Global fertility rates to plunge in decades ahead, new report says

A recent study forecasts a continued decline in global fertility rates, a trend observed in all countries since 1950, with far-reaching demographic implications.

Fertility rate, representing the average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime, has steadily decreased from 4.84 in 1950 to 2.23 in 2021. According to the latest analysis, based on the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study 2021 led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, this rate is projected to further diminish to 1.59 by the year 2100. The findings, published in the Lancet, indicate a significant societal shift towards smaller families, a phenomenon unprecedented in human history, noted Dr. Jennifer D. Sciubba, a demographer and author.

Dr. Christopher Murray, senior author of the study, attributes this trend to various factors, including increased educational and employment opportunities for women, as well as improved access to contraception and reproductive health services.

Dr. Gitau Mburu, from the World Health Organization, suggests economic considerations, evolving perceptions of child-rearing costs and risks, and changing attitudes towards gender equality and personal fulfillment also contribute to declining fertility rates.

Maintaining population stability requires a fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman, termed the replacement level. However, the analysis reveals that 46% of countries had rates below this threshold in 2021, a figure projected to rise to 97% by 2100, leading to population declines across nearly all nations.

Prior projections by IHME and the UN World Population Prospects suggest a peak in global population, followed by a decline in the latter half of the century, with significant implications for geopolitics, economics, and society at large.

‘Demographically divided world’

While fertility rates are decreasing worldwide, their decline is not uniform, resulting in a significant redistribution of live births across the globe, as indicated by the analysis.

The study foresees a substantial increase in the proportion of live births occurring in low-income regions, nearly doubling from 18% in 2021 to 35% by 2100. By the end of the century, Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to contribute to half of the world’s total live births.

This redistribution of live births will lead to what the analysis describes as a “demographically divided world.” High-income countries will grapple with the challenges of an aging population and shrinking workforce, while low-income regions will continue to experience high birth rates, straining already limited resources.

Dr. Teresa Castro Martín, a professor at the Institute of Economics, Geography, and Demography of the Spanish National Research Council, noted in a statement from the Science Media Centre that the study underscores the demographic contrast between wealthy nations, with very low fertility rates, and poorer nations, where fertility rates remain high. She emphasized that globally, births will increasingly concentrate in regions most vulnerable to climate change, resource scarcity, political instability, poverty, and infant mortality.

Low fertility in high-income countries

In high-income countries with declining fertility rates, there will be a notable transition towards an aging population, leading to strains on national health insurance, social security programs, and healthcare infrastructure, according to the study.

Additionally, labor shortages are anticipated as a consequence. The researchers propose that implementing ethical and effective policies, such as encouraging immigration and embracing labor innovations like advancements in artificial intelligence, could help alleviate some of the economic impacts associated with this demographic shift.

The study also examines the effectiveness of pro-natal policies, such as child care subsidies, extended parental leave, and tax incentives, that some countries have adopted. However, the projections indicate that these policies are associated with only a modest increase of no more than 0.2 additional live births per female. This suggests that while supportive policies for parents may have societal benefits for other reasons, they are unlikely to significantly alter the trajectory of the current demographic trends.

Dr. Christopher Murray, one of the researchers, emphasizes that although policies supporting parents may have societal benefits, they are unlikely to reverse the current demographic shift. He cautions against using low fertility rates as a justification for coercive measures aimed at increasing birth rates, such as limiting reproductive rights or restricting access to contraceptives.

While a shrinking population presents economic and societal challenges, it also carries environmental benefits, notes Dr. Gitau Mburu. A smaller global population could alleviate pressure on global resources and reduce carbon emissions. However, the study warns that increased consumption per capita due to economic development could offset these environmental gains.

More births in low-income countries

Conversely, the surge in live births expected in low-income countries poses significant challenges to the availability of essential resources such as food, water, and others, exacerbating the already daunting task of improving child mortality rates. The analysis further anticipates potential political instability and security concerns in these vulnerable regions.

According to the predictions, enhancing access to modern contraceptives and promoting female education—two pivotal factors influencing fertility rates—would effectively reduce fertility rates and constrain the rise in live births in low-income regions.

For instance, in sub-Saharan Africa, achieving universal female education or widespread access to contraceptives by 2030 would lead to a total fertility rate of approximately 2.3 by 2050, in contrast to 2.7 under the current scenario, as outlined in the study.

Furthermore, these advancements would contribute significantly to women’s empowerment, yielding substantial societal benefits, the study concludes.

Alternative scenarios for the future

“The primary challenge lies in our inability to adapt,” remarked Sciubba. “How do we adjust to our current circumstances? I believe this is where innovation and political determination are sorely lacking.”

Sciubba delineated three alternative approaches that society could adopt to accommodate a shrinking and aging global population.

Firstly, there’s the status quo scenario, where we continue with business as usual, maintaining economic policies reliant on ongoing population growth and perhaps introducing a few pro-natal policies that yield minimal impact, she explained. However, this approach fails to address the economic and societal challenges outlined in the study.

Secondly, there’s the fearful scenario, characterized by fear-mongering and alarmism, resulting in the coercion of women into having more children.

Lastly, there’s the resilient scenario, where we acknowledge that altering the number of children people have may not be feasible but instead focus on adapting our systems to this new reality, she added.

Sciubba emphasized the importance of studies like this one, which model and forecast global demographic shifts, as they can guide proactive planning for a resilient future. However, she cautioned against placing undue reliance on projections, advising instead to focus on overarching trends rather than specific details.

“The most valuable approach is to step back and acknowledge that a shift is undeniably underway,” she stated. “So, what steps do we take next?”