All over the world, countries are confronting population stagnation and a fertility bust, a dizzying reversal unmatched in recorded history that will make first-birthday parties a rarer sight than funerals, and empty homes a common eyesore.
Maternity wards are already shutting down in Italy. Ghost cities are appearing in northeastern China. Universities in South Korea cannot find enough students, and in Germany, hundreds of thousands of properties have been razed, with the land turned into parks.
Like an avalanche, the demographic forces — pushing toward more deaths than births — seem to be expanding and accelerating. Although some countries continue to see their populations grow, especially in Africa, fertility rates are falling nearly everywhere else. Demographers now predict that by the latter half of the century or possibly earlier, the global population will enter a sustained decline for the first time.
A planet with fewer people could ease pressure on resources, slow the destructive impact of climate change and reduce household burdens for women. But the census announcements this month from China and the United States, which showed the slowest rates of population growth in decades for both countries, also point to hard-to-fathom adjustments.
The strain of longer lives and low fertility, leading to fewer workers and more retirees, threatens to upend how societies are organised — around the notion that a surplus of young people will drive economies and help pay for the old. It may also require a reconceptualization of family and nation. Imagine entire regions where everyone is 70 or older. Imagine governments laying out huge bonuses for immigrants and mothers with lots of children. Imagine a gig economy filled with grandparents and Super Bowl ads promoting procreation. “A paradigm shift is necessary,” said Frank Swiaczny, a German demographer who was the chief of population trends and analysis for the United Nations until last year. “Countries need to learn to live with and adapt to decline.”
The ramifications and responses have already begun to appear, especially in East Asia and Europe. From Hungary to China, from Sweden to Japan, governments are struggling to balance the demands of a swelling older cohort with the needs of young people whose most intimate decisions about childbearing are being shaped by factors both positive (more work opportunities for women) and negative (gender inequality and high living costs).
The 20th century presented a very different challenge. The global population saw its greatest increase in known history, from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000, as lifespans lengthened and infant mortality declined. In some countries — representing about one-third of the world’s people — those growth dynamics are still in play. By the end of the century, Nigeria could surpass China in population; across sub-Saharan Africa, families are still having four or five children.
But nearly everywhere else, the era of high fertility is ending. As women have gained more access to education and contraception and as the anxieties associated with having children intensify, more parents are delaying pregnancy, and fewer babies are being born. Even in countries long associated with rapid growth, such as India and Mexico, birth rates are falling toward or are already below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per family.
The change may take decades, but once it starts, decline (just like growth) spirals exponentially. With fewer births, fewer girls grow up to have children, and if they have smaller families than their parents did — which is happening in dozens of countries — the drop starts to look like a rock thrown off a cliff.
“It becomes a cyclical mechanism,” said Stuart Gietel Basten, an expert on Asian demographics and a professor of social science and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “It’s demographic momentum.”
‘Demographic time bomb’
Some countries, like the United States, Australia and Canada, where birth rates hover between 1.5 and 2, have blunted the impact with immigrants. But in Eastern Europe, migration from the region has compounded depopulation, and in parts of Asia, the “demographic time bomb” that first became a subject of debate a few decades ago has finally gone off.
South Korea’s fertility rate dropped to a record low of 0.92 in 2019 — less than one child per woman, the lowest rate in the developed world. Every month for the past 59 months, the total number of babies born in the country has dropped to a record depth. That declining birth rate, coupled with a rapid industrialisation that has pushed people from rural towns to big cities, has created what can feel like a two-tiered society. While major metropolises like Seoul continue to grow, putting intense pressure on infrastructure and housing, in regional towns it is easy to find schools shut and abandoned, their playgrounds overgrown with weeds, because there are not enough children.
Expectant mothers in many areas can no longer find obstetricians or postnatal care centres. Universities below the elite level, especially outside Seoul, find it increasingly hard to fill their ranks; the number of 18-year-olds in South Korea has fallen from about 900,000 in 1992 to 500,000 today. To attract students, some schools have even offered iPhones.
To goose the birth rate, the government has handed out baby bonuses. It increased child allowances and medical subsidies for fertility treatments and pregnancy. Health officials have showered newborns with gifts of beef, baby clothes and toys. The government is also building kindergartens and day care centers by the hundreds. In Seoul, every bus and subway car has pink seats reserved for pregnant women.
But this month, Deputy Prime Minister Hong Nam-ki acknowledged that the government — which has spent more than $178 billion over the past 15 years encouraging women to have more babies — was not making enough progress. In many families, the shift feels cultural and permanent.