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Baby bust

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A big new study published in the Lancet tracks global fertility patterns over the past 80 years, and projects them out over the next 80. Total Fertility Rate (TFR) has fallen from an average of nearly five children per woman in 1950 to two and a quarter, with the global TFR projected to fall below the canonical population replacement level (2.1) by the end of this decade. These averages don’t capture massive regional variations: TFR is already below replacement level across pretty much the entire developed world, with some of the numbers coming out of Europe and South Asia being truly startling.

For example TFR for South Korea is currently estimated at 0.72, i.e., one third of replacement level. That level, if maintained for a couple of generations, would obviously lead to huge economic and social problems, but it’s also the case that pro-natalist government policies seem to have very little effect on TFR. Another huge political problem is that there’s massive resistance to immigration in most of the countries that are in desperate need of immigration to redistribute global population in an economically efficient and socially just way. Here’s the summary of the Lancet article:

During the period from 1950 to 2021, global TFR more than halved, from 4·84 (95% UI 4·63–5·06) to 2·23 (2·09–2·38). Global annual livebirths peaked in 2016 at 142 million (95% UI 137–147), declining to 129 million (121–138) in 2021. Fertility rates declined in all countries and territories since 1950, with TFR remaining above 2·1—canonically considered replacement-level fertility—in 94 (46·1%) countries and territories in 2021. This included 44 of 46 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which was the super-region with the largest share of livebirths in 2021 (29·2% [28·7–29·6]). 47 countries and territories in which lowest estimated fertility between 1950 and 2021 was below replacement experienced one or more subsequent years with higher fertility; only three of these locations rebounded above replacement levels. Future fertility rates were projected to continue to decline worldwide, reaching a global TFR of 1·83 (1·59–2·08) in 2050 and 1·59 (1·25–1·96) in 2100 under the reference scenario. The number of countries and territories with fertility rates remaining above replacement was forecast to be 49 (24·0%) in 2050 and only six (2·9%) in 2100, with three of these six countries included in the 2021 World Bank-defined low-income group, all located in the GBD super-region of sub-Saharan Africa. The proportion of livebirths occurring in sub-Saharan Africa was forecast to increase to more than half of the world’s livebirths in 2100, to 41·3% (39·6–43·1) in 2050 and 54·3% (47·1–59·5) in 2100. The share of livebirths was projected to decline between 2021 and 2100 in most of the six other super-regions—decreasing, for example, in south Asia from 24·8% (23·7–25·8) in 2021 to 16·7% (14·3–19·1) in 2050 and 7·1% (4·4–10·1) in 2100—but was forecast to increase modestly in the north Africa and Middle East and high-income super-regions. Forecast estimates for the alternative combined scenario suggest that meeting SDG targets for education and contraceptive met need, as well as implementing pro-natal policies, would result in global TFRs of 1·65 (1·40–1·92) in 2050 and 1·62 (1·35–1·95) in 2100. The forecasting skill metric values for the IHME model were positive across all age groups, indicating that the model is better than the constant prediction.

Interpretation

Fertility is declining globally, with rates in more than half of all countries and territories in 2021 below replacement level. Trends since 2000 show considerable heterogeneity in the steepness of declines, and only a small number of countries experienced even a slight fertility rebound after their lowest observed rate, with none reaching replacement level. Additionally, the distribution of livebirths across the globe is shifting, with a greater proportion occurring in the lowest-income countries. Future fertility rates will continue to decline worldwide and will remain low even under successful implementation of pro-natal policies. These changes will have far-reaching economic and societal consequences due to ageing populations and declining workforces in higher-income countries, combined with an increasing share of livebirths among the already poorest regions of the world.

This, along with climate change — to which it’s intimately related in all sorts of ways — is likely to be the political and economic problem of the 21st century and beyond.

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