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Global Fertility Decline

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Sustained falls in fertility during relatively peaceful times first occurred in late eighteenth-century Europe. Prior to this, fertility decline had always been linked to war, famine, disease and disaster. During the interwar period (1918–1939), Europe again was the first to experience, in some countries, non-catastrophic sub-replacement fertility, leading to eventual population stabilisation and then decline. However, the post-Second World War ‘Baby Boom’ halted this trend. Nevertheless, in recent decades, fertility has again been declining, but not just in Europe. Affecting nearly all of the MEDCs, it is now also evident in many LEDCs. This article examines the spatial pattern of fertility decline, its causes and the potential consequences.

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small globe iconIntroduction

Fertility began to decline in many countries in the 1960s, and from the 1980s an increasing number of European nations, and some Asian countries, achieved a very low fertility rate indeed (below 1.5 per woman). Global fertility has dropped by half since 1972, from an average of nearly six children per woman to 2.8 today. According to demographers, the rate is still declining. The world’s population, currently 6.4 billion, will continue to grow to about 9 billion in 2050 because a large percentage of the population in LEDCs are of, or will reach, childbearing age over the next two decades. This is a phenomenon known as population momentum. However, after 2050 the world population will go into a considerable decline. By then, most of the world will have a total fertility rate of less than two children per woman (Figures 1 and 2). Already, some regions are suffering from depopulation as a result of falling fertility (Figure 3). According to UN estimates:

  • Germany could see its population drop by almost twenty per cent over the next 40 years.
  • Japan could lose a quarter of its 127 million population over the same time period.
  • In Russia, President Putin has referred to the country’s natural decrease as a ‘national crisis’.

small globe iconThe global spread of sub-replacement fertility

A total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1 children per woman is the replacement level fertility below which populations eventually start falling. The average woman needs to have two children to replace her and the father. The extra 0.1 (of the 2.1) is for girls who die before reaching reproductive age. However, Europe’s total fertility rate is only 1.4, well below replacement level. In fact, nearly all the MEDCs of the world—North America, Japan, Australia, New Zealand—as well as the East Asian NICs of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, are in the sub-replacement fertility category as well. Israel, with a TFR of 2.9, is the exception, but the USA and New Zealand are only just below replacement level (both have a TFR of 2.0). It seems that much of the developed world is in what Ron Lesthaege and Dirk van de Kaa have called ‘the second demographic transition’. This is the change to smaller family sizes and less stable family unions.

Figure 4 shows how crude birth rate, crude death rate, rate of natural change and the total fertility rate vary by world region. At this scale, the range is from Africa’s 5.1 to Europe’s 1.4. However, continental averages can mask considerable variations within continents.

Figure 4. Table showing birth rate, death rate, rate of natural increase and TFR by world region.

Figure 5 shows significant regional variation within Africa, while Figure 6 shows variation within Europe.

Figure 5. Table showing regional birth and fertility rates in Africa.

Figure 6. Table showing regional birth and fertility rates in Europe.

In Europe, northern and western Europe have significantly higher fertility rates than eastern and southern Europe, and Figure 7 identifies a number of individual countries illustrating the full range of global fertility. The highest TFR in the world is eight in the West African country of Niger. The crude birth rate in Niger is 55/1000.

In 2001, the crude birth rate for the UK was 11.4/1000, the lowest ever recorded. This resulted in 669,000 births during that year, 38 per cent fewer than 100 years earlier. The particularly low number of births in recent years is due to two factors:

  • Lower fertility rates.
  • Fewer women entering their peak reproductive years than in previous decades, a result of the smaller numbers of women born in the 1970s.

The total fertility rate in 2001 was 1.63, down from 1.81 in 1991.

However, sub-replacement fertility is no longer confined to the developed world. According to the US Census Bureau, around half of the world’s population live in sub-replacement countries. This includes:

  • All of East Asia, apart from Mongolia.
  • Thailand and Burma in southeast Asia.
  • Kazakhstan and Sri Lanka in south-central Asia.
  • Many Caribbean countries.
  • Most South American countries.

Perhaps the greatest surprise (as traditional religious attitudes are usually seen as a barrier against low fertility) is the onset of sub-replacement fertility in the Islamic world (Figure 8). Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Iran and Turkey are all now in this category. In Iran, the fall in fertility has been remarkably rapid. Between 1986 and 2000 the country’s TFR fell from over six to just over two. It is now under 1.9. China’s TFR has declined from 5.8 in 1970 to 1.8 today.

According to B. Wattenberg, author of Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape our Future, ‘Never in the last 650 years, since the time of the Black Plague, have birth and fertility rates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long, in so many places’. Reiner Klingholz, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, predicts that ‘parts of Eastern Europe, already sparsely populated, will just empty out’. Figure 9 shows how global fertility rates have already converged and how this trend will become even more pronounced over the next half century.

Figure 1. World map showing projected total fertility rate by 2050.
Figure 1.
World map showing projected total fertility rate by 2050.
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Figure 2. Graph showing projected total fertility rate decline 2000–2050.
Figure 2.
Graph showing projected total fertility rate decline 2000–2050.
Click here to enlarge.


Figure 3. A deserted village on the Greek island of Lemnos, the result of depopulation.
Figure 3.
A deserted village on the Greek island of Lemnos, the result of depopulation.
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Figure 7. Bar graph showing TFR in a selection of eight countries.
Figure 7.
Bar graph showing TFR in a selection of eight countries.
Source: 2004 World Population Data Sheet
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Figure 8. A school in Morocco, where 31 per cent of the population is under 15.
Figure 8.
A school in Morocco, where 31 per cent of the population is under 15.
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Figure 9. Graph showing converging fertility rate of MEDCs, LEDCs and least-developed countries.
Figure 9.
Graph showing converging fertility rate of MEDCs, LEDCs and least-developed countries.
Click here to enlarge.
 
 
 


 
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