The number of children that women around the world are giving birth to has fallen so much that some countries are facing a “baby bust”, new data suggests – meaning there are insufficient children born to maintain their population size.
We all know the expression “baby boomers”, the generation born after the second world war when the birth rate spiked – and now the scourge of millennials for their free education, affordable homes and early retirement age.
Globally in 1950, women were giving birth to an average of 4.7 children in their lifetime, according to the research published in The Lancet. By 2017, the fertility rate was almost half that amount, at 2.4 children per woman and in some countries, the average number per woman is now just one child.
Improved access to contraception, working opportunities and ultimately, more choice for women is thought to be behind the falling rates, but a society where there are “more grandparents than grandchildren” could be problematic.
The researchers highlight that an ageing population with fewer children could have social and economic impacts – after all, children are needed in order to care for older generations, either directly or indirectly via taxes.
Total fertility rates (TFR), a measurement representing the average number of children a woman has over her lifetime, have declined since 1950, according to the study.
In 2017, the lowest TFR was in Cyprus, where on average, a woman would give birth to one child throughout her life, as opposed to the highest, in Niger, where a woman would give birth to seven children.
To sustain populations, countries require an average fertility rate of 2.1, because some children will not survive until adulthood. In 2017, the UK’s fertility rate was 1.7 births per woman.
“The lower rates of women’s fertility clearly reflect not only access to and availability of reproductive health services, but also many women choosing to delay or forgo giving birth, as well as having more opportunities for education and employment,” said Dr Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington.
“Although total fertility rates are decreasing, the global population continues to grow as death rates decline and because of population ‘momentum’ in previous decades.”
Dr George Leeson, director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, said worldwide declining fertility rates do not have to be a bad thing, providing we make significant societal adjustments, such as changing the retirement age.
“Everything we plan for is not just driven by the numbers in the population, but also the age structure and that is changing, so fundamentally we haven’t got our heads around it,” he told the BBC.