World’s Population in Decline

Americans are having fewer babies, and they are not alone. The World Bank, which keeps birth statistics for every country, shows a decline pretty much across the entire world — some more drastic than others. The worldwide fertility rate is around 2.4 children per woman, roughly half the 1950 level (4.7). The number of births per thousand people in the U.S. has dropped since 1960. To put this into perspective, it would take an average of 2.1 babies per adult woman to maintain the current population, but today’s U.S. ‘fertility rate’ is only 1.7.

Comparatively, every European country has a fertility rate below 2.0 (France is the highest, at 1.9), and some demographers have called Italians ‘an endangered species,’ with a fertility rate down around 1.3. China’s fertility rate is hovering at around 1.7, while Singapore and Hong Kong are among the lowest, at 1.1. There are some exceptions to this trend — a number of African countries, including Somalia (6.1 children per woman) and Niger (6.9) still have rapidly growing populations.

The question becomes – is this trend beneficial or troubling? It is certainly beneficial because there will be fewer people consuming the planet’s resources, and one can easily project lower pollution levels if there are fewer people consuming energy and dropping plastic into the oceans.

However, the declining birthrate could force some to make some potentially complicated adjustments. For one thing, fewer babies now means there will be fewer workers to contribute to the economy in the future. People are also living longer, which means the population balance will shift toward older people. If the ratio of workers to retirees were to shift too far, there would be major changes in consumption. For instance, healthcare would consume a much higher percentage of the total GDP, and services for the elderly would become a major employer of younger workers.

The most basic shift is a decline in total GDP as increases in total production and consumption have historically come from population increases. The U.S., and many other countries, are moving into uncharted territory, and few policymakers seem to be making preparations.