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Experts sound alarm on falling global fertility rates

One researcher said, "Reliance on open immigration will become necessary to sustain economic growth."
Experts sound alarm on falling global fertility rates
Posted at 7:36 AM, Mar 21, 2024

Global fertility rates are projected to fall through the rest of the 21st century, and experts say these declines will "completely reconfigure the global economy and the international balance of power."

According to a study published Wednesday in the Lancet, about 75% of countries will not have high enough fertility rates in 2050 to sustain their population size over time. The study notes that just six out of 204 countries will have a fertility rate that sustains their population size by 2100. 

The report says that better access to contraception and sex education in low-income countries are major reasons many nations will see a decrease in fertility rates. 

The study also projects that nearly half of all live births in the world will occur in sub-Saharan Africa by 2100. 

Generally, countries need to have a fertility rate of 2.1 children per person to sustain generational replacement. 

“In many ways, tumbling fertility rates are a success story, reflecting not only better, easily available contraception, but also many women choosing to delay or have fewer children, as well as more opportunities for education and employment,” senior author Stein Emil Vollset from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

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The publication noted that the U.S. fertility rate has been below 2.1 for several decades. In 2021, the rate was 1.64 per person. By 2100, it will drop to 1.45. 

However, this fall in fertility rates will be more pronounced in other nations. For instance, Latin America and the Caribbean will expect to have a fertility rate that goes from 4.09 in 1980 to 1.31 per person in 2100. 

In South Asia, where the fertility rate was 4.96 in 1980 and 2.07 in 2021, it is expected to decline to 1.1 by 2100.

The changing birth rates present challenges on two fronts. On one end, many nations will have to figure out how to care for aging populations, with fewer young people to take the jobs of those retiring. 

On the other hand, some poorer nations could continue to see issues with overpopulation and providing resources. 

“We are facing staggering social change through the 21st century,” said Vollset. “The world will be simultaneously tackling a ‘baby boom’ in some countries and a ‘baby bust’ in the others. As most of the world contends with the serious challenges to the economic growth of a shrinking workforce and how to care for and pay for aging populations, many of the most resource-limited countries in sub-Saharan Africa will be grappling with how to support the youngest, fastest-growing population on the planet in some of the most politically and economically unstable, heat-stressed, and health system-strained places on earth.”

For nations like the U.S. that are encountering falling birth rates, some policies such as health care and child care assistance could help reverse trends, but those alone might not be enough, researchers said. 

“There’s no silver bullet,” said study co-lead author Natalia V. Bhattacharjee. “Social policies to improve birth rates such as enhanced parental leave, free childcare, financial incentives, and extra employment rights, may provide a small boost to fertility rates, but most countries will remain below replacement levels. And once nearly every country’s population is shrinking, reliance on open immigration will become necessary to sustain economic growth."

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