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The Human Tide: Is awareness, education and employment among females changing the contours of society?


India’s ageing population will rise from 8.4% in 2011 to 15% in 2036, as per a population projection report

By Reya Mehrotra

For Gurugram-based Arushi Guliani, motherhood isn’t on the cards for a good few years. She does plan to be a hands-on mother one day, but for now, the pandemic has made her more conscious about saving for the future. The 30-year-old marketing manager says she might consider freezing her eggs for future prospects of getting pregnant, but for now, times are too uncertain to plan a baby. “I don’t want to be unsure of the times and circumstances when I bring up a child. Not all jobs provide the facility for women to work from home while raising a child, and a child demands time,” says Guliani, who has been married for four years. “One must save enough first to get a stronger hold on life, which will empower you to do other things,” says Guliani, who has her family’s support, as they have seen both pregnant women and newborn babies suffer in various ways due to the pandemic.

Guliani’s concerns are not misplaced. The 2020-21 payroll data from Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation shows those in the 18-25 years age bracket were the worst affected due to the pandemic, as they saw a contraction in payroll addition. indicating they lost jobs and struggled to find new ones. No wonder, they are putting off weddings and pregnancies.

Thirty-five-year-old Neha (name changed on request) had a daughter last year after nine years of being married. Neha says she didn’t want to rush into pregnancy after marriage because she was not ready financially and mentally to raise a child at 26, the age she got married. “I was focused on my career for the longest time because I knew a lot of investment was needed to build a solid foundation. Both I and my husband had the same level of unpreparedness initially, but when we made up our minds, we agreed mutually,” says Neha, who feels that more than anything a woman must think of the time she has invested in her career and must have her employer’s backing to take the plunge. “I had invested 10 years in my company and had that reassurance,” says Neha, who went on a maternity break for three months when she was stuck in Dubai during the pandemic where she had her daughter.

Delhi-based Aarushi Mehra, who got married in June this year, plans to have a baby at least two years later, as she feels it is important to focus on one’s interests before getting in the family way. “The additional burden of financial worries is not fair on the parents and definitely not on the child,” says the 29-year-old.

Prioritising careers

Guliani, Neha and Mehra are among the many urban working women in the country who are prioritising their careers and financial security over becoming a mother. Until a few years ago, however, this was not the case. Getting married early and having kids in one’s 20s was the norm. Societal pressure, ticking of the biological clock, and lack of educational and professional opportunities contributed to early marriages and pregnancies.

Today, few things have progressed while others remain unchanged. The pandemic, for instance, is making couples rethink about bringing children into the world, propelling them instead towards saving money. Plus, there is a positive push towards higher education for women. As per the 2019-20 All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE), the Gender Parity Index (GPI) in higher education stood at 1.01 (the index was 1.00 in 2018-19), meaning that women were accessing higher education more than men. The share of women in higher education enrollment rose from 44% in 2011-12 to 49% in 2018-19, as per AISHE.

However, educational opportunities don’t always translate into employment prospects. The pandemic itself has pushed a number of women in the informal sector out of work. In the formal sector, women’s share in new payroll additions, which had been falling since a long time, fell below 20% in August 2020, according to World Bank data. The data also stated that the female labour force participation rate in the country fell from 30.27% in 1990 to 20.8% in 2019, indicating that even though women pursued higher education, there were scarce opportunities for employment for them.

With better educational opportunities, though, comes better judgement of life and priorities, which can be seen in the trend of urban working women delaying pregnancies. Twenty-eight-year-old Vinni Gautam, who got married in March this year, went for an abortion in early July. She and her husband decided against sharing this with their families so as not to disappoint them. Delhi-based Gautam, who is a massage therapist, says she was sure that at her age she would neither have been able to provide financial care to her child nor ensure a healthy lifestyle due to the pandemic and rise in pollution levels. “We want to settle things for ourselves first and don’t want additional responsibility at least for the next four-five years,” says Gautam, who has her husband’s backing.

When they went for the abortion, though, Gautam says her doctor advised her against it, saying she must have a baby before 30 as that’s the right age to have one. Their families, too, expect a child soon. “People continue to emphasise on the right age, but while I was ready to get married early, I am not ready to take the responsibility of a child so soon,” she says.


Medical experts have differing views on the subject. While some gynaecologists say couples opting for late pregnancies must go for a routine checkup and seek advice from doctors to ensure a healthy pregnancy later, others believe that the biological clock ticking is a myth.

Rupali Goyal, IVF specialist, department of obstetrics and gynaecology, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi, shares that a number of women working in the corporate sector and even homemakers in their late 20s or early 30s approach her for consultation on late pregnancies. Goyal says freezing eggs remains the best option for women wanting a late pregnancy. Couples, however, must seek medical guidance early on if they plan to have a delayed pregnancy instead of waiting for their 30s to start planning and then finding out the complications, she says.

“Couples must visit a doctor early if they plan to have a baby in their 30s to seek proper guidance, so that when they start trying, they succeed. The added work stress and obesity make it difficult for some to conceive in their 30s,” says Goyal, adding that contrary to popular opinion, freezing eggs is quite affordable for working couples and can be done for around `1-1.2 lakh.

Delhi-based family and marriage counsellor Nisha Khanna says that in her experience, more than the pandemic, financial and compatibility issues between couples are reasons for late pregnancies today. “Mostly couples are too busy figuring out compatibility issues, and they don’t want to bring in a child. The pandemic has made the already pressing compatibility issue worse,” says Khanna. “In the last three-five years, delayed pregnancies have become common… and it is okay. There are so many options like freezing your eggs to ensure a healthy late pregnancy today,” she adds.

Talking about biological barriers in late pregnancies, Neha, who got pregnant at the age of 34, shares that she conceived easily, but every woman’s body is different. “When my husband and I started trying for a baby, it didn’t take too long and I conceived pretty easily. I knew that another two years down the line, my body wouldn’t have supported pregnancy. I was slightly overweight and I knew that visiting doctors would make me more anxious about conceiving, so I visited only one gynaecologist who gave me practical advice,” she says.

Mumbai-based author Meghna Pant, who had her two daughters in her 30s, agrees that health is key to keep the biological clock running smooth. “A healthy body helps in conception and managing the physical challenges after having kids. If your eggs are not viable, there are options like using donor eggs, adopting, surrogacy. Being a non-biological mother does not make you any less of a mother. It will not matter to your child whether you’re a surrogate, adoptive or non-binary parent as long as you’re a loving parent,” says Pant, who recently wrote the book The Terrible Horrible Very Bad Good News. The book is the story of Ladoo, a woman who uses a donor to have a baby, and will soon be made into a movie titled Badnam Ladoo.

Pant asserts that one must be prepared to deal with the expenses of raising a child before planning to have one. “Babies are expensive propositions. Deliveries can cost `2-3 lakh. There are expenses like diapers, vaccinations, pre-schools not to mention other expenses. So yes, it makes sense to be financially secure.” However, more than money, children need love and time, she adds.

In the long run

It is yet to be seen how delayed pregnancies or couples having only one child will impact the Indian population in the long run. Data from countries that have restricted the number of children proves that it leads to negative growth in the number of young people and, in the case of China, results in an ageing population. In May, China’s National Bureau of Statistics shared that the country’s population grew 5.38% in 2020. However, the birth rate still continues to fall. In 2020, China’s number of newborns was 12 million, down from 14.65 million in 2019. Not surprisingly, China recently announced a three-child policy, five years after it relaxed its one-child policy to a two-child one, in order to avoid the unwanted demographic shift.

India, which competes with China for the largest population statistics in the world, is experiencing a similar fate. According to World Bank 2019 data, India’s fertility and birth rates have dropped more than China since 1980. China’s fertility rate per woman in 1980 was 2.61%, falling to 1.69 children per woman in 2019, a drop of 35%. In India, it dropped from 4.82 in 1980 to 2.2 children per woman in 2019, a drop of 54%.

With delayed pregnancies and couples opting for lesser children, India is likely to have a greying population in the coming decades. This is evident from India’s 2020 population projection report by the health ministry, which shows that the country’s population will not be as young as it was in 2011 by 2036. The proportion of people below 24 years of age will be 34.7%, down from over 50% in 2011, while the ageing population will increase from 8.4% (in 2011) to 15% in 2036.

Yet child-control policies are being discussed and introduced in India. The UP Population Bill 2021 discusses the incentives for having one-two children—those with more than two children are likely to remain bereft of the incentives that include a rebate on utility charges, preference for government jobs, etc. Not just Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Karnataka, too, are discussing implementing the policy.

According to the Population Foundation of India (PFI), the two-child norm affects marginalised sections of society the most, as they have lower access to adequate child and maternal healthcare services and so experience high infant mortality. “Any attempt to impose penalties is biased against the poor, the illiterate and socially disadvantaged groups in society, the same groups that have historically faced discrimination and neglect,” as per PFI.

As per the PFI, the policy also adversely impacts women as there are instances of men deserting their wives to deny proof of a third child in order to contest local body elections, children being given up for adoption, and a rapid increase in sex-selective abortions and female foeticide. “As an outcome of the two-child policy, states such as Haryana and Punjab have witnessed highly skewed sex ratios with lesser number of women to men. As a result, women are sold as brides, forced into sex work, treated as slaves, abused physically and sexually, and eventually abandoned. The social norms in terms of son meta-preference (desire for a male child) have resulted in 21 million ‘unwanted girls’ in India in the 0-25 age group (as per the 2017-18 Economic Survey),” they share, pitching for girls’ schooling and basic education rather than imposing restrictive measures to tackle reducing fertility rates.

Globally, countries like Vietnam and Nigeria have restrictive child policies, while Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Canada and Sweden have incentive-driven childcare policies in place.

According to the 2019 World Population Prospects report by United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs, world population continues to grow, but at a slower rate since 1950 owing to reduced fertility. The report suggests that from an estimated 7.7 billion people worldwide in 2019, the global population could grow to around 8.5 billion in 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050 and 10.9 billion in 2100. It also mentions India among nine countries—along with Pakistan, Nigeria and the US—where more than half of the projected increase in the global population up to 2050 will be concentrated. As per the report, India is projected to surpass China as the world’s most populous country around 2027.

According to another study—called Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: A forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study—published this year in Lancet, India’s population will peak at 1.6 billion by 2048, up from 1.38 billion in 2017. By 2100, India will be the world’s most populous country. However, its population would have declined to 1.09 billion by 2100, a drop of 32% from 2048.

Global scenario

Fifty-one-year-old Naomi Campbell shocked fans recently when she shared news of having her first child, a daughter, on social media. But she isn’t the only one, as celebrities around the world are opting to have children today in their late 30s, 40s and even early 50s.

In India, too, the trend is catching up fast among the working urban population, but still comprises only a small fraction of the working women population as a large chunk of employed women in India work in the informal sector as maids, in agricultural farmlands, as vegetable sellers, etc. According to the 2021 study Evidence Review of Covid-19 and Women’s Informal Employment: A Call To Support The Most Vulnerable First In The Economic Recovery, roughly 90% of employed women in India and Africa are informal workers. In India, 29-31% of them work as contributing family workers. The study was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and SEWA Bharat (a federation of women-led institutions providing economic and social support to women in the informal sector).

According to the 2019 Women in the Indian Informal Economy report—published by the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) and Institute of Social Studies Trust—the level of education is inversely proportional to the level of informality in the employment sector. The report found around 93.1% rural women in India engaged in informal employment in 2017-18, while 77.2% in urban areas were employed in informal sectors.

Globally, though, informal employment is a greater source of employment for men (63%) than women (58.1%). According to the International Labour Office’s 2018 report Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture, women are more exposed to informal employment in 89% of the countries from southern Asia and other developing countries. As for developed countries, the participation of women in the labour markets has been constantly on the rise. Data from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics suggests that women accounted for more than half of all workers within several industry sectors in 2018. The trend of late pregnancies, owing to better education and job opportunities, hence, remains more pronounced in developed countries and among women in formal job sectors.

Population dynamics

World population will grow to 10.9 billion in 2100

India’s population will peak at 1.6 billion by 2048, up from 1.38 billion in 2017

By 2100, India will be the world’s most populous country

However, its population would have declined to 1.09 billion by 2100, a drop of 32% from 2048

India’s fertility rate fell to 2.2 children per woman in 2019, from 4.82 in 1980

In China, too, fertility rate fell to 1.69 children per woman in 2019, from 2.61 in 1980

By 2036, the proportion of people below age 24 will fall to 34.7% in India, from over 50% in 2011

Jobs scenario

Share of women enrolled in higher education increased to 49% in 2018-19, up from 44% in 2011-12

But female labour force participation fell to 20.8% in 2019, from 30.27% in 1990, indicating that job opportunities shrunk despite the rise in education

Roughly, 90% working women are employed in informal sectors

Around 29-31% of them work as contributing family workers

Globally 58.1% women are employed in informal sectors compared with 63% men

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