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Declining Birth Rates – What Does It Mean For Us?

Recent figures revealed that women now have on average 2.4 children in their lifetime. Undoubtedly, in some countries, this number is far higher, but in more than half of the countries around the globe it has fallen to below two. This decline in population growth has been extensively met with alarm, pleading risk of a depopulation disaster. But what does exactly a world “depopulated” mean, and how does it affect us?

The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) measures the average number of children per woman. This rate is constantly changing due to numerous factors, and declines in total fertility rate have been previously observed. For example, when there is high mortality at a young age, population growth decreases. As health systems improve, population growth starts to increase again, but this rapid population growth can come to an end as the fertility rate declines and approaches 2 children per woman. Economic development within the country is an important factor of declining fertility rates. Other drivers for such declines include education –especially women’s education, with girls staying at school delaying its childbearing–, increasing well-being and status of children, technological development and changing norms.

Low fertility is a tendency that has been observed in many developed countries in the last years. At present, Western Europe has the lowest total fertility rate at 1.6 children per woman on average. But declining fertility rates are not unique to Europe: in Asia, low fertility rates are common in East and Southeast, and the United Nations predicts that many Asian countries will face future falling populations. Interesting fact is that according to some studies, countries defeated in World War II tend to have low fertility rates while the victors do not. So for example, these rates are observed to be lower in countries like Italy, Germany, Japan or Spain, whereas the United States, the United Kingdom and France have maintained relatively high total fertility rates in recent years.

Source: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation 2017

In light of these low rates around the globe, a sense of alarm has spread among countries where total fertility rates have dropped below the figure of 2.1 – the so-called replacement level. A common point of cynicism about low fertility is that this population decline could erode the geopolitical power of countries and regions as a whole. The lack of people to work in the military arenas, as well as the absence of a workforce to economically sustain society has been regarded as the main consequences that will arise in some years. Many fear that low fertility will bring shortages of workers and carers for the elderly.

But low fertility does not mean chaos. Developments in technology and Artificial Intelligence, along with migration and a healthier old age, means for countries that they no longer need booming populations to maintain themselves and grow. “This idea that you need lots and lots of people to defend your country and to grow your country economically, that is really old thinking,” Sarah Harper, an expert on population change working at the University of Oxford, said.

In fact, the labour market we now know may drastically change in the following years. Experts have pointed out that AI and robotics mean work will be moving away from industrial jobs. With the implementation of automated vehicles and machines, many jobs will be replaced and, thus, we will no longer need a human workforce to take care of many tasks. This brings the need to educate the young workforce, instead of boosting procreation. In addition, declining rates leave us with an ageing society that has to be reconsidered; technology to support dependents, as well as the fact that currently ageing population stay in good health for longer, brings the opportunity to enable older adults to be part of the labour market for longer.

Countries that have to deal with very large numbers of dependants can put fewer resources into driving the economy and society as a whole. No need to mention that, from an environmental point of view, having fewer children is undoubtedly positive; recent research found that having one fewer child reduces a parent’s carbon footprint by 58 tonnes of CO2 a year.

Development and Fertility Rates: First Falling, Then Rising

As explained, it has been observed how as countries develop, fertility rates decline rapidly. But several studies found an interesting fact: when a country first starts to develop, its fertility rate tends to decrease. However, at very high levels of development, the association is reversed – fertility rates start to increase. After a given point, higher development is associated with increased fertility.

These findings may have important consequences, but undoubtedly women are of key importance to how fertility rates change over time.

“In those societies that enable women to stay in the labour market and have children, they will go from none or one child probably up to two [per woman]. In rich societies the wealthy might opt for more”, Sarah Harper affirmed.

Nevertheless, concerns about low fertility rates are still very strong. Some countries have embraced different incentives hoping to encourage procreation, from advertisements to monetary expenditures for the cause. But maybe what we need is not to boost natality. We must not let ourselves be blinded by fear. 25 years ago we were terrified that the population would surpass the 24bn. Today, estimates predict that we will reach between 10bn and 12bn by the end of the century. We may not need more babies, but what we could really use is a redesign in our workforce system and labour market.


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