There has been a remarkable global decline in the number of children women are having, researchers say. According to their studies, the fertility rate falls meaning that nearly half of countries were now facing a baby bust – insufficient children to maintain their population size.

The researchers said the findings were a huge surprise. And according to the BBC, there would be profound consequences for societies with more grandparents than grandchildren.

The study, published in the Lancet, followed trends in every country from 1950 to 2017, and recorded that in 1950, women were having an average of 4.7 children in their lifetime. The fertility rate almost halved to 2.4 children per woman by last year.

And an even more delicate problem is that there are huge variations between nations. For example, the fertility rate in Niger, west Africa, is 7.1, but in the Mediterranean island of Cyprus women are only having one child, on average. In Romania, the fertility rate is also extremely low, at 1.58 children for every woman.

How long until some nations are gone?

Whenever a country’s average fertility rate drops below approximately 2.1, then populations will eventually start to shrink. Back in 1950 there were no nations in this position.

”We’ve reached this watershed where half of countries have fertility rates below the replacement level, so if nothing happens the populations will decline in those countries. It’s a remarkable transition and it’s a surprise even to people like myself, the idea that it’s half the countries in the world will be a huge surprise to people,” said for BBC Christopher Murray, the director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

More economically developed countries, including most of Europe, the US, South Korea and Australia have lower fertility rates, but this does not mean the number of people living in these countries is falling, at least not yet as the size of a population is a mix of the fertility rate, death rate and migration.

Half the world’s nations are still producing enough children to grow, but as more countries advance economically, more will have lower fertility rates.

Why is the fertility rate dropping mostly in economically developed countries?  Paradoxically maybe, because of the good living conditions:

  • Fewer deaths in childhood meaning women have fewer babies,
  • Greater access to contraception,
  • More women in education and work.

What will the impact be?

Without migration, countries will face aging and shrinking populations. According to George Leeson, director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, that does not have to be a bad thing, as long as the whole of society adjusts to the massive demographic change.

”Demography impacts on every single aspect of our lives, just look out of your window at the people on the streets, the houses, the traffic, the consumption, it is all driven by demography,” said George Leeson for the BBC.

“Everything we plan is not just driven by the numbers in the population, but also the age structure and that is changing as well, so fundamentally we haven’t got our heads around it,” he added.

The report, part of the Global Burden of Diseases analysis, says affected countries will need to consider increasing immigration, which can create its own problems, or introducing policies to encourage women to have more children, which often fail.

”I think Japan is very aware of this, they’re facing declining populations, but I don’t think it’s hit many countries in the West, because low fertility has been compensated with migration. But at a global level there is no migration solution,” explains Christopher Murray.

What about China?

China has seen huge population growth since 1950, of almost one billion people going from around half a billion inhabitants to 1.4 billion.

But it is also facing the challenge of fertility rates, which stood at only 1.5 in 2017, and has recently moved away from its famous one child policy.

More importantly, in China, the report shows that for every 100 girls born there were 117 boys, which ”implies very substantial sex-selective abortion and even the possibility of female infanticide”.

And that means even more children need to be born to have stable population.

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