In Depth

Reaction: global population to ‘start shrinking in 44 years’ as fertility rates crash

Ageing societies will ‘create enormous social change’, according to researchers

Countries worldwide are heading for a steep decline in birth rates that will have a “jaw-dropping” impact on societies, researchers are warning.

Almost every nation across the globe is expected to see their populations shrink by the end of the century as fewer children are born, with 23 countries on track to be home to just half as many people.

The birth rates crash will see the global population peak in 2064 at around 9.7 billion before beginning to shrink, according to scientists “who predict that Nigeria will eventually be home to more people than China”, the Daily Mail reports.

By 2100, the global population is expected to have fallen by 900 million to a total of 8.8 billion.

The researchers, from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics, say that populations can only grow or remain stable if women have an average of 2.1 children each. 

In 1950, women were having an average of 4.7 children in their lifetime, but that fertility rate was down to 2.4 by 2017. And according to the new analysis, outlined in a paper in The Lancet, the global average will be below 1.7 by the end of the century.

Study co-author Christopher Murray, a leading researcher in global health and public health, told the BBC that “most of the world is transitioning into natural population decline”. 

“I think it’s incredibly hard to think this through and recognise how big a thing this is. It’s extraordinary, we’ll have to reorganise societies,” he added.

As the London Evening Standard notes, experts say that the falling birth rate is not directly linked to a lack of fertility, but instead reflects “continued trends in female education and improved access to contraception” that are “speeding up the decline in fertility and slowing population growth”.

The new study predicts that the number of under-fives will fall from 681 million in 2017 to 401 million by 2100, while the number of over 80-year-olds will soar from 141 million to 866 million over the same period.

This shift in demographics will “create enormous social change” and bring major new challenges, says Murray.

As the BBC asks, “who pays tax in a massively aged world? Who pays for healthcare for the elderly? Who looks after the elderly? Will people still be able to retire from work?” 

Which countries will be most impacted? 

The researchers say that many countries already have lower birth rates than are necessary to sustain population sizes, including Russia, Canada and the US, Brazil, China, Australia and most of Europe.

Some countries, including Japan, Spain and Thailand, are expected to see “their communities shrink by a staggering 50% or more” as a result of the rapid decline in birth rates, says the Daily Mail.

Japan’s population is predicted to fall from a peak of 128 million in 2017 to 60 million by the end of the century. Meanwhile, the number of Italy - where birth rates are at their lowest point since 1861, according to The Times - is expected to drop from 61 million to 31 million over that period.

As populations decline at varying rates across the globe, India is expected to overtake China to become the world’s most populated country by 2100, with 1.09 billion people. Nigeria will be in second place, with 791 million, followed by China (732m), the US (336m), Pakistan (248m) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (246m).

The scientists predict that the population of the UK, which currently stands 66 million, will peak at 75 million in 2063 before dropping to 71.5 million by the turn of the century.

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