Now, dangers of a population implosion

"Honey, please, please have a baby." That could be a mother's plea to a married daughter. It's also the request, in less homey language, of many governments.

For decades, much has been written about the world's exploding population. But 60 countries, about a third of all nations, have fertility rates today below 2.1 children per woman, the number necessary to maintain a stable population. Half of those nations have levels of 1.5 or less. In Armenia, Italy, South Korea, and Japan, average fertility levels are now close to one child per woman.

Barring unforeseen change, at least 43 of these nations will have smaller populations in 2050 than they do today.

This baby dearth has potentially weighty economic consequences for governments worried about everything from economic vitality to funding future pension programs and healthcare. That's why many of them have been taking measures designed to encourage their citizens to multiply. For example:

• Starting this year, France's government has been awarding mothers of each new baby 800 euros, almost $1,000.

• In Italy, the government is giving mothers of a second child 1,000 euros.

• South Korea has expanded tax breaks for families with young children and is increasing support for day-care centers for working women.

• Last year parliament members in Singapore called on the government to do more to keep Cupid and the stork busy.

• Japanese prefectures have been organizing hiking trips and cruises for single people - dating programs to halt the baby bust.

Japanese singles are often called "parasites" because, when they retire, they have no children paying into the national pension system or helping out otherwise.

Estonia's President Arnold Rüütel last year in a television address urged the country's 1.4 million residents to produce more babies, or face a rapidly declining population.

British authorities also worry about the fertility rate. The Office of National Statistics says fertile women will need to have three children to keep Britain's population at 59 million into the future.

Even China, despite its 1.3 billion people, is reportedly considering revising its "one child" rule since its fertility rate of 1.39 is creating an older population - and social and economic problems.

Although the United States is also slightly below replacement fertility, the entry of more than 1 million immigrants each year is expected to boost its population to 430 million or more by midcentury. Still, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan frets about demographics. He wants to discourage early retirement and sees a need for less generous Social Security and Medicare benefits.

On the flip side, the world's total population will soar to 8.9 billion by mid-century, up from 6.2 billion today, the United Nations projects. At that time, the population should stabilize, as more poorer nations join rich countries in lowering their birthrates. By the end of the century, the world's population may decline if mothers in major developing countries decide to have two babies on average, rather than three, says Joseph Chamie, the UN's top head counter.

At the moment, half of the growth in the world's population is taking place in six nations - India, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Bangladesh.

The contrast with low-fertility countries shows in this statistic: All 25 member nations of the European Union added as many people to their total population in all of 2003 as India did in the first five days of that same year. India will have an extra half billion people by 2050.

Although low-fertility nations may not face problems as severe as high-fertility countries do, they worry about economic growth, and in some cases, military might. Mr. Chamie lists 25 measures governments could take to boost fertility. Some would be controversial, such as restricting contraception and abortion and keeping women poorly educated and jobless. He suspects many "pronatalist policies" will have only a "temporary and modest effect on raising fertility."

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