Researchers are decrying collapsing birth rates around the world, which they warn will result in profound social change if governments don’t roll out new reproductive health policies. Spain, Japan, Portugal and Thailand are among the 23 countries that could see their populations more than half in a “jaw-dropping” trend.
While the global population is expected to peak at about 9.7 billion around 2064, the population will fall to 8.8 by the end of the 21st century.
“That’s a pretty big thing; most of the world is transitioning into natural population decline,” Professor Christopher Murray told BBC News.
“I think it’s incredibly hard to think this through and recognize how big a thing this is; it’s extraordinary, we’ll have to reorganize societies,” he added.
According to a new study by researchers from the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and published in peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet, fertility rates are presently in freefall – and the rate is expected to fall even faster in coming decades.
Fertility rates, or the average number of children women give birth to, are a key indicator for population stability. When the number falls below an average of 2.1, populations start to shrink.
And while women gave birth to an average of 4.7 children in 1950, the birth rate has nearly halved to 2.4 in 2017. However, by 2100 it is expected to fall under to under 1.7.
“That is jaw-dropping,” Murray remarked about the projections.
China, which is currently the most populous nation in the world, is expected to peak at 1.4 people in four years before sharply dropping off to 732 million by 2100. India, in the meantime, will rise to become the most populous nation.
In Japan, population could drop from a peak of 128 million in 2017 to under 53 million by the end of the century.
Italy, too, will face a sharp fall from 61 million to 28 million.
And while some might assume that a smaller population might be better for the environment, the societal impact of collapsing birth rates will offset any imagined benefits of a smaller human footprint in the world.
“That would be true except for the inverted age structure (more old people than young people) and all the uniformly negative consequences of an inverted age structure,” Murray said.
“It will create enormous social change,” he added. “It makes me worried because I have an eight-year-old daughter and I wonder what the world will be like.”
Indeed, with a shrinking population governments will face mounting healthcare costs and a decreased ability to care for the elderly, sharper pressures to not retire, and a shrinking tax revenue base for cash-strapped governments.
Japan, for example, has long struggled to remain competitive as its workforce continues to decline and spending on senior citizens has risen. As a result, the government has raised the retirement age from 60 to anywhere between 65 and 71 as the shrinking population rapidly ages.
According to researchers, one reason why fertility has declined and population growth has slowed is because women are getting better reproductive health education and increased access to contraceptives.
“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,” said Professor Stein Emil Vollset.
Researchers recommend that countries facing a decline should roll out new policies that both improve female reproductive health and also help boost fertility rates.
“We need a soft landing,” Murray said.
And while countries in the developed Global North have offset their falling population number and shrinking labor pool by relying on immigrants from the South, this fails to provide a solution when most countries’ fertility rates are dropping.
“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,” argues Prof Murray.
As a result, we could see a future where borders begin to fade away as wage-earners and laborers become increasingly scarce.
“If these predictions are even half accurate, migration will become a necessity for all nations and not an option,” said Professor Ibrahim Abubakar of University College London (UCL).
“To be successful we need a fundamental rethink of global politics,” he added.
“The distribution of working-age populations will be crucial to whether humanity prospers or withers.”
It’s also a mistake to assume that a shrunken population size will somehow mean more material prosperity for the rest of us – and a new approach is needed if we are to save ourselves from disappearing.
“I find people laugh it off; they can’t imagine it could be true, they think women will just decide to have more kids,” Murray said.
“If you can’t [find a solution] then eventually the species disappears, but that’s a few centuries away.”