Although the human population officially reached 8 billion a little over a year ago, its growth rate is the slowest it’s been since 1950, dropping under 1 percent back in 2020. Some have even predicted this might be a sign of an impending decline in the global population. Whilst there’s no guarantee of this on a global scale, United Nations (UN) projections suggest that the populations of 61 countries will decrease by 1 percent or more by 2050. But what would cause such a decline and what could the consequences be?
Falling fertility rates
Populations can grow or decline for many reasons – migration, medical advances and disease affecting mortality, for example – but arguably, one of the most important is the global fertility rate.
On average, people are having fewer babies; according to the 2022 edition of World Population Prospects, an annual report of UN population estimates and projections, two-thirds of us humans live in a country or area where lifetime fertility is below 2.1 births per woman. That’s below what’s known as replacement fertility – in theory, keeping a population stable by every two people having two children to replace them.
Although it’s projected that this decline will have a limited effect on the global population between now and 2050, these things can eventually add up.
“The cumulative effect of lower fertility, if maintained over several decades, could be a more substantial deceleration of global population growth in the second half of the century,” explained John Wilmoth, director of the population division of the UN’s department of economic and social affairs, in a statement.
Are the consequences positive or negative?
The consequences of falling fertility rates, combined with an increase in life expectancy, may not only lead to a declining population, but also an aging one. Back in 2018, globally, people aged 65 or above outnumbered those aged under five for the first time in history, and this gap is expected to continue widening.
Fewer people around and a greater proportion of them being elderly might present many problems – although some older people can be just as healthy as those decades younger than them, it’s still important to consider some of the potential negative consequences. This could include fewer people in the workforce (depending on retirement age), increased demand on healthcare and welfare systems, and the economic impact of both.
The UN has suggested that “countries with ageing populations should take steps to adapt public programmes to the growing numbers of older persons, including by establishing universal health care and long-term care systems and by improving the sustainability of social security and pension systems.”
Others have focused less on aging and more on the possibility that with fewer people around, there could also be a reduction “in the flow of new ideas”, with a stagnation of knowledge and living standards. Not only would that have a knock-on impact on the economy, it also just doesn’t sound very fun.
Some, however, have argued that a global population decline may actually be a sign of something good happening. Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at University of California, Irvine, wrote in the New York Times that in countries with population decline, there have also been increases in education and employment, as well as more reproductive freedom and professional opportunities for women.
Whilst acknowledging the potential challenges of a declining global population, Feng argues that it is an inevitability and that, rather than trying to stop or reverse it, it’s an opportunity to “embrace it and adapt.”
Only time will tell which, if any, of the above predictions and arguments will stand true.
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