Editorial | Impact of fewer babies
Jamaica's birth rate is going down and it now stands at two children per mother. At first blush, this sounds like a reason to celebrate.
However, the caution by Dr Wayne Henry, director general of the Planning Institute of Jamaica, gives cause to pause. He cited the danger of a naturally declining population over time if the fertility rate were to fall too low. This is likely to lead to a decrease in the workforce and an increase in the ageing population. Both extremes are to be avoided because of the gaps they inevitably create within a society.
So is it a good thing that the country's fertility rate is going down? It could be, in a world of diminishing resources. Besides, the environmental impact of more people may be negative in terms of pollution and carbon emission.
But before we decide whether the falling numbers are great for our country, we need to scratch beneath the surface and discern the picture that emerges.
We submit that behind these declining numbers may be the seeds of a potential social crisis that looms for a future Jamaica.
CHILDLESS BY CHOICE
Without the benefit of disaggregated statistics, we observe hundreds of professional women and entrepreneurs who are childless by choice. Gradually, there has been greater social acceptance of women who make that choice and no longer as great a stigma attached to childless women.
Indeed, the profile is one of an educated individual who is financially secure and who has the wherewithal to provide for children and seem equipped to raise a worthwhile future citizen. The reasons women choose to remain childless tend to be varied - from not being able to find the ideal partner to being focused on a career and education. Some, of course, experience medical difficulties, while others simply postpone childbearing until it is too late.
The fact is that women in their mid-40s are now almost twice as likely to be childless as their parents' generation.
Meantime, women of lesser means continue to reproduce, often with multiple partners, in spite of the many birth-control methods now available. Many of these absentee fathers do not contribute financially or emotionally to their children's upbringing. The mothers, sometimes barely literate and jobless or marginally employed, also cannot adequately provide for these children.
The result is that this new breed of youngsters become hustlers on the streets and many are fodder for murderous street gangs. They do not attend school and thus their educational prospects are blighted and they seem doomed never to be able to command good-paying jobs.
So if, as the numbers suggest, we are heading to become a country with more old people, who will take on the burden of caring for the aged when there are fewer young people in the labour force? And if these old people are childless, what are the implications for family support and interaction? And what of the ramifications to pension funds?
Accompanying a shrinking population is a dwindling tax base which will have a huge impact on the services Government will be able to provide to its citizens.
Childlessness is not an easy subject to discuss in the public domain, but there needs to be a debate about the critical roles of Government in setting policy and provide for older people within the context of maintaining a prosperous society.