Bhutan’s declining fertility rate and beyond

Some politico-economic and ecological perspectives

It is reported that Bhutan’s fertility rate decreased ‘from 6.6 births per woman in 1971 to 1.8 births per woman in 2022.’ By 2047, the elderly population 65 years and above is projected to increase from 6 percent to 13 percent. With policy circles, these figures can become topics of discussion covering the economy, politics, and the environment.

Human capital is one topic that cuts across economics and politics; politics is understood from the perspective of a state as an actor. Human resources, particularly a productive workforce is critical for economic production. In theory, the decreasing fertility rate would affect the replacement ratio culminating into, inter alia, an increasing dependency ratio would not only exert pressure on social security schemes such as pensions but also have a less active working population.

However, Bhutan’s youth unemployment rate over the years has been three to four-fold higher than the general unemployment rate. The youth bulge did not necessarily lead to a demographic dividend. It suggests that the decrease in fertility rate is not only about working women and the primacy of professional life over family but also the structural challenges in securing decent living.

Rahman and Tomlinson (2018) in ‘Cross countries: International comparisons of intergenerational trends’ observed that in the United Kingdom, the silent generation (born 1926-45) and the baby boomers (born 1946-1965) both enjoyed much higher incomes than predecessors at each age. But this progress disappeared for generation X (born 1966-80) and the millennials (born 1981-2000). Similar findings were reported in other high-income countries such as the United States and Germany. As Bhutan pursues a high-income economy, would path dependency theory come into play? Can it be argued as a sound economic reason explaining the decreasing fertility rate?

As technology has become the lingua franca both in formal discussion settings and delirious street crowds, should decreasing fertility be a policy concern, to start with? The World Economic Forum (WEF) projects that robotics and automation would increase the global GDP to $15 trillion by 2030. This will come about with the loss of about 85 million jobs by 2025.

Elsewhere, acknowledging such an inevitability, schemes such as Universal Basic Income (UBI) are being explored and piloted. Reassuringly, WEF anticipates that new 97 million jobs can be created in the future tech-driven economy. What keeps the fertility rate low if there are more jobs available?

In the Anthropocene epoch, is decreasing fertility rate, an inadvertent acceptance of the Malthusian theory of population growth? Enough jobs can be created but the planet has reached, or soon reach its maximum absorption capacity?

What would Statism say? A permanent population is one of the four elements of a state. In an ever-increasing competitive world (world), a stable population ensured through maintenance of replacement level may not itself be sufficient. A competent pool of human capital is critical to operating state machinery. Else, will robots inherit the baton of politics from emotion-endowed statesmen and decision-makers?

The writer is Dechen Rabgyal from Drepung, Mongar