Apr 22nd 2010 | MEXICO CITY
From The Economist print edition
From The Economist print edition
A falling birth rate, and what it means
FENCES, soldiers, infra-red cameras: the United States goes to great lengths to hold back the teeming masses across its southern border. But the masses are teeming less. Mexico’s birth rate, once among the world’s highest, is in free-fall. In the 1960s Mexican mothers had nearly seven children each (whereas women in India then had fewer than six). The average now is just over two—almost the same as in the United States. The UN reckons that from 2040 the birth rate in Mexico will be the lower of the two.
The fall follows a government u-turn nearly 40 years ago, when a contraception campaign replaced the previous nation-building policy. Today, four out of ten married Mexican women are sterilised, a radical measure that partly reflects the continuing lack of other contraception in some areas as well as strict laws against abortion everywhere but the capital. Broader changes, such as more women in education and work, and pricier housing, have pushed down the size of families even more. (Brazil, where the government has promoted contraception less forcefully, has experienced a similar baby bust.)
The slowdown provides both relief and trouble for the state. In the 1970s each school year was 4% bigger than the last. But Carlos Welti, a demographer at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM), points out that 2m new Mexicans are still minted each year—exactly the same number as during the 1970s. Some public services are more oversubscribed, not less: UNAM used to accept nearly all applicants but now turns away more than 90%. Mexico’s total population will not peak until 2043 (at 130m).
Nevertheless, Mexicans are rapidly ageing. This trend, which took a century in Europe, has happened in three decades, Mr Welti points out. In 1980 the average Mexican was 17 years old; he is now 28. At the moment, one in ten Mexicans is aged 60 or over; within three decades, the figure will be almost one in four. A health-care system geared towards women and children must be recalibrated to deal with geriatrics.
So too must social security. The poor who clean windscreens and sell pirate CDs in Mexico City include a growing number of elderly people. Only about one in five of the over-75s has a pension, and today’s smaller families will find it harder to care for elderly relatives. Two reforms are needed to defuse this social-security time-bomb, says Jorge Rodríguez of the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America. More of Mexico’s enormous black market must be brought into the formal economy, so as to get more companies to contribute to employees’ pensions. And a fund must be built up to help those without a contributory scheme. Other analysts, such as Santiago Levy, a former Mexican official now at the Inter-American Development Bank, point out that a fund of that kind might undermine the incentives for firms and workers to go legal.
All this could have a profound impact on the United States, which in recent years has absorbed about half of each new Mexican generation. By 2050 there will be 20% fewer Mexicans in their 20s. Farming, construction and health care in the southern states, which rely on migrant labour (documented or otherwise), will have a smaller pool from which to recruit.
Or will they? Mexicans are healthier than they were. Those prepared to make the arduous crossing are now drawn from a wider age-range; once there, they may stay up to a decade longer before heading home for their final years. In addition, Mexicans in the United States are more fertile than their counterparts back home. “Mexico has impregnated the United States,” says Joel Kotkin, an urban historian at Chapman University in Los Angeles, who points out that Mexican genes will proliferate north of the border even if immigration falls. Higher wages mean that it is easier to afford a decent family home in Houston than in Mexico City.
History teaches caution in assessing the link between demography and migration. The Mexican baby boom of the 1950s coincided with lowish emigration, whereas the exodus to the United States kicked off in the 1980s, just as Mexico’s birth rate was plummeting. Today’s falling fertility rate will curb the flow. But the main motors of migration will still be economic boom or bust—on both sides of the border.