pay of labor, then that would impact the viability of pension funds, in general.

Hey -wait a minute...
ormondotvos
2.2 / 5 (5) Jul 04, 2014
Listening to the news, it looks like Ebola might help with the tendency to overpopulation. Maybe all those gods don't like us...
strangedays
5 / 5 (3) Jul 05, 2014
It seems ironic that for years we have been traumatized by the specter of over-population. Now there appears some good news on that front (declining birth rates) - and this is presented as a problem. Surely - as we are learning to automate so much in our world - and we move into the information economy - the solution is to move the retirement age up. I never plan on retiring - I have seen too much day time T.V. - 24 hours a day of Rachel Ray - shoot me please.