The Great Contraction Experts Predict Global Population Will Plateau



Part 6: Phase V: Mankind in Equilibrium

Demographers hope that the contraction will eventually come to an end. But whether this actually happens will depend on women like Ida Solheim.

Shortly after 4:30 on a sunny fall afternoon, the 36-year-old Norwegian swings into the driveway of her gray wooden house on a hill north of downtown Oslo. Her two older daughters, aged 3 and 5, look a little sleepy in their car seats. Her youngest, a boy, is sleeping on the front passenger seat. "I got stuck in traffic," she says a few moments later to the neighborhood girl in the kitchen, who has already prepared dinner. "Johan is getting in from the airport later this evening," she tells the girl. She is referring to her domestic partner, who is on an all-day business trip.

Solheim has three children, is a corporate consultant and is unmarried. This makes the Norwegian woman a ray of hope for all family-policy experts.

In other places, women like Solheim -- well-educated, with successful careers and unwilling to entrust a man with their well-being -- would hardly have more than one or two children, if any, and would often have them relatively late.

But that's not the case in Norway and Sweden, where the birth rate is approaching the magical replacement rate. "But to achieve this we need as many women as possible with three children," says Kari Skrede, a sociologist with the government-run Statistics Norway.

The Equal Rights-Children Ratio

Skrede has studied an effect that also sparks hopes among German family-policy experts. "Equal rights in the workplace and in child-rearing leads to an increase in the birth rate," Skrede says.

What initially sounds like a contradiction, based on demographic experiences after almost half a century of emancipation, makes perfect sense after a visit with Solheim's family. "Three months after giving birth," she says, "I was really going nuts."

She wanted to get back to work. Her partner, Johan, saw it as an opportunity to take some parental leave of his own. "Now I can talk to Ida on an equal footing about raising kids because I know what it's about," he says after returning home from his trip. This simply isn't the case with fathers who get home from work late and give their children a goodnight kiss, he says.

In the early 1990s, Norway became the first country to enact legislation under which the state would only provide full parental-leave benefits if fathers spent a portion of the leave period at home. "It was about equal rights at the time," says Skrede, the statistician. "No one was thinking about the birth rate."

Likewise, when fathers and mothers divide up the parental-leave period, it's no longer advantageous for employers to give hiring preference to male applicants. As a result, having a child is no longer potentially detrimental to a woman's career.

What's more, in Norway, working hours are geared toward family life. Meetings are rarely held after 3 p.m., and employers don't look askance at employees who go home at 4. "And no one minds when you work from home once in a while and the children are squealing in the background," Solheim says.

Finding Balance in Death and Birth Rates

Things are still far from perfect in Scandinavia when it comes to gender equality and birth rates. But the path being taken there seems to be the right one. "The number of women with high levels of education and more than two children is increasing," Skrede says. She is convinced that once women have triggered demographic change, men will also have to change to make sure it turns out well.

Can an example like Norway point the way to an affluent future in which the birth and death rates balance each other out? Lutz, the IIASA demographer, thinks it's possible. At some point in the next century, he says, the world population could stabilize at a level of about 6 billion people. "That would put us within a range that environmentalists view as tolerable for our planet," he says.

Lutz admits that it will require some imagination when it comes to policymaking. But he also thinks that "people aren't just mouths to feed. They also have brains that can find new solutions."


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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