Transcript: Stephen J. Shaw
My interview with the data scientist and filmmaker
Earlier this spring, student protesters at the University of Cambridge successfully cancelled an event on campus, a screening of a documentary on fertility. Students accused the film of being misogynistic, despite the fact that, as student event organizer Charlie Bentley-Astor put it in The Critic magazine, this was a film “made primarily by women, with women, for women.” And, as you’ll hear on this week’s episode, the film — which screened at the Chelsea Film Festival — features a remarkable degree of empathy from the sole male on the project.
A Cambridge administrator has stressed that “the decision about the room booking was based solely on our commitment to prioritising an environment conducive to studying during the University examination period,” and that the event could be rescheduled (which it ultimately was). You can read that statement from the university here. You can also read some of the students’ concerns here. One unnamed protest organizer told the student newspaper, Varsity: “I think a lot of students are understandably quite hurt that an institution as respected as Cambridge seems to promote bigotry to its students … an academic institution should have better standards than to promote events about ‘the pitfalls of Feminism’.”
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Stephen, welcome to Lean Out.
SS: Thank you, Tara.
TH: It's wonderful to have you on the show. I want to start today with how you first came on my radar. I read an article a month ago in The Critic about a cancellation campaign around a screening of your film at Cambridge. Before we dive into the conversation about your documentary, can you tell us briefly what happened at Cambridge University?
SS: Yes. I was invited to give a screening of the documentary and Q&A to what would have been 160 Cambridge students. They were invited by another student, who simply wanted to put on an event. And remarkably, just as I was boarding my flight — I live in Tokyo — as I was boarding my flight to London a couple of days before the event, I got a phone call to say that the college in question had decided that because of threats of disruption, noise disruption, from some students who seem to be perturbed about the theme of the documentary, that it had been cancelled. I'm happy to say, a couple of weeks later, we did have another event. But we had to keep that very secret and private. For some reason, it seems that some Cambridge students don't want this conversation talked about.
TH: It's bizarre. I know that the film was called misogynistic. I watched it; I saw no evidence of that at all. In fact, as we'll get to later in the conversation, and as you know, I am a childless woman and this film spoke to me and my feelings about that in a way that no other project ever has. Why do you think the students at Cambridge were so upset about your film?
SS: I can only take one or two comments. Because, to be honest with you, I know the students hadn't watched the documentary. There's only a certain part of it online on YouTube at the moment. I know you have had the opportunity, I think, to watch more of it. But it's not publicly available just yet. They also didn't contact me. They never queried me, nor did the student newspaper, who also wrote a piece condemning the movie. These are people who never saw the documentary.
The one comment that stood out to me was a young medical student saying that she felt students were able to make their own decisions on whether to have a child or not and didn't need a documentary to help make that choice. I think, as you know, the documentary is simply listening to people's opinions, and voices, and sharing some things that can go wrong in life — even if you do decide that you do want a child. It's very confusing for me, frankly, that students wouldn't want to expose themselves to the voices of the world that the documentary shares.
TH: Indeed. I want to dive into your story here, because it's such a fascinating one. You're a data scientist. How did you find yourself travelling around the world, to some 24 countries, researching fertility?
SS: That was the most unexpected thing that's ever happened in my life. I never planned to make a film; I thought I might write a book one day. What happened was I saw data on falling birth rates in Europe, that I'd frankly not known about, seven years ago. I saw numbers that were shocking. For example, today in Italy, there are less than half the number of newborns compared to people aged 50 years old. When you factor that into how our economies are going to change and how our societies are going to have to cope with shrinking and aging, I got worried that no one was talking about this topic.
At first, I thought, "Okay, I believe I can probably write a book about this. I might be able to create some interesting graphics.” Because that's typically what I do. My younger son told me that, “That's not going to work because young people don't read books anymore. They just watch documentaries.” As luck would have it, I met Elyse Cosgrove, a wonderful videographer who was looking for a project. Together, we hit the road for what I thought would be five or six countries. And 24 countries, and four years later, we eventually finished.
TH: It's so interesting because the narrative that we have often heard in the media — the narrative I grew up with — was on global overpopulation. But your documentary makes a data-driven argument that the opposite is happening. That we are seeing a global population collapse. In broad strokes, can you paint a picture for us about what exactly is happening in industrialized nations around the world?
SS: Yes, sure. One of the complicated things about populations is it takes some time, generations, for trends to show themselves. What's been happening, in effect, is that as societies have been aging, people are living longer, through healthier lives. We've been increasing our longevity. We haven't really noticed that that has masked the reality that our birth rates have been plummeting.
If we look at countries that look like they've got stable populations, even growing populations, if you actually look at birth rates, you find a story of what the future holds that’s very different to the one I think most of us think it is. For example, if you were to have a hugely reduced birth rate, you would barely notice for a generation. You'd see some closing schools, but it wouldn't affect the economy at all. In fact, eventually, employment levels would rise as more people get pulled into the workforce.
Things feel good for a generation or two. The population looks like it's stable, or even growing. Two generations in, you realize you've got a problem because there are so few people to have more children in the future. You've got locked in low birth rates. You realize you're in a downward spiral that, frankly, no society has been known to come out of. We can't point to any example and say, "Aha, here's a solution.” We just don't know what that is.
TH: What exactly is the birth gap? Can you explain that for us?
SS: Yes. I created the term "birth gap" to mean the gap between the number of old people that we need to support in society and the shrinking number of younger people that a society would expect to generate the taxes and income to support those older people. It's the gap that's the problem. It's not necessarily a case of whether a large or small population is a good or bad thing. It may well be that in the future, we have a smaller, stable population. But in the interim, we're going to have decades, generations, of this birth gap. With, frankly, too many older people to support.
TH: 70% of people now live in a country below the population tipping point, below-replacement levels for the population. What are some of the consequences? What happens to a society when the birth rate is below replacement?
SS: Well, initially, you don't notice very much at all. But as time goes on, the effect starts to become more and more apparent. I call it the "birth-gap trap" because the point where you realize you have a problem, really, you're at a point where it's too late to go back to where you were before. For example, I live in Japan right now. Even if the birth rate in Japan, which has been low for 50 years, were to go back to replacement level, Japan's population would still shrink by around half. There's no way to avoid it. It's already baked into the system, because there are simply so few young people here now.
Now, the consequences of this are both social and economic. My greatest concern is for the social consequences, although I worry deeply about both. If you can imagine, I lived in Detroit for many years, in Michigan. It's a city that is famous for having gone bankrupt, and famous for the fact that people left the city in the '70s, '80s, and '90s. A city built for two million people ended up with less than half that living there. What happened? Well, the city couldn't afford the taxes to pay for the streets to be repaired, the lights to be turned on, for vermin to be taken care of.
If you can imagine a street in Detroit — this is a template of what we're going to see around the world — a street where half the houses are empty and decaying, and then the value of the other houses goes down. Then, year by year by year, there's this gloomy feeling of everybody leaving. We will have to endure decades like this in villages, towns, and cities across the world that will be ever contracting.
In the context of that, what does this mean for the individual? I really worry about mental health. I really worry about loneliness. If we lose family structure, I think we're going to be taken into a world where mental health is huge. It already is, I know, in Japan and certain countries in Europe, from the consequences of that. That's not even talking about the economic side, where we are going to have too few workers to pay for the pensions, social care, and health care of older people.
TH: I want to drill down on unplanned childlessness. You show in the documentary that the fertility crisis is not a matter of people having smaller families, but an explosion in the number of people who are childless. I don't know that people are fully aware of this. What proportion of the female population in the U.S. is now childless?
SS: In 2021, that number rose to over 35%. It's the highest that it's ever been. In the U.S. if you go back to the early 2000s, that number was around 15%, which is not untypical for more developed nations, until we get to this trigger. The trigger for the U.S. coincided with the mortgage crisis, the Lehman crisis of '07, '08. From that moment in time, childlessness has risen, year by year, almost unstoppably going upwards. Today, I was calculating. The latest number is 38%.
This is just shocking, but it's not unparalleled. It's exactly what we've seen in Italy. It's exactly what we've seen in Japan. What we see in South Korea is even worse, with childlessness there reaching 45%.
You're right, the point about the size of families is that it wavers slightly. Mostly for the last 30 to 40 years across all industrialized nations, it's remained the same. An example I like to give is that 50 years ago in Japan, 6% of mothers were having four or more children. Today, that number's exactly the same. There's been no change at all. It's really about whether women become mothers. Having the first child appears to be the most important thing. This entire phenomenon is driven by childlessness. And, I believe, unplanned childlessness.
TH: What do you know about the Canadian context? Canada's birth rate is at 1.4, well below replacement. We are making up for that through mass immigration. What do you know about when this trend took hold in Canada?
SS: Canada is in an interesting position. It's actually worse than the U.S. in terms of fertility rate, in terms of childlessness. The childlessness rate has actually been quite high in Canada, longer than the U.S. It was 25% to 30% even three, four decades ago, which is quite surprising. Canada almost mirrors some countries in Europe more than the U.S. Once again, we see the exact same trend from the '07-'08 mortgage crisis. We saw that number rise and rise. Canada is back up to upper 30% in terms of the percentage of childlessness.
We see the same thing there, but Canada is almost a hybrid between the strong trends we've seen in Japan and Europe and the U.S. I worry about Canada in this context. I really do. I worry because when you look at unplanned childlessness — and in my research, we show the triggers suddenly come in force …
For example, let me just explain. If you look at Japan and Italy in the early '70s, but not just those examples, but these are very clear and simple ones to take. Childlessness in Japan and Italy was around 3%, 4%, 5% in the early '70s. After the oil crisis of '73, by '74, that number had gone up to 15%, then 20%, and eventually 30%. It's an overnight change. So, this does not feel like people making decisions to not have children. People do decide not to have children; I'll be their biggest supporter, I want to say that. What I see is people reacting to financial crises, deferring having children, and ending up being childless.
TH: Absolutely. The way that I first started thinking about this fertility crisis — I have been in the media over 20 years, and I had heard next to nothing about this. I went to a talk at Cardus, a Canadian think tank, and they presented on this issue. They had done some research. And the research showed that in Canada, it is not a problem of women not wanting children. This is a misconception. Actually, the research that they commissioned found that nearly half of Canadian women at the end of their reproductive years had less children than they wanted. How is it that these severe economic shocks that are happening all over the world, how does that translate into women not having children when they want to have children?
SS: Yes, it's very interesting. Just to be clear, the financial shocks themselves aren't the direct cause. They are the trigger. What seems to happen is around the time of shocks, people — through, I think, natural anxiety — defer having children. Men and women. Expecting, I think, that they can wait two or three years. It turns out that with fertility windows closing, often with people not having a partner at the right time, or going through divorce or breakups at the wrong time, that we end up with a world where it becomes a social norm just to have children a little bit later.
We actually see if we take, for example, the UK. But we see this in many places. In the 1960s in the UK, the most common time to have a child was early 20s. By the '90s, the most common time was the late 20s. For women, this is. These days, the most common time to have a child is the early 30s. This is where we hit the fertility window. This is where things become less certain, for multiple factors.
I think what's happened in the world, we've just naturally crept into societies that have — for whatever reason, I don't think it's been a master plan at all, but I think it's just been a case that we've been pulled in societies where having a child a little bit later just feels the right thing to do. Unfortunately, I don't think we're well-educated in terms of the risks that that involves.
TH: In the documentary, you interview Kim Kardashian's doctor, for instance, who gives a rundown on fertility. It is a pretty sobering picture. In the documentary, you say that if you haven't had a child by 30, you have a 50% chance of having one. Nobody tells this to young women, that I'm aware of. Why not?