It may seem confusing that fears of an ‘underpopulation crisis’ are rising when the world’s population has more than doubled in just 50 years, and the global fertility rate remains above the so-called ‘replacement-level’ of 2.1 births per woman.
But with an estimated two thirds of the world population now living in a country or area with sub-replacement fertility, alongside the increasing number of States confronted by lower fertility numbers, anxieties surrounding 'underpopulation' are increasingly common.
Some have begun to sound the alarm.
They warn that if this continues, whole countries or even the human population itself could ‘collapse.’
Some claim that low birth rates in certain countries constitute a threat to ‘national security’.
Others warn that ageing societies represent a caretaking burden on society which will soon become unmanageable.
What are the facts?
Today, the only region of the world expected to experience an overall population decrease in the immediate term (between 2022 and 2050) is Europe, where a minus 7 per cent growth is expected. Other regions’ populations – in Central, South and Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and North America – are projected to continue growing, but to reach their peak sizes before 2100.
Below-zero growth fertility rates have existed in many parts of the world since the 1970s, without an attendant decline in population totals. This is because many of these countries typically experience net immigration.
In fact over the next few decades, migration is predicted to become the sole driver of population growth in high-income countries.
Worldwide, fertility has fallen from an average of 5 births per woman in 1950 to 2.3 births per woman in 2021, an indication of the increasing control that individuals – particularly women – are able to exercise over their reproductive lives. Overall fertility is projected to fall to 2.1 births per woman by 2050.
Average Births Per Woman
Voices of ‘too few’
In a YouGov survey of almost 8,000 people across eight countries (Brazil, Egypt, France, Hungary, India, Japan, Nigeria and the United States), more men than women held the view that their national population was too small.
Across all countries, more men than women believed higher domestic fertility rates would have a positive impact.
In every country except Hungary, exposure to rhetoric, messaging or media about global or domestic population size correlated to viewing immigration rates as too high. In Hungary, meanwhile, exposure to conversations and messaging about population correlated to viewing the population size as too low.
Changing the narrative
Birth rates plummet, threat to national security
Young people want kids, but can't afford them. How can societies help?
Ageing societies: The world's next demographic time bomb
World rejoices as lifespans grow and seniors enjoy better health
Birth rates fall as women reject motherhood in record numbers
Women's desire for motherhood undermined by relentless gender discrimination
Despite fears that soon there will be ‘too few’ people to sustain our economies, services and societies, experts say falling birth rates do not spell disaster. Instead, they are hallmarks of demographic transition and correlate with rising lifespans.
Since 1950, global average lifespans have increased by almost 28 years (from 45.51 to 73.16 in 2023), accompanied by a decline in global fertility from an average of 5 births per woman in 1950 to 2.3 births per woman in 2021.
These developments are an indication of the increasing control that individuals, particularly women, are able to exercise over their reproductive lives – and how quality of life improves with access to rights and choices.