The P-Bomb

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Throughout the world, people are making fewer and fewer babies. Fertility rates have fallen dramatically by 50% since 1972, from six children per woman to 2.9. Demographers believe this rate is still decreasing – and faster than ever. While the world’s population will continue to growth (from 6.4 billion today to around 9 billion by 2050), it will enter a period of spectacular decline in the second half of the century. In fact, depopulation – a new phenomenon – is already affecting several countries […].

Contrary to popular belief, his new transition is fueled by developing countries rather than industrialized ones. It is commonly known that demographic trends in Europe have long been characterized by a drop in fertility. To repopulate a society, each woman must give birth to 2.1 children. A 2002 UN demographic report however reveals that fertility rates in Europe are far lower than the replacement rate […]

These figures apply throughout Europe: Bulgaria’s population is expected to decline by 38%, Romania’s by 27% and Estonia’s by 25% […]. Already, the population deficit in Russia increases by 750 000 people a year.

Most surprising is that even the most underdeveloped countries closely follow the same trend. We know that in Japan for example, where the average age is 42.3 years, negative population growth is just around the corner. With a fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman, Japan will likely lose a quarter of its 127 million-strong population in the next 40 years, according to UN agencies. Japan’s aging population is a widely discussed issue, much more so than the identical problem faced by China, where the UN says that fertility rates have gone from 5.8 in 1970 to 1.8 today. […] By 2019 and beyond, China’s population will peak at 1.5 billion before beginning a dramatic fall. By around 2050, China may well have lost 20 to 30% of each generation of its population.

A similar fate awaits the rest of Asia, where fertility rates are in freefall, despite a lack of population control measures and even pro-birth policies. […] Industrialized nations like Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea all have fertility rates which are below renewal rates. Also affected are countries like Thailand, Burma, Australia, Sri Lanka, Uruguay, Brazil, Cuba and other Caribbean nations. […]

Notable exceptions do exist though. In European countries like Albania and Kosovo, more and children are being born. High birth rates occur in specific areas of Asia like Mongolia, Pakistan and the Philippines. According to UN estimates, the Middle East, home to 326 million people, is likely to see its population double in the next 20 years. […] The statistics of certain countries remain surprising; Tunisia is one Arab country that has a fertility rate below the renewal rate, while Lebanon and Iran are close to reaching the limit. Stable population growth in this region are explained in large part by a decrease in infant mortality – fertility rates continue to decline here faster than in industrialized countries. As a result, in upcoming decades the Middle East will age more quickly than other regions in the world. In Africa, birth rates remain high despite the Aids epidemic, and population growth will likely continue. […] According to Ben J. Wattenberg, a wide array of previously unlinked factors have converged and resulted in major demographic shake-up. A 2004 UN report underlined the fact that rural migration occurs in nearly all countries, so much so that in 2007, cities were home to more than half the world’s population. A child in the city however becomes more of a financial handicap than an asset. […]

Other factors come into play, like the effects of literacy and female education on lowering fertility rates, in addition to divorce, abortion and the lengthening amount of time people wait before getting married. The use of contraception has also increased considerably in the last 10 years. According to the UN, 62% of women of childbearing age who are married or live with a partner use some form of artificial contraception. Disease is another contributing factor in countries like India, which now has the highest Aids transmission rate in the world. […] Observers have for a long time noted that in Europe and Asia, material wealth also pushes couples to put-off procreating. As Wattenberg said, “Capitalism is the best contraceptive”.

The effects of capitalism could be major. […] Depopulation could have a significant impact on world prosperity. Economic growth and demographics have always been intimately linked, whether it be in terms of real estate or consumer spending. Demographers in Italy are predicting a 40% decline in the working-age population in the next forty years, and the European Commission estimates that growth will decrease proportionately across the whole continent. […]

Demographic change exacerbates a country’s problems, whether they be social or economic. Have social safety nets reached their breaking point? If not, population aging will certainly do the trick. Does immigration create social tension? Differences in fertility rates heighten fears, even though certain countries need to import an increasing amount of labour. This is no doubt the major challenge facing Europe in the future. Do the shortcomings of education systems leave too many young people behind? If so, the problem must be fixed, because smaller working-age populations mean that better productivity and higher flexibility are necessary.

Phillip Longman,

New America Foundation

Foreign Affairs


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