Prior to the 20th century, the specter of early death was never far from people’s minds. Accordingly, death was integrated into life, meaning that as a normal fact of life, everyday knowledge of death made life precious. Average life expectancy in the mid-40s back then masks the reality that people, if they survived childhood, did in fact get old. What lowered the average was infant and child mortality. Cemeteries with graves preserved from that era demonstrate this pretty clearly. When early mortality rates began dropping due to a variety of factors, including improved diet, hygiene, and medicine, it may well be that omnipresent awareness of early death receded while a sense of stalking death remained. Today’s child mortality rates vary widely across the globe, with many African and Southeast Asian countries still reporting rates well above 100.
As early mortality rates declined, so, too, have fertility rates. Factors balancing these two trends are too complex to sort and summarize succinctly, but it’s curious to observe that as GDP per capita rises, wealthy populations tend to fall below the minimum replacement rate of 2.33 children per woman. The cluster of poor countries along the vertical axis of the graph below suggests that some peoples are still over(re)producing, perhaps in part because a high rate of early mortality requires more births to raise a child to reproductive age successfully. (more…)