It seems that every few days new word arrives of birth rates declining around the world. The latest comes from Finland, where officials announced in late January that the national fertility rate had dropped to 1.4 children per woman — that’s more than half a baby short of the 2.1 babies per woman required for a society’s population to remain stable.
This was the eighth straight year that the fertility rate declined in Finland, despite the government’s efforts to reverse the trend; like many Nordic countries, Finland boasts extensive social programs to support parents. The reason for the drop may be something called the low fertility trap.
In poorer, largely rural societies, women face enormous pressure to marry early and to have children. The reasons vary: the men in their lives expect it of them; their kin expect it of them; religious leaders say God expects it of them; and often, the state expects it of them, because it needs men for the military.
However, almost everywhere in the world, people are moving from the countryside to urban areas. Fifty-five percent of humans now live in cities. Urbanization, it seems, is a powerful form of birth control.
Why? In the countryside, children can be assets — every child another pair of hands to work in the field — but in cities, they are more mouths to feed. Even more important, women who live in cities become better educated because of access to schools, media and other women. As women become better educated, they demand to have greater control over their lives and bodies. And, for most women, that means having fewer children.
At a certain point, society gets used to this. Getting married later becomes the norm. Having the first child later becomes the norm. Having only one or two children becomes the norm.
And something subtle but even more profound happens: the reason for having children changes. Couples no longer have children out of duty to the family, to God or to the state. People have children because they want to have children, because having a child fulfills their relationship and their sense of self. As it turns out, people having children for this reason are quickly fulfilled — why have more? — and the low fertility trap is sprung.
It’s no surprise that birth rates in developed countries have long been below replacement rate and that immigration is the only source of population growth. In fact, almost two dozen countries around the world are losing population already.
The surprising news is that fertility rates are cratering in many developing countries as well. India and Bangladesh are at replacement rate. Latin American and Caribbean countries are, collectively, below replacement rate. China is well below it.
Africa remains a predominantly rural and poor continent with higher fertility rates than elsewhere in the world. Nonetheless, the continent is urbanizing at twice the global average, and education levels for women are steadily rising. Change is likely to come to Africa, too — not everywhere all at once, but more places than not, more often than not.
All of this means that the global population is unlikely to reach the United Nations’ prediction of 11.2 billion people by 2100. Instead, it could top out at the UN projection of nine billion by mid-century, and then start to go down.
Global population decline would be nothing but great news for the environment, helping to ease the strain on land, air and water, and contributing to efforts to limit the impact of global warming.
Economically, however, with the fertility rate stalled or falling, societies could struggle to meet the demands of a large, aging population in which there are fewer young people available to provide the support needed to sustain them.
The geopolitical impact of the low fertility trap could also be huge. China, whose population is in decline, will struggle to contain the discontents of its overworked and overtaxed young, and the increasingly impoverished elderly. India, which is flourishing with its large cohort of young workers, will see population pressures ease as fertility rates come down. In such a world order, the United States could continue to dominate, provided it does not undermine its greatest demographic advantage by closing the door to immigration.
There is also the hope of “geriatric peace,” a world of declining populations with too many old people and too few young for anyone to have the time or inclination to make war.
We can’t know for sure what population will look like in 2050, or in 2100. Nonetheless, population decline is not some far-off theoretical projection. It is happening right now, because of the changes and choices we are making in our lives: when to settle down, get married, have kids.
These changes are voluntary and individual. But as they spread from north to south, they are reshaping the world.