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Quantity of Life

Confounding scientific projections, the world’s birth rate is falling—enough that in the coming decades, the populations of nearly all Western countries could start falling with it. Today, the global average birth rate is around 2.2 children per woman. It’s a number demographers call the replacement rate—the number that would keep the population flat. In most parts of the world, however, the birth rate is now lower than the replacement rate, with the global average bolstered by comparatively large families in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

Now, birth rates are below the replacement rate in North America, Europe, Russia, and China—and populations are already dropping in 30 countries, including even India and elsewhere in the developing world. Europe’s average birth rate is now about 1.5 children per woman; in South Korea, it’s 0.7. For the first time in human history, people across geographies and cultures have started wanting smaller families.

Meanwhile, governments all over the world have been trying to counter this trend, enacting policies designed to encourage bigger families—by providing longer parental leave, more and cheaper childcare options, and even direct tax incentives. But so far, the desire for fewer children seems nearly impossible to change ...