Robot Babies, No-Kids Tax, and Other Ways Nations Try to Up the Birth Rate

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These countries have gone to extraordinary lengths to coax citizens into doing their patriotic, procreative duty.

russia conception day.jpg
In Russia, couples can win prizes for delivering babies nine months after the nationwide Day of Conception on Sept. 12. This family won a car in 2007. (AP Photo / Ulyanovsk regional administration press service)

Somewhere in the panic around the birth of the 7 billionth person, the news that the world's population growth was actually slowing got lost.

According to a recent article in Slate, it took the world 13 years to grow from 6 to 7 billion people, but only 12 to go from 5 to 6 billion. The implication is that population growth is slowing, and according to some estimates, may stop completely within the lifespan of people alive right now. The world's population may cap out at 9 billion.

So we're saved, right? After all, many of the world's ills, from crime to pollution, water shortages to the impending wheat crisis, tend to be blamed on overpopulation. But a low birth rate is a problem of a different sort: Once this generation has fewer children, the next generation is bound to have even fewer. That means that there will be more elderly than there are young, and fewer people around to care for those older people, plus a diminishing labor population and decreased future tax revenues. All this spells fiscal instability and economic stagnation in the long run.

(Of course, at the same time, Britain's second most shout-y tabloid, The Daily Mail, is wailing about Britain's "population boom," powered by those baby-making immigrants who are putting a strain on the country's resources. So you can't ever win.)

Some countries that regard their birth rates as too low (less than 2.1 children per woman, which is the replacement rate necessary to maintain a population) have embarked on campaigns to help up it; often, measures include tax credits for children or financial aid in some way. Others, however, are thinking a bit more creatively.

1. Singapore: Lie Back and Think of Singapore

Singapore is aggressively tackling their low birth rate problem—with the help of mints.

On August 9, 2012, the Singapore authorities partnered with mint-peddlers Mentos ("The Freshmaker") to put together "National Night," a campaign meant to encourage Singaporean couples to let their "patriotism explode" and help the nation increase its 0.78 children per woman birth rate. The resulting ad went viral. "Singapore's population, it needs some increasing/So forget waving flags, August 9th we be freaking ... I'm a patriotic husband, you're my patriotic wife, let's do our civic duty and manufacture life," the smooth-voiced, minty-breathed rapper suggests. "The birth rate ain't goin' spike itself!"

But that's not all. Singapore is also tackling the problem where it lives or rather, where it doesn't: The Urban Redevelopment Authority has placed a limit on the number of small one-bedroom flats that can be built in an effort to curb the singleton lifestyle and encourage people to shack up and make babies.

Singapore spends around $1.3 billion annually on trying to convince its citizens to get busy, including offering $15,000 parental packages for each child, tax incentives, and extended maternity leave.

2. South Korea: Lights Out

South Korea's birth rate has fallen to one of the lowest in the developed world, at 1.2 children per woman in 2010. That's even lower than China, with its aggressive one child policy (it's at 1.6). The low birth rate is in part the fault of a government program to promote smaller families in the 1970s and '80s, but more recently, financial woes are more to be blamed for the baby slowdown—South Koreans have one of the highest household debt burdens in Asia, at roughly 160 percent of income.

One of the biggest concerns that South Korean parents have is being able to pay for their children's care and education, so the government is promising to halve tuition fees for state-run childcare and is actively trying to weaken the perception that a college degree is necessary for success.

That's one way—but the South Korean government is also taking other, more creative measures. In addition to the cash gifts and incentives offered to staff who have more than one child, in 2010, the South Korean government decided to turn off the lights in its offices at 7pm on the third Wednesday of every month—called "Family Day"—to "help staff get dedicated to childbirth and upbringing." While the official in charge of the program acknowledged that going home early probably didn't have a direct link to making more babies, every little bit helps.

3. Russia: Have a Baby, Win a Fridge!

Russia's population has been shrinking since the 1990s, propelled by a low birth rate and high death rate (the high alcoholism rate may be a factor in that). So, in 2007, the government declared September 12 national Day of Conception, in the hopes that giving couples the day off from work to do their civic duty would result in a baby spike nine months later, on Russia's national day, June 12. Women who gave birth on the national day could win refrigerators, money, even cars.

It seems to be working—in 2012, Russia's birth rate was set to match and possibly surpass America's. That's a big deal to the dying bear: Russia is already one of the most sparsely settled nations in the world, owing to its massive land size; demographics experts claim that if unchecked, the population there could go below 100 million by 2050. In the run-up to his presidential campaign in 2011, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pledged to spend £33 billion to boost Russia's birth rate by 30 percent over the next five years. No word on whether action man Putin was going to see to the duties personally.

4. Japan: Robot Babies to Save the Day

In addition to a stagnating economy, Japan is suffering from a seriously low birth rate—so low that in 1000 years, one demographer claims, the Japanese will be extinct. The country's fertility rate fell below two children per woman in 1975 and is now holding steady at around 1.39. But that means that its elderly population is starting to outpace its young population. In 2012, toiletries company Unicharm said that sales of its adult diapers "slightly surpassed" baby diapers for the first time since the company moved into the elderly market in 1987.

The Japanese government, some critics claim, hasn't done enough to address its low birth rate and in 2010, students at the University of Tsukuba stepped into the breach with Yotaro.

Yotaro is a robot baby. Though he doesn't exactly look like a real baby, he cries, sneezes, suffers that perpetually drippy nose that is instantly recognizable to any parent, giggles when tickled, and is calmed by his rattle. His creators are hoping that if he can spark some measure of parental emotion in the people who see him, maybe they'll consider making a real baby. "A robot can't be human but it's great if this robot triggers human emotions, so humans want to have their own baby," said Hiroki Kunimura, the Yotaro project leader.

5. Romania: No Babies? Higher Taxes

In the 1960s, Romania was approaching zero population growth—a terrifying prospect for a Communist nation that held the Marxist principle that economic health lay in a robust labor class. So, starting in 1966, the government took some drastic and chilling measures.

They chose the stick rather than the carrot: Though there are tax and monetary incentives to encourage people to have children, they also punished people for not having them: Childless men and women over the age of 25, regardless of marital status, were subject to a new tax that could be as much as 20 percent of their income. Divorce was made incredibly difficult; in 1967, only 28 divorces were allowed, a precipitous decrease from the 26,000 the year before. Police were installed in hospitals to make sure that no illegal abortions were performed, and legal importation of birth control was halted.

It worked, at least in the short term. The baby bounce was significant—273,687 in 1966 to 527,764 in 1967—but lasted only as long as the police remained in hospitals. In the 1980s, the Nicolae Ceausescu regime again faced a declining birth rate and instituted even more draconian measures to raise it: Women were subjected to monthly gynecological exams to detect pregnancies in their earliest stage and to ensure that the pregnancies came to term. These exams were performed by "demographic command units," which would also interrogate childless individuals and couples about their sex lives. Access to abortion was made even more difficult; in 1985, the government declared that in order to eligible for an abortion, regardless of the circumstances, a woman had to have had five children and all those children had to still be under her care, or be over 45. At the same time, the monetary incentives encouraging women to have children were barely enough to buy a bit of milk, under the country's depressed economic conditions.

Pretty grim. The campaign to forcibly control Romanian women's fertility ended with the overthrow of Ceausescu's regime in the bloody revolution of 1989.


A version of this post originally appeared on Mental Floss, an Atlantic partner site.

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Linda Rodriguez McRobbie is a writer for Mental Floss.

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