Asia’s currencies will not be the only things plummeting. Look next for a decline in fertility rates (the number of births per woman) in the countries affected by Asia’s financial meltdown. Most people want children, but not more than can be raised well given family standards. Caution about childbearing is widespread when resources and opportunity contract or seem severely limited. A 4G-percent decline in assets probably makes lots of people feel poor enough to postpone marriage or parenthood.

A fertility rate of 2.1 just replaces parents (with an allowance for child mortality), so this number leads, in the long run, to a stable population. Some Asian countries already have fertility rates below the replacement level. States such as Hong Kong (1.2 births per woman), Japan (1.5), South Korea (1.7), Singapore (1.8), China (1.8), and Taiwan (1.8) expect to see the end to population growth in 20 to 60 years, depending on when replacement-level fertility, or lower, took root. If fertility rates fall very low, population growth stops sooner.

East Germany’s experience with reunification suggests that the fertility rate can fall below one child per woman. Live births declined 46 percent between 1989 and 1991, a drop which Nicholas Eberstadt attributes to “enormous dislocations in the economy.” By 1994, the fertility rate was .77 births per woman, down 50.9 percent in five years due to the combined effects of a 60-percent decline in the number of marriages and delayed childbearing: first-time mothers averaged 22.9 years of age in 1989 compared to 26.2 years in 1993. These marital and fertility changes have been described as part of a “rational adaptation process.”

The Thai fertility rate, 2.2 children per woman in 1996, hovers already on the brink of replacement and will probably fall more during the present financial convulsion. Two pressures have long pinched optimism (and family-size targets) in Thailand: population growth has shrunk per-capita land holdings, so the rural population foresees farms being divided into plots too small to support a large family; in cities, economic security is hindered by a large disparity between rich and poor and by the precariousness of middle-class status in an economy where the fast-growing labor force threatens to overwhelm the creation of net new good jobs.

The situation in Malaysia differs slightly because of diversity and affirmative action. Ethnic Malays are nearly 60 percent of the population and, since independence in 1957, have benefited from many educational and employment opportunities available only to them, while the Chinese and Indian minorities have been progressively discriminated against. The latter’s economic woes are reflected in declining fertility rates, from seven births per woman before independence to 2.5 in 1987 for Chinese, and from about eight down to three births per woman for Indians. At the same time, the Malay rate declined little. The 1996 national statistic—dominated by the more numerous Malays — was 3.3 births per woman, a rate surely to decline because not even privileged Malays will be able to avoid economic meltdown.

India began 1996 with a rate of 3.4, but larger family size is reportedly in vogue. Both the loosening of bureaucratic barriers to entrepreneurial activity and high emigration would account for increased income and greater family security. Domestic prosperity is likely to be dashed, however, by regional financial events, and this should renew the decline in fertility.

The highest fertility rates in South, East, and Southeast Asia occur where significant proportions of the population have emigrated, and immigration to the United States offers continuing opportunity. Many immigrants remit funds to relatives back home, a source of income which is widely distributed among poor-and-middle-class families—precisely where most decisions about family size are made. Filipino women average 4.1 births. Similarly, Laotians (6.1 births per woman), Cambodians (5.8), and Vietnamese (3.7) are partially insulated from regional economic cycles by immigration and their ongoing refugee entitlements in the United States. Therefore, no sharp fertility decline should be expected soon.

These predictions grow out of the fertility opportunity explanation of family size. Some observers still argue that fertility falls because infant mortality rates fall or because women are educated (the U.N.’s favorite). But the commonsensical idea that people have as many children as seem affordable, given their childrearing standards, is gaining adherents. This rationale explains rising as well as declining fertility. Moreover, it builds on the theory of natural selection, which links evolutionary success to having the maximum number of offspring who survive and reproduce in turn.

Although deriving from biology and anthropology, the fertility opportunity hypothesis has converged with economic theory. In fact, America’s history of low fertility in times of meager economic opportunity (e.g., the Depression) and high fertility rates during times of economic expansion (e.g., the Baby Boom years) has convinced the Advisory Council on Social Security that a small birth cohort, whose members are likely to encounter ample job opportunities relative to their number, will command high wages and see rapid career advancement and, therefore, have big families, and it says so in its 1994 report. On the other hand, a large birth cohort tends to flood the labor market, causing wages and benefits to stagnate or fall and leading to a decline in desired family size.

Both labor market opportunities and asset values subject to financial gyrations change the gleam in a father’s eye. Knowing recent economic events and the distribution of wealth in any society, it is possible to predict the likely trajectory of fertility rates. When the middle class—not just the wealthy few—feels secure and rich, fertility rates turn up. That could happen in America. In Asia, however, expect decline.