Another of those memes that refuses to die is the ageing society as an exclusively European or western problem. Demographic change is a global phenomenon. It may be at its most advanced in Europe but the rest of the world is not far behind.
Last month, the UN released its latest population forecasts. The projections for some Asian countries show the proportion of people over 60 rising at incredible speed over the next three decades. In South East Asia, for example, Singapore,Thailand and Vietnam go from having relatively young populations at the start of the century to age profiles similar to many European countries by 2050.
This isn’t just an Asian phenomenon either. Emerging economies around the world, having industrialised at a much faster rate than the advanced economies, are experiencing the resulting social change at a much faster rate too. The UN expects demographic change in the countries it classifies as upper middle-income to speed up over the next thirty years. (The definitions are in this document.)
As countries get richer, people have smaller families and live a lot longer so the proportion of older people goes up.
Some of the upper-middle income countries are ageing at a fascinating rate and will overtake some advanced economies over the next few decades. By the middle of the century, Iran and South Korea will have a greater proportion of their populations aged over 60 than the UK, the US or Sweden, with Brazil and Vietnam not far behind.
Sweden’s age profile is particularly interesting, showing a gentle upward drift over the next few decades. Those of Norway and Denmark are similar. A study by two American demographers, Thomas Anderson and Hans-Peter Kohler, suggests that this is no coincidence. They found that those countries which have done the most to advance gender equality have also stabilised their birthrates.
Increased work opportunities and the availability of contraception enabled women to choose how many children to have and when to have them. But, say Anderson and Kohler, cultural norms didn’t change so women were still expected to look after the children and do most of the housework even when they were going out to work. Many women therefore chose to have fewer children or not to have any at all, which led to falling birth rates.
Then something happened. In the late 20th century attitudes began to change in the more developed economies so equality in the home began to catch up with equality in the workplace:
This enormous transformation over several decades is measureable using data on the relative and absolute division of household labor. Using time-budget surveys for the UK and the US, Gershuny and Robinson (1988) for example showed that women’s participation in household work declined substantially from the 1960s to 1980s, while men’s participation increased (though remained much less than that of women). Their findings closely paralleled similar findings for other first-wave developers, like Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway, indicating fairly widespread progress during this time period toward a more egalitarian division of household labor in among first-wave developers.
Nearly 12 years later, Bianchi et al. (2000) found the trend toward household gender equity had continued so much so that household work had nearly been cut in half for women in the US since 1965, and doubled for men during this period. An international comparison of unpaid work trends by Hook (2006) revealed similar optimistic results: over-time increases in unpaid work by men in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and the UK. Other recent studies have found similar longitudinal advances in household gender equity throughout Western countries (e.g., Sullivan and Coltrane 2008; Bianchi et al. 2007). Lastly, a comparison of OECD countries shows that by and large, Northern/Western European and English-speaking countries have the smallest gap in the number of minutes women and men perform in unpaid work, while East Asian and Southern/Eastern European countries have the largest (Miranda 2011).
Add in improvements to childcare and the birth rates in some countries began to rise again. Anderson and Kohler call this the gender equity dividend.
The relationship between female labour force participation, gender equity in the home and fertility therefore looks like this:
In traditional societies where few women are in employment, fertility is high. When firms and governments start employing more women and there is more workplace equality, the fertility rate drops because attitudes within the home haven’t caught up. Once men start taking a more equal share of childcare then it becomes easier for women to work and have children so more of them do. As a result, the fertility rate rises again.
Many Asian societies, they argue, are still suffering from this cultural lag. Institutional equity in workplaces and schools has moved on but attitudes to roles in the home are still very traditional.
Th Anderson and Kohler study is quoted in this week’s Economist piece on the ageing of Asia:
Female literacy is nearly universal, and in Japan and South Korea female college graduates outnumber male ones. Female labour-force participation is also high. But women are still treated in the old ways. Until recently Japanese women were expected to give up work on having children. Working or not, Japanese and South Korean women do at least three more hours of housework a day than their men.
Such cultural lags are associated with ultra-low fertility because if you force women to choose between family and career, then many will choose their career. In Tokyo, Bangkok and other Asian cities, rates of childlessness are sky-high. Women are refusing to marry.
Combine high levels of female education and work opportunities with persisting traditional attitudes and many women choose their careers. Contrast this with some parts of Europe where attitudes to gender roles have moved on.
In Europe the cultural lag closed eventually. Social norms began to shift in the 1960s and have changed more rapidly in the past 20 years. Child care became more widely available. Men started to help with the laundry and the school run. Women therefore found it easier to have both a career and rugrats. In places where this process has gone furthest—France, Scandinavia, Britain—fertility rates are almost back up to the replacement level. In those where traditional male breadwinner/female homemaker roles have lingered, such as Germany and Italy, fertility rates remain low.
It is a persuasive argument and it goes some way to explaining the rapid ageing forecasts for parts of Asia and Latin America, the much slower ageing of Northern European and North American economies and the falling gender pay gap we see in Northern European countries, including the UK.
Even so, bringing birth rates back to replacement level isn’t going to make the problem of ageing disappear. It is caused as much by the top of the age pyramid growing as the bottom of it shrinking. People are living longer and there will be a lot more old people everywhere by the middle of this century. The UN forecasts that, by 2050, almost every country outside sub-Saharan Africa will have a greater percentage of its population over 60 than Britain has now. The rate of change will be most extreme in the emerging economies. As so often seems to be the case with economic data, the Scandinavians are the top of the class and seem to have come closest to getting their demographics under control. Perhaps those countries forecast to experience rapid ageing over the next thirty years should at least take a look at what they have been doing.