Science

Falling fertility rates highlighted in new study could cause global crisis

Source: Daniel Reche (via Pexels)

By Rowenna Hoskin

Global fertility rates are in decline and it is predicted that by the end of the century, the populations of more than 23 nations – including Spain, Japan, and Portugal – will have halved. This will leave nations with an aging demographic population, meaning that the elderly will outnumber the children being born.

The fertility rate of a country refers to the average number of children a woman gives birth to, with a value of 2.1 being required for a constant population. Researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation showed the global fertility rate halved to 2.4 in 2017 – and their study, published in the Lancet, projects this number to fall below 1.7 by 2100, resulting in a decreasing population.

With this low fertility rate, it is predicted that the global population will peak at 9.7 billion around 2064, and then drop down to 8.8 billion by the end of the century.

Reflecting on these results Professor Christopher Murray, Professor of Global Health at the University of Washington, told the BBC: “That’s a pretty big thing; most of the world is transitioning into natural population decline. We’ll have to reorganise societies.”

Surprisingly, the reason for this fall in fertility is irrespective of global infertility or sperm counts. Instead, it is driven by the increased number of women being educated and working, as well as greater access to contraceptives. Given the choice, women are now choosing to start a family later in life, or in some cases, not at all.

Feminist and environmentalist, Professor Molly Scott Cato from Roehampton University told Channel 4 News that she sees these findings as “good news”: “as women become more empowered, they choose to have smaller families and that will obviously put less pressure on planetary resources.”

Although it is undeniable that a reduced human population would be beneficial to the environment, it will mean a significant change in the way that societies function. Low birth rates will mean that the elderly population outnumbers the workforce creating a dramatic aging population. It raises issues including who pays tax in a massively aged world? Who pays for healthcare for the elderly? Who looks after the elderly? Will retirement remain an option?

Every country on the planet will be affected, but some more than others. Japan’s population is projected to crash from a peak of 128 million in 2017 to less than 53 million by the end of the century. Italy is expected to see an equally dramatic population decline from 61 million to 28 million in the same time frame.

China is one of the world’s most populous nations in the world and is expected to peak at 1.4 billion in 2024 before nearly halving to 732 million by 2100. “In China, the working-age population has already begun to decline. The state council is very aware of this and they’re aware of the economic threat it poses. But fertility is very low there and there’s no sign that it’ll come back,” says Professor Murray.

The population of sub-Saharan Africa is expected to treble in size to more than three billion people by 2100. Nations with larger working-age populations are predicted to be the stronger nations, meaning that Nigeria will be a global superpower. The study predicts that Nigeria will be the world’s second-biggest country, with a population of 791 million.

Dropping fertility rates is not only a global problem, but the UK will also see some pretty dramatic changes. The UK is predicted to peak at 75 million in 2063 and fall to 71 million by 2100, a much smaller population crash than those of other countries. Professor Scott Cato warns that although the population size does not decrease that dramatically, the age demographic will be severely inverted. With an increasingly aging population, Britain will suffer from the consequences of having a reduced workforce.

There are two main strategies that can be put in place to mitigate the fallout caused by decreasing fertility rates. One is to encourage women to have more children through policies such as enhanced maternity and paternity leave, free childcare, financial incentives, and extra employment rights. This has the potential to increase the fertility rate by 0.2 and Sweden has managed to use these strategies to increase their rate from 1.7 to 1.9. Other countries, such as Singapore, have shown no change despite implementing similar techniques.

The second strategy proposed by experts is migration. This would boost the working population and reduce the difference between the demographics. With a larger workforce, there will be more people paying taxes and more people having children and thus, contributing to the future workforce.

“We need to [see] people who are prepared to come and be a part of our society as a benefit rather than having this idea of very hard borders and all migrants being a threat,” says Professor Scott Cato. She adds that globally, “we have to learn to share resources fairly across countries” in order to survive.

Professor Murray agrees with the necessity of migration, saying “we will go from the period where it’s a choice to open borders, or not, to frank competition for migrants, as there won’t be enough. Those societies that don’t embrace migration will go into a quite profound decline” and will inexorably suffer the consequences he explained.

It is also not possible to counteract the decreased workforce by increasing the age of retirement. This idea was described by Murray as a short-term fix.

Researchers warn against undoing the progress of women’s education and access to contraception. Professor Stein Emil Vollset said: “Responding to population decline is likely to become an overriding policy concern in many nations but must not compromise efforts to enhance women’s reproductive health or progress on women’s rights.”

With very few options available to mitigate this impending crisis, it is more important than ever before to work together. A global solution involving promoting migration may be the only way to survive this decline. Female education and the right to work are important pillars of society and must not be sacrificed in an attempt to increase the fertility rate. It is unclear how governments plan to proceed but, as shown by the study, the global fertility rate is a value that will only continue to decline dramatically in the years to come. This issue must be addressed imminently in order to have any chance of survival.

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