Suddenly There Aren’t Enough Babies. The Whole World Is Alarmed. - Kanebridge News
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Suddenly There Aren’t Enough Babies. The Whole World Is Alarmed.

Birthrates are falling fast across countries, ​with economic, social and geopolitical ​consequences

Tue, May 14, 2024 12:01pmGrey Clock 10 min

The world is at a startling demographic milestone. Sometime soon, the global fertility rate will drop below the point needed to keep population constant. It may have already happened.

Fertility is falling almost everywhere, for women across all levels of income, education and labor-force participation. The falling birthrates come with huge implications for the way people live, how economies grow and the standings of the world’s superpowers.

In high-income nations, fertility fell below replacement in the 1970s, and took a leg down during the pandemic. It’s dropping in developing countries, too. India surpassed China as the most populous country last year, yet its fertility is now below replacement.

“The demographic winter is coming,” said Jesús Fernández-Villaverde, an economist specialising in demographics at the University of Pennsylvania.

​Many government leaders see this as a matter of national urgency. They worry about shrinking workforces , slowing economic growth and underfunded pensions; and the vitality of a society with ever-fewer children. Smaller populations come with diminished global clout, raising questions in the U.S., China and Russia about their long-term standings as superpowers.

Some demographers think the world’s population could start shrinking within four decades—one of the few times it’s happened in history.

Donald Trump , this year’s presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has called collapsing fertility a bigger threat to Western civilisation than Russia. A year ago Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida declared that the collapse of the country’s birthrate left it “standing on the verge of whether we can continue to function as a society.” Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has prioritised raising the country’s “demographic GDP.”

Governments have rolled out programs to stop the decline—but so far they’ve barely made a dent.

Demographic surprise

In 2017, when the global fertility rate—a snapshot of how many babies a woman is expected to have over her lifetime—was 2.5, the United Nations thought it would slip to 2.4 in the late 2020s. Yet by 2021, the U.N. concluded, it was already down to 2.3—close to what demographers consider the global replacement rate of about 2.2. The replacement rate, which keeps population stable over time, is 2.1 in rich countries, and slightly higher in developing countries, where fewer girls than boys are born and more mothers die during their childbearing years.

While the U.N. has yet to publish estimated fertility rates for 2022 and 2023, Fernández-Villaverde has produced his own estimate by supplementing U.N. projections with actual data for those years covering roughly half the world’s population. He has found that national birth registries are typically reporting births 10% to 20% below what the U.N. projected.

China reported 9 million births last year , 16% less than projected in the U.N.’s central scenario. In the U.S., 3.59 million babies were born last year, 4% less than the U.N. projected. In other countries, the undershoot is even larger: Egypt reported 17% fewer births last year. In 2022, Kenya reported 18% fewer.

Fernández-Villaverde estimates global fertility fell to between 2.1 and 2.2 last year, which he said would be below global replacement for the first time in human history. Dean Spears, a population economist at the University of Texas at Austin, said while the data isn’t good enough to know precisely when or if fertility has fallen below replacement, “we have enough evidence to be quite confident about…the crossing point not being far off.”

In 2017 the U.N. projected world population, then 7.6 billion, would keep climbing to 11.2 billion in 2100. By 2022 it had lowered and brought forward the peak to 10.4 billion in the 2080s. That, too, is likely out of date. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington now thinks it will peak around 9.5 billion in 2061 then start declining.

In the U.S., a short-lived pandemic baby boomlet has reversed. The total fertility rate fell to 1.62 last year, according to provisional government figures, the lowest on record .

Had fertility stayed near 2.1, where it stood in 2007, the U.S. would have welcomed an estimated 10.6 million more babies since, according to Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire.

In 2017, when the fertility rate was 1.8, the Census Bureau projected it would converge over the long run to 2.0. It has since revised that down to 1.5. “It has snuck up on us,” said Melissa Kearney, an economist at the University of Maryland specialising in demographics.

A second demographic transition?

Historians refer to the decline in fertility that began in the 18th century in industrialising countries as the demographic transition. As lifespans lengthened and more children survived to adulthood, the impetus for bearing more children declined. As women became better educated and joined the workforce, they delayed marriage and childbirth, resulting in fewer children.

Now, said Spears, “the big-picture fact is that birthrates are low or are falling in many diverse societies and economies.”

Some demographers see this as part of a “second demographic transition,” a societywide reorientation toward individualism that puts less emphasis on marriage and parenthood, and makes fewer or no children more acceptable.

In the U.S., some thought at first that women were simply delaying childbirth because of lingering economic uncertainty from the 2008 financial crisis.

In research published in 2021 , the University of Maryland’s Kearney and two co-authors looked for possible explanations for the continued drop. They found that state-level differences in parental abortion notification laws, unemployment, Medicaid availability, housing costs, contraceptive usage, religiosity, child-care costs and student debt could explain almost none of the decline. “We suspect that this shift reflects broad societal changes that are hard to measure or quantify,” they conclude.

Kearney said while raising children is no more expensive than before, parents’ preferences and perceived constraints have changed: “If people have a preference for spending time building a career, on leisure, relationships outside the home, that’s more likely to come in conflict with childbearing.”

Meanwhile, time-use data show that mothers and fathers, especially those that are highly educated, spend more time with their children than in the past. “The intensity of parenting is a constraint,” Kearney said.

Erica Pittman, a 45-year-old business banker in Raleigh, N.C., said she and her husband opted to have only one child because of demands on their time, including caring for her mother, who died last year after a long battle with multiple sclerosis. Their 8-year-old son is able to participate in theatre workshops, soccer and summer camps because the couple, with a combined income of about $225,000 a year, has more time and money.


“I feel like a better mom,” Pittman said. “I feel like I can go to work—because I have a fairly demanding job—but I can also make time to volunteer at his school, be the chaperone for the field trip and do those kinds of things, because I only have one to coordinate with my schedule.”

Pittman said she only questions their decision when her son says he wishes he had a sibling to play with. In response, she and her husband, a middle-school history teacher, pick vacation destinations with a kids’ club, such as a Disney cruise, so her son can play with others his age.

‘Plugged into the global culture’

Fertility is below replacement in India even though the country is still poor and many women don’t work —factors that usually sustain fertility.

Urbanisation and the internet have given even women in traditional male-dominated villages a glimpse of societies where fewer children and a higher quality of life are the norm. “People are plugged into the global culture,” said Richard Jackson, president of the Global Aging Institute, a nonprofit research and education group.

Mae Mariyam Thomas, 38, who lives in Mumbai and runs an audio production company, said she’s opted against having children because she never felt the tug of motherhood. She sees peers struggling to meet the right person, getting married later and, in some instances, divorcing before they have kids. At least three of her friends have frozen their eggs, she said.

“I think now we live in a really different world, so I think for anyone in the world it’s tough to find a partner,” she said.

Sub-Saharan Africa once appeared resistant to the global slide in fertility, but that too is changing. The share of all women of reproductive age using modern contraception grew from 17% in 2012 to 23% in 2022, according to Family Planning 2030, an international organisation.

Mae Mariyam Thomas, at her house in Mumbai, India, has opted to not have children. PHOTO: ATUL LOKE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Jose Rimon, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University, credits that to a push by national leaders in Africa which, he predicted, would drive fertility down faster than the U.N. projects.

Once a low fertility cycle kicks in, it effectively resets a society’s norms and is thus hard to break, said Jackson. “The fewer children you see your colleagues and peers and neighbours having, it changes the whole social climate,” he said.

Danielle Vermeer grew up third in a family of four children on Chicago’s North Side, where her neighbourhood was filled with Catholics of Italian, Irish and Polish descent and half her close friends had as many siblings as her or more. Her Italian-American father was one of four children who produced 14 grandchildren. Now her parents have five grandchildren, including Vermeer’s two children, ages 4 and 7.

The 35-year-old, who is the co-founder of a fashion thrifting app, said that before setting out to have children, she consulted dozens of other couples and her Catholic church and read at least eight books on the subject, including one by Pope Paul VI. She and her husband settled on two as the right number.

“The act of bringing a child into this world is an incredible responsibility,” she said.

New policies

Governments have tried to reverse the fall in fertility with pro natalist policies.

Perhaps no country has been trying longer than Japan. After fertility fell to 1.5 in the early 1990s, the government rolled out a succession of plans that included parental leave and subsidised child care. Fertility kept falling.

In 2005, Kuniko Inoguchi was appointed the country’s first minister responsible for gender equality and birthrate. The main obstacle, she declared, was money: People couldn’t afford to get married or have children. Japan made hospital maternity care free and introduced a stipend paid upon birth of the child.

Japan’s fertility rate climbed from 1.26 in 2005 to 1.45 in 2015. But then it started declining again, and in 2022 was back to 1.26.

This year, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida rolled out yet another program to increase births that extends monthly allowances to all children under 18 regardless of income, free college for families with three children, and fully paid parental leave.

Inoguchi, now a member of parliament’s upper house, said the constraint on would-be parents is no longer money, but time. She has pressed the government and businesses to adopt a four-day workweek. She said, “If you’re a government official or manager of a big corporation, you should not worry over questions of salary now, but that in 20 years time you will have no customers, no clients, no applicants to the Self-Defense Forces.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has pushed one of Europe’s most ambitious natality agendas. Last year he expanded tax benefits for mothers so that women under the age of 30 who have a child are exempt from paying personal income tax for life. That’s on top of housing and child-care subsidies as well as generous maternity leaves.

Hungary’s fertility rate, though still well below replacement, has risen since 2010. But the Vienna Institute of Demography attributed this primarily to women delaying childbirth because of a debt crisis that hit around 2010. Adjusted for that, fertility has risen only slightly, it concluded.

In the U.S., while state and federal legislators have pushed to expand child-care subsidies and parental leave, they have generally not set a higher birthrate as an explicit goal. Some Republicans, though, are leaning in that direction. Last year, Trump said he backed paying out “baby bonuses” to prop up U.S. births, and GOP Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake recently endorsed the idea.

Republican Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio said falling fertility matters beyond the economic pressures of a smaller labor force and unfunded Social Security. “Do you live in communities where there are smiling happy children, or where people are just ageing?” he said in an interview. Lack of siblings and cousins, he said, contributes to children’s social isolation.

He’s studied potential solutions, in particular Hungary’s approach, but hasn’t seen proof of anything that works over the long term.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found little evidence that pro natalist policies lead to sustained rebounds in fertility. A woman may get pregnant sooner to capture a baby bonus, researchers say, but likely won’t have more kids over the course of her lifetime.

Economic pressure

With no reversal in birthrates in sight, the attendant economic pressures are intensifying. Since the pandemic, labor shortages have become endemic throughout developed countries. That will only worsen in coming years as the post crisis fall in birthrates yields an ever-shrinking inflow of young workers, placing more strain on healthcare and retirement systems.

Neil Howe , a demographer at Hedgeye Risk Management, has pointed to a recent World Bank report suggesting that worsening demographics could make this a second consecutive “lost decade” for global economic growth.

The usual prescription in advanced countries is more immigration, but that has two problems. As more countries confront stagnant population, immigration between them is a zero-sum game. Historically, host countries have sought skilled migrants who enter through formal, legal channels, but recent inflows have been predominantly unskilled migrants often entering illegally and claiming asylum.

High levels of immigration have also historically aroused political resistance, often over concerns about cultural and demographic change. A shrinking native-born population is likely to intensify such concerns. Many of the leaders keenest to raise birthrates are most resistant to immigration.

As birthrates fall, more regions and communities experience depopulation, with consequences ranging from closed schools to stagnant property values. Less selective colleges will soon struggle to fill classrooms because of the plunge in birthrates that began in 2007, said Fernández-Villaverde. Vance said rural hospitals can’t stay open because of the falling local population.

An economy with fewer children will struggle to finance pensions and healthcare for growing ranks of elderly. South Korea’s national pension fund, one of the world’s largest, is on track to be depleted by 2055. A special legislative committee recently presented several possible pension reforms, but there’s only a short window to act before the next presidential election campaign heats up.

There’s been little public pressure to act, said Sok Chul Hong, an economist at Seoul National University. “The elderly are not very interested in pension reform, and the youth are apathetic towards politics,” he said. “It is truly an ironic situation.”


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Platforms are paying less for popular posts, brands are pickier about partnerships and a possible TikTok ban looms

Wed, Jun 19, 2024 9 min

Many people dream of becoming social-media stars like YouTube’s MrBeast or TikTok’s Charli D’Amelio . But for most who pursue careers as content creators, just making ends meet is a lofty goal.

Clint Brantley has been a full-time creator for three years, posting videos on TikTok, YouTube and Twitch where he comments on news and trends related to the online game “Fortnite.” Despite having more than 400,000 followers, and posts that average 100,000 views, his income last year was less than the median annual pay for full-time U.S. workers in 2023—$58,084, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Clint Brantley, a full-time creator, draws an average of 100,000 views for his ‘Fortnite’-related videos on TikTok, YouTube and Twitch. PHOTO: RAJAH BOSE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The 29-year-old is hesitant to commit to an apartment lease because the money he gets, mainly from online tips and sponsorship deals, arrives randomly and could vanish at any moment. For now, he’s living with his mom in Washington state.

“I’m vulnerable,” he says.

Earning a decent, reliable income as a social-media creator is a slog—and it’s getting harder. Platforms are doling out less money for popular posts and brands are being pickier about what they want out of sponsorship deals. The real possibility of TikTok potentially shutting down in 2025 is adding to creators’ anxiety over whether they can afford to stick with the job for the long haul.

Few overnight sensations

Hundreds of millions of people around the globe regularly post videos and photos to entertain or educate social-media users. About 50 million earn money from it, according to a 2023 report from Goldman Sachs . The investment bank expects the number of creator-earners to grow at an annual rate of 10% to 20% through 2028, crowding the field even further. The Labor Department doesn’t track wages for these creators, also known as influencers.

It can take months or years to earn money as a creator, often through a combination of direct revenue from social-media platforms, sponsorship deals, merchandise sales and affiliate links. But those who stick with it eventually see some returns, surveys show. Creators say that’s because you can learn what kind of posts most resonate with an audience, which can lead to more followers and, in turn, more moneymaking opportunities.

But money doesn’t mean big bucks . Last year, 48% of creator-earners made $15,000 or less, according to NeoReach, an influencer marketing agency. Only 13% made more than $100,000.

The gap reflects multiple factors, including whether creators work full- or part-time, the kind of content they put out and when they started. People who jumped into the space during the height of Covid-19 lockdowns—and who focused on a niche such as fashion, investing or lifestyle hacks—say they benefited from the surge in social-media use during that time.

A small number of creators shot to fame, propelling the occupation to the top of career wish lists for many teens (and adults). But behind the scenes, creators say the job is gruelling. They need to constantly produce compelling posts or risk losing momentum. They spend their days planning, filming and editing posts while also working to make inroads with advertisers and interacting with fans.

“It is a lot more work than most people realise,” says Emarketer analyst Jasmine Enberg. “Creators who make a living doing it have been at it for many years. Most are not overnight sensations.”

Like other self-employed professionals, creators don’t get paid time off, healthcare benefits, retirement contributions and other perks that companies typically provide for their workers. That reality, coupled with stubbornly high inflation and mortgage rates , is making it more difficult to get by as a creator.

Brantley works on editing a coming video. The online tips and sponsorship deals that make up his income can be erratic, so for now the 29-year-old continues to live with his mom in Spokane, Wash. PHOTO: RAJAH BOSE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Everything is more expensive, especially groceries,” says Jason Cooper of Mobile, Ala.

A few years ago, Cooper dreamed up a sassy sock puppet named Sock Cop, who cracks dad jokes in live and recorded videos for TikTok and Twitch. He currently makes $500 to $600 a month, almost entirely from tips.

He thinks he could probably haul in a lot more if he went full-time. But with no guarantee, the 37-year-old father doesn’t want to quit his marketing job and risk losing health coverage. He now spends a few hours in the evening and on weekends on Sock Cop. If he had more time, he would feel the need to constantly make videos.

“You’ve got to feed the beast,” says Cooper.

Shrinking platform payouts

TikTok’s $1 billion creator fund, which ran from 2020 to 2023, doled out money to eligible creators for posting to the platform. Others joined in. YouTube’s TikTok competitor, Shorts, allowed creators to earn anywhere from $100 to $10,000 a month with its temporary fund. Instagram’s Reels Play bonus program rewarded creators with fluctuating payouts. Snapchat ’s Spotlight rewards program gave $1 million a day to the platform’s top creators.

Today, the platforms have revamped or completely changed how they pay creators—doing away with their funds.

Qualifications for TikTok’s current rewards program include having an account with at least 10,000 followers with a minimum of 100,000 views in the past month. Instagram is currently testing a seasonal, invitation-only program that rewards creators for sharing Reels and photos.

YouTube debuted an ad-revenue share model last year, in which qualifying creators with more than 1,000 subscribers and 10 million public Shorts views in the past 90 days receive 45% of revenue from ads that occur between posts. Snapchat has a program that gives creators who meet certain criteria, such as having at least 50,000 followers and 25 million monthly views, a portion of the ad revenue that appears between Stories. Its Spotlight program also continues to dole out money to creators.

Creators who opt into these programs or bonuses aren’t guaranteed a significant payday.

Yuval Ben-Hayun originally became popular on TikTok in 2020 because of his posts about the word-puzzle game Wordle. The 29-year-old New Yorker eventually expanded into linguistic and other education content, and by early 2023, was able to support himself and his bills of over $4,000 a month.

TikTok had closed its fund by then but was testing its creator rewards program. Ben-Hayun said in March he received about $200 to $400 per million views, and it’s steadily declined since then—even as his follower count reached 2.9 million.

The followers are still there, but the money isn’t. He recently hit a new low, receiving only $120 for a video with 10 million views.

Danisha Carter uses her phone and a ring light to create content for her TikTok channel, where she has 1.8 million followers. PHOTO: JESSICA PONS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.

Danisha Carter is frustrated that TikTok and other platforms sold the idea of content creation as a job, but later withdrew the financial incentives. Thanks to creators’ efforts, she says, consumers are now hooked on social feeds, bringing the platforms billions of dollars in annual revenue.

The 26-year-old has 1.8 million TikTok followers, and her posts about beauty and exercise, along with opinions on topics ranging from dating to online bullying, regularly receive hundreds of thousands of views. TikTok has paid her a total of $12,000, Carter says. She sells merchandise for additional income, bringing in about $5,000 last year.

“Creators should be paid a fair percentage based on what the apps are making off creators,” says Carter. “There should be more transparency into how we’re paid, and it should be consistent.”

A TikTok spokeswoman declined to comment.

YouTube said it paid more than $70 billion to creators, artists and media companies in the past three years, and more than 25% of channels in the ad-revenue share model are now making money through it. “We remain committed to putting our full energy into what matters most for our creators, viewers and advertisers,” a spokeswoman said.

A future without TikTok?

Many creators and advertisers credit TikTok, which pioneered the short-form video genre, with driving stronger engagement than its industry peers. TikTok has gained more than 170 million users in the U.S. since its launch in 2016—including, Pew Research Center says, a third of American adults. They spend an average of 78 minutes a day on the app, according to market-intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

TikTok may not be available in the U.S. for much longer, at least not in its current form. In April, President Biden signed a bill into law that will force a sale or ban of the app by Jan. 19, 2025. U.S. lawmakers have expressed worries that TikTok poses a national security risk. TikTok’s parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, has said it can’t and won’t sell its U.S. operations by the deadline.

ByteDance sued the U.S. government, alleging the new law violates its First Amendment rights. Several U.S. creators also sued. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will hear arguments in September for both cases.

“To lose TikTok would be kind of devastating,” says Brandon Granberg , a 31-year-old creator from Bayville, N.J., known for interacting with strangers in public places in silly ways.

Granberg struggled for years to attract viewers on the app before one viral post two years ago took his follower count from 5,000 to more than one million. Recently he made $1,000 from a TikTok program that launched last year called TikTok Creative Challenge, which allows creators ​to earn money by making video ads for brands that don’t appear on their personal profiles. He also earned $2,800 for producing four TikTok videos promoting a website for people with foot fetishes. Granberg says he found it creepy, but did it because he needed the money.

While he hasn’t landed many other sponsored posts, he’s grown his income significantly by making marketing videos for small businesses over the past year. Most clients find Granberg on TikTok. “If it gets banned, it will definitely hurt me,” he says.

Changing tastes and algorithms

This year, U.S. social-media creators as a whole are expected to make $13.7 billion, according to Emarketer. The research firm projects the majority of that—$8.14 billion, or 59%—will come from brand sponsorships.

Advertisers have always led in compensating creators, paying out far more money than the social-media platforms and fans who buy merchandise or dole out tips. But these days, advertisers expect more from creators than just large followings, according to agency and talent representatives. They want to see evidence of strong engagement in the form of saved and shared posts, plus the demographics of creators’ audiences.

“Brands are looking at metrics that are far less predictable for creators and also very difficult to price yourself on,” says Sarah Peretz, a business-strategy consultant in Los Angeles who helps creators negotiate partnerships and deals with advertisers.

Some brands are more controlling than in the past, says Sarah Steele , a 34-year-old creator in Tulsa, Okla., who started making TikTok videos about being a working mom in 2020. “Now it’s, ‘We’re paying you and this is what we want you to say.’ ”

Earlier this year, Steele says an advertiser insisted she cite legal disclaimers in a series of sponsored Instagram posts. “It felt like I was reading off a teleprompter,” she says. “As a consumer it even turned me off to the brand a little bit.”

Creators, meanwhile, are having a tougher time attracting viewers, thanks to algorithm changes and other factors beyond their control. And while more advertisers are looking to partner with creators than in the past, “increased activity leads to increased competition,” says Peretz.

Another change is that advertisers now prefer to work with just a handful of creators on long-lasting deals rather than experiment with several on one-off projects, says Jess Hunichen, of Shine Talent Group.

Hunichen co-founded the talent-management agency in 2015, when TikTok didn’t exist and influencer marketing was still relatively new. Back then, an average deal size between an influencer and brand was usually below $1,000. Now, the average deal per campaign is around $10,000, she says.

Worth the hustle

Ronit Halmos of Los Angeles began making TikTok videos earlier this year that she describes as quick-reviews of restaurants, bars and more “with some sass and attitude.”

The 27-year-old, a full-time technology recruiter, recently landed her first advertiser deal. A kombucha brand asked her to make a 30-second post featuring her take on a line of flavors. Though it ended up getting less attention from viewers than her usual fare, she made $1,500 from about 30 minutes of work.

Tyler Haven , a 27-year-old traveling around the Pacific Northwest, charges $250 to $300 to make promotional videos that brands can post to their own social channels, and around $1,200 for posts that appear on either his Instagram account with more than 41,000 followers or his TikTok account with more than 10,000 followers.

Since January, he’s been posting videos documenting his “van-life” with his wife, Oak Haven: Their primary residence is a fully paid, fully decked-out 2004 Mercedes Sprinter T1N.

Haven said it’s been easy to grow his following organically. He believes it’s because his posts don’t depict some unattainable, picture-perfect life.

He quit his job in June to pursue full-time content creation.

“Even if I were to make $2,000 a month, which is absolutely nothing—that’s less than most people’s rent—I could live on that,” Haven says.

With the van fully paid off, the 27-year-old says he and his wife, Oak Haven, can get by with even a small income from his videos. PHOTO: TODD MEIER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL