True, human beings are reproducing—but in most countries, not fast enough to replace themselves. Measuring total fertility rate (TFR) is not an exact science, so the numbers vary from source to source, but the trends are undeniable. Outside of Africa, which is home to forty-one of the fifty most fertile nations, the planet faces a bleak demographic future. Many major European nations—such as Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, and Spain—have a TFR of 1.50 births per woman or lower, disastrously below the replacement rate of 2.1. Italy’s future is especially grim, as that country has one of the lowest TFRs in the world, just 1.22. Virtually every country in Europe—including the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Finland, and Denmark—has a TFR below 1.8. Only France, with a TFR of 2.03, comes close to the replacement rate. Decline is on its way. The Russian population is already contracting. Germany’s population is on pace to shrink from 83 million to around 70 million over the next thirty years. If trends do not reverse, Europe’s population will plummet from 750 million today to less than 500 million by the end of the century.
The numbers for East Asia are even worse. Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, and Taiwan each have a TFR around 1.0; South Korea’s is 0.81. These countries make aging and shrinking Japan, with its TFR of 1.37, look almost vibrant. And whatever military and economic power resides in China, increasingly children do not. Despite the replacement of the notorious one-child policy by a two-child policy in 2016 and then a three-child policy in 2021, China’s birthrate has continued to tumble. As recently as 2019, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences predicted that China’s population would peak in 2029. But the decline has already started. This year, for the first time since the Great Famine (1959–61), China’s population has shrunk, by just over 1 percent since 2021, according to the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.
For many years, the United States appeared to be an exception to the rule of declining birthrates in the industrialized world. In 2007 the United States had a TFR of 2.1, whereas the figure for the European Union was below 1.6. But since then, the U.S. birthrate has fallen by 20 percent, to as low as 1.73 according to some estimates. What looked like American exceptionalism less than a generation ago now looks like mere delay.
At no time in history have people been having fewer children. In most countries the number of births per woman is well below the replacement rate, and even in countries with a high TFR, such as those of sub-Saharan Africa, the rate is dropping. The human race seems to have grown tired of itself.
The reasons for declining fertility are no doubt many and varied. Surely, some couples want to have more children but are unable to do so. Others struggle with economic pressures or health limitations. But fertility does not plummet worldwide without deeper issues at play, especially when people around the world are objectively richer, healthier, and afforded more conveniences than at any time in human history. Though individuals make their choices for many reasons, as a species we are suffering from a profound spiritual sickness—a metaphysical malaise in which children seem a burden on our time and a drag on our pursuit of happiness. Our malady is a lack of faith, and nowhere is the disbelief more startling than in the countries that once made up Christendom. “I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven,” God promised a delighted Abraham (Gen. 26:4). Today, in the lands of Abraham’s offspring, that blessing strikes most as a curse.
In 1968, Paul Ehrlich predicted worldwide famine and a “race to oblivion” in his book The Population Bomb. Fifty years later, the bomb has not detonated. Today, we must fear population bust rather than boom. The list of Very Bad Things—as Jonathan Last calls the consequences of declining fertility in his 2013 book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting—is long and depressing: an aging population, a shrinking workforce, a declining tax base, a decrease in technological and industrial dynamism, difficulty in finding a spouse, empty buildings and crumbling infrastructure, unfunded entitlements, and a general disquiet as more and more people get older and sicker with fewer people to care for them. Some future president might be forced to coin the campaign slogan, “It’s midnight in America.”
Last emphasizes economic and national concerns, the sort of developments that get the attention of presidents and parliaments. But the problems with declining fertility, and the accompanying collapse of the family, go much deeper. Whittaker Chambers was led to reject atheism by studying the miracle of his infant daughter’s ear. As he watched his daughter eat in her high chair, an “involuntary and unwanted” thought entered his mind: “Those intricate perfect ears” could have been “created only by immense design.” Faith can give us a heart for children, but children can also give us the eyes of faith.