Birth dearth

Latin America’s fertility rate continues to fall but what does this mean for the region?

Global population growth is cited as a primary cause of many global crises from climate change to water stress and hunger. However, some believe that the global population will soon be in decline: the global fertility rate has dropped 60% since 1970 and global life expectancy is plateauing.

Latin America and the Caribbean’s population is equivalent to 8.42% of the total world population and the region’s fertility rate has been falling from replacement level since 2015. Currently at 2.045 live births per woman, some analysts expect this to fall to 1.68 by 2100 – the OECD suggests (assuming no net migration and unchanged mortality) that a fertility rate of 2.1 live births per woman ensures a broadly stable population. The pandemic, continued economic crisis, and negative migratory balances project a trend of decreasing fertility numbers for decades to come. Some countries in the region, such as Chile, are registering alarming fertility rates, in 2020, the country reached the lowest fertility rate in its history, with 1.61 children for every woman. Similarly, Brazil’s fertility rate was 1.71 births per woman in 2020.

The long-term economic effects of such a rapid decline in birth rate could be devastating, explained a senior health adviser to the government of Chile, “A shrinking and aging population will inevitably result in lower economic growth. It is quite logical: fewer births, less workforce, greater aging, lower productivity. And the impact is multiple, in the drop in productivity, in the level of savings, investment, health costs, GDP growth, etc. And not only economically, but also socially and even politically. As such, it will be very difficult for some countries to avoid a dynamic of aging and poverty.”

“It is quite logical: fewer births, less workforce, greater aging, lower productivity.”

Senior government health adviser, Chile

A macroeconomic consultant in Brazil explained that the reality was not as clear-cut as this for developing countries, “The economic impact is difficult to predict but less babies implies less taxpayers which can put in danger the retirement pensions of current workers. From a different perspective, in developing countries, a slowdown in population growth can contribute to a more efficient redistribution of goods which can bring down social tensions and, ultimately, violence levels.”

In this context, many Latin American countries face multiple challenges that will need to be progressively addressed through public policies. An ageing population requires planification on how to structure pension systems, healthcare organisation, and even emigration policies. These issues can be crucial to define a country’s business cycle in a region often hit by external economic impacts. The health adviser was concerned that regional governments were not taking any action, “Surprisingly, governments across Latin America have no specific measures to alleviate these problems; there are no government programs aimed at sustaining or even increasing the birth rate.”

“Surprisingly, governments across Latin America have no specific measures to alleviate these problems.”

Senior government health adviser, Chile

As for what could be done, the macroeconomic consultant was clear, “Government administrations at all levels should promote measures to reduce economic inequality, promote gender equality, and a better personal and professional life balance for women. These are policy measures that will have a true impact on women and families wanting to have children.”

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