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Opinion

The Birthrate Blues

In 2022, more than one hundred countries and territories, representing two-thirds of world’s population, experienced fertility rates below the replacement level with many governments bemoaning the birthrate blues. Credit: Shutterstock.

In 2022, more than one hundred countries and territories, representing two-thirds of world’s population, experienced fertility rates below the replacement level with many governments bemoaning the birthrate blues. Credit: Shutterstock.

PORTLAND, USA, Jan 22 2024 (IPS) - Increasing numbers of countries are experiencing a spreading demographic condition, below replacement fertility, with many governments bemoaning the birthrate blues.

Without compensating international migration, a fertility rate below the replacement level, which in most instances is approximately 2.1 births per woman, leads to population decline, a near universal fear among nations that have become addicted to population growth.

Fertility rates below the replacement level were relatively uncommon in the distant past with few if any countries experiencing the birthrate blues. Today, in contrast, many of the countries with sustained rates of fertility below the replacement level are facing demographic decline accompanied by population aging and as a result are suffering from the birthrate blues.

Largely as a result of sustained levels of below replacement fertility and the absence of compensating international migration, more than forty countries are expected to experience population decline over the coming decades of the 21st century

The fertility rate in Italy, for example, which fell below the replacement level in the late 1970s, continued to remain well below replacement and is now at 1.2 births per woman. During the 21st century, Italy’s fertility rate has been no less than a half child below the replacement level.

Expressing her nation’s concerns about its low birthrate at a population summit in September 2023, Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni remarked in her keynote speech, “In our view, demography is not just another of the main issues of our nation. It is the issue on which our nation’s future depends.”

Similarly, the fertility rate in China has remained below the replacement level since the early 1990s and is now nearly one child below that level. China’s population, which declined last year for the second year in a row, is experiencing the birthrate blues with fears about the impact of demographic decline and population aging.

Remarking about the country’s low fertility rate, Chinese President Xi Jinping has urged women to have more children and has said that it’s necessary to “actively cultivate a new culture of marriage and childbearing and strengthen guidance on young people’s view on marriage, childbirth and family.”

Even lower than the fertility rates of China and Italy, South Korea currently has the world’s lowest fertility rate at 0.8 births per woman, or nearly a third of replacement level fertility. Suffering from the birthrate blues, the Korean government has spent more than $200 billion over the past 16 years aimed at encouraging more people to have children. Despite those pro-natalist efforts, the country’s fertility rate is expected to decline even further to 0.7 births per woman in the near future.

In 2022, more than one hundred countries and territories, representing two-thirds of world’s population, experienced fertility rates below the replacement level with many governments bemoaning the birthrate blues.

Among those countries with below replacement fertility are Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Iran, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States (Figure 1).

 

The Birthrate Blues - Increasing numbers of countries are experiencing a spreading demographic condition, below replacement fertility, with many governments bemoaning the birthrate blues.

Source: United Nations.

 

Largely as a result of sustained levels of below replacement fertility and the absence of compensating international migration, more than forty countries are expected to experience population decline over the coming decades of the 21st century.

The expected percent declines in population size by 2050 are 5 percent for Germany, 8 percent for China and Russia, 12 percent for Italy, Hungary and South Korea, 12 percent for Poland and 16 percent for Japan. The projected percent declines in population size are considerably greater by the close the century, with declines of no less than 40 percent in China, Japan, Poland and South Korea (Figure 2).

 

The Birthrate Blues - Increasing numbers of countries are experiencing a spreading demographic condition, below replacement fertility, with many governments bemoaning the birthrate blues.

Source: United Nations.

 

A number of other countries with fertility levels below the replacement level are not expected to experience population decline any time soon. They are projected to continue growing over the coming decades due to international migration.

Without international migration, however, countries with fertility rates remaining below the replacement level, such as Canada, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States, would also experience population decline in the coming decades. For example, whereas Canada’s current population is expected to increase by nearly 20 percent by mid-century, without international migration the Canadian population is projected to be 4 percent smaller by 2050 (Figure 3).

 

The Birthrate Blues - Increasing numbers of countries are experiencing a spreading demographic condition, below replacement fertility, with many governments bemoaning the birthrate blues.

Source: United Nations.

 

In response to the birthrate blues, some 55 countries, including China, France, Hungary, Iran, Italy, Japan, Poland, Russia, South Korea, Spain and Thailand, have adopted policies and established programs to raise fertility, which are aimed at addressing demographic decline and population aging.

Most countries with low fertility, including those with no official policies to raise fertility rates, have adopted pro-natalist policies and programs promoting childbearing and child rearing. Among governmental efforts aimed at incentivizing childbearing are paid parental leave with job security, flexible work hours, subsidized child care, tax credits, baby bonuses, cash incentives and child/family allowances.

The birthrate blues have also led some governments to advance a “birth-friendly culture”. In addition to promoting childbearing and steps aimed at reducing the costs of raising children, the birth-friendly culture includes government-organized matchmaking events, public information campaigns emphasizing marriage and family building, and programs encouraging couples to have more babies.

Various economic, social and personal factors are believed to contribute to low fertility rates, which often result in the birthrate blues. Those factors include urbanization, reduction in child labor, higher education, women’s employment, difficulties in finding a suitable marriage partner, reluctance to get married, female subordination and discrimination, lifestyle choices, changing gender norms, economic concerns, financial stress, modern contraceptives, delayed childbearing, employment hindrance, career penalty, lack of affordable childcare, high costs of child rearing as well as concerns about climate change and the environment.

Attempts to counter those influential factors with pro-natalist government policies and programs have largely been unsuccessful in raising fertility rates back to the replacement level. Consequently, many countries are suffering the birthrate blues as they confront demographic decline and population aging.

In 1950 zero percent of the world’s population resided in countries with below replacement fertility and the world’s fertility rate was close to five births per woman. By 2000, that proportion increased to 41 percent and the global fertility rate fell by nearly half to 2.7 births per woman. Today the proportion of the world’s population living in countries with below replacement fertility stands at 67 percent and the fertility rate for the world is 2.3 births per woman.

United Nations population projections assume that the proportion of the world’s population residing in countries with fertility below the replacement level will continue to increase over the coming decades. By the close of the 21st century, 85 percent of the world’s population is expected to be living in countries with fertility below the replacement level and the world’s fertility rate is projected to fall to 1.8 births per woman (Figure 4).

 

The Birthrate Blues - Increasing numbers of countries are experiencing a spreading demographic condition, below replacement fertility, with many governments bemoaning the birthrate blues.

Source: United Nations.

 

Also by the end of the 21st century, approximately 18 countries, representing 15 percent of the world’s population and located primarily in Africa, will maintain a fertility rate at or slightly above the replacement level. Among those countries are Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Niger, Somalia, Sudan and Tanzania.

With their current fertility rates ranging from four to six births per woman, those African countries are expected to continue experiencing rapid population growth throughout the 21st century. For example, the population of the Democratic Republic of the Congo currently at 102 million and with a fertility rate of 6.1 births per woman is expected to more than quadruple by 2100, increasing to 432 million.

Based on fertility trends observed over the recent past as well as population projection assumptions about fertility levels in the future, several conclusions are warranted.

First, since the middle of the 20th century below replacement fertility has spread across countries worldwide and ushered in the birthrate blues. An important result of that demographic trend is that the world’s total fertility rate fell from 4.9 births per woman in 1950 to 2.3 births per woman in 2022.

Second, below replacement fertility rates are expected to continue spreading across the globe throughout the 21st century with additional countries suffering the birthrate blues. As a result of its spreading, the total fertility rate for the world is expected to decline to the replacement level by 2060 and further decline to 1.8 births per woman by 2100.

Third, once a country’s fertility rate falls below the replacement level, it tends to remain there. Few countries have experienced a reversal of that dominant fertility decline pattern.

Finally, while governments and others may wish to continue with pro-natalist policies and programs, countries are not likely to succeed in their efforts to raise fertility rates back to or above the replacement level any time soon. Accordingly, countries experiencing sustained levels of below replacement fertility and bemoaning the birthrate blues would be prudent to recognize demographic realities and prepare for and adapt to demographic decline and population aging.

 

Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer and a former director of the United Nations Population Division. He is the author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, “Population Levels, Trends, and Differentials”.

 

 
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