Why Fertility Rates Are Plunging—in the U.S., South Korea, and Everywhere Else
Last year, there were 3,661,220 babies born in the U.S. That sounds like a lot. But historically speaking, it’s really not. It’s actually 15 percent below our peak in 2007. And it means America’s total fertility rate—the average number of babies a woman today is expected to have in her lifetime, based on current trends—is essentially stuck at its all-time record low. For decades, the U.S. birthrate has been below the so-called replacement level of 2.1. Today it’s around 1.6.
Sometimes, I feel a little weird talking about fertility and birthrates like they’re just ordinary numbers with decimal points, like monthly used-car inflation. Fertility is complicated. It is emotional. And it is private. But I’m fascinated by this issue because the collective private decisions of hundreds of millions of families really do shape the future of population growth. And there’s just no getting around the fact that population growth is one of the most important factors in determining economic growth, tax revenue, productivity, innovation, and public finance.
We’re in a moment now in world history where every major country is projected to have a shrinking population in the next 20 years. No country gives us a better glimpse of this impending future than South Korea. In 1960, the average Korean woman had six children. Today, Korean woman average less than one child. Today, the country has the world’s lowest fertility rate.
Today’s guest is Andrew Yeo, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies and a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. In this episode, we look at this thorny and important issue by first zooming in to South Korea, where Andrew gives me an education on a country I’m extremely curious about, but frankly know very little about. And then we zoom out and talk about how South Korea is a canary in the coal mine for the rest of the planet when it comes to the many ways that fertility rates affect just about everything else.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Andrew Yeo
Producer: Devon Manze
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