According to a number of reports by organizations such as the United Nations and Worldbank, declining fertility is a growing trend for humanity throughout the world.
Declining fertility refers to the trend of producing fewer children than are needed to sustain the overall population of a country without help of immigration. Considering rates of early mortality, the current estimate of births needed to maintain a stable population is 2.1 per woman.
Traditionally, the birth rates haver been much higher than this at an average of up to six births per woman in some african countries. This, combined with advances that have led to an increase in expected lifespan, has contributed to significant widespread population growth, particularly during the past century. For example, the global human population has increased from approximately 1.6 billion to 7.1 billion since 1900. I remember times when I was a kid how most people believed that world’s population would continue growing until it ends in mass starvation by the end of the 20th century. I still sometimes have these anxieties, even if they now seem to be irrational.
Despite this, the trend seems to be reversing itself as increasing numbers of countries are experiencing declining fertility and birth rates at sub-replacement level. The world fertility rate has been cut in half over the past fifty year to 2.5 births per woman. I personally feel relieved because of that.
According to United Nations research, 101 countries had birth rates over 6 per woman in 1950. Currently, only 12 have this rate. Further, over half of the countries in the world are experiencing fertility rates below replacement level including the majority of Europe and most developed countries in North America and Asia.
There are a number of things that are contributing to this trend. According to research from the East West Center, the major causes of decreased birth rates include increases in women’s educational levels and employment rates which result in many people putting off childbirth until later in life. Until it gets too late for some.
If these trends continue, it is likely that the world’s population will stabilize and potentially begin to decrease sometime in the future. For many developed nations, this might cause economic concerns.
Specifically, the main problem on that horizon is a fear that there will be a lack of people in order to maintain the workforce. This could substantially reduce the economic output and competitiveness of nations. Honestly, to me some slowing-down on the international scale sounds just fine.
As a result, many countries with sub-replacement fertility have enacted policies aimed at increasing fertility (Sweeden, Germany, USA, several asian countries); however, these policies have largely been ineffective in reversing the trend, leading experts to think that declining fertility in the world is here to stay.
While sub-replacement fertility certainly has economic concerns, it may actually prove an important trend for the future of humanity. It is well known that people are utilizing resources at rates that are well above sustainability. In fact, a World Wildlife Foundation report revealed that people are currently using resources at a rate that will require one and a half planets for long-term sustainability, which is obviously beyond the scope of reality. Even worse, I was schocked to read that an Organization like MMF considers up to a half of global Wildlife already lost. Rich countries use up to five times the ecological resources of the poor ones, but are not those who are suffering the greatest ecosystem losses. So instead od worrying about human fertility rates, WWF turns to other species and recommends the following actions:
1. That countries accelerate shift to smarter food and energy production
2. People to reduce ecological footprint through responsible consumption at all levels
I personally hope that a worldwide decline in population due to sub-replacement fertility rates would actually serve as a benefit as it would improve the likelihood of long-term survival for humanity and perhaps postpone or completely divert coming crises in food and energy shortages, who knows?