By Emma Graham-Harrison
Census data from the US released last week showed the number of babies born in the country in 2020 dropped to the lowest level in more than four decades. The same day, Japan marked Children’s Day by announcing that the number of under-14s in the country had fallen for the 40th consecutive year to a record low.
It is not just in the rich world that the appetite for having children is falling. Also in 2020, China may have recorded its first overall population decline since a catastrophic famine in the late 1950s, the Financial Times has reported, citing unpublished census data.
Although the census was completed in December, figures have not yet been published because the implications are still being processed by the government, the paper said. The decline comes despite a reversal of strict “one child” family-planning policies.
Last century, the global demographic panic was about an overpopulated world running out of food. Those fears have long looked out of date, but it is only recently that we have understood how soon much of the world may be grappling with shrinking populations.
A University of Washington study published in the Lancet last year argued that the global population would peak at 9.7 billion in 2064, then start to decline. The UN demographics agency has also forecast a peak within some children’s lifetimes, though several decades later, towards the end of the century.
Previous declines in the number of humans on the planet have been through disease or disaster. This would be the first time that it is reduced by low birthrate, after cheap and widely available contraception allowed women and men to control the size and timing of their families.
In some places, this control combines with social and economic pressure to make having children difficult or expensive, even when people would like to be parents.
In the US, where the number of births dropped 4% last year from 2019, women have no nationally mandated right to paid maternity leave and health insurance can be precarious and costly.
The same year more people died than were born inside its borders; the US population has continued to grow only because of immigration.
Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister until last year, liked to boast of “womenomics”, his goal of boosting the county’s economy by bringing more women into the workforce. But he made few inroads into structural constraints on Japanese men and women enjoying both career and family life, from a working culture with punishingly long hours to a shortage of childcare places and gender imbalances.
Men in Japan do fewer hours of unpaid housework and childcare than their counterparts in any of the world’s rich countries, less than an hour a day on average. Women there do nearly four hours.
But family-friendly policies alone may not shift demographics. Sweden offers highly subsidised childcare, generous parental leave and other support, but while its fertility rate – the average number of children a woman has – is above those in worst hit countries such as Japan and Italy, it has still declined over the past decade.
An end to global population growth could have advantages, including relieving pressure on our battered environment, particularly if the decline is centred in carbon-intensive wealthier economies.
It might fuel a shift in attitudes to migration, as countries which currently have hostile anti-migrant policies start competing for young immigrants to bolster the workforce and care for the old.
And economic challenges are not exclusive to shrinking populations; those that grow too fast often struggle to create enough jobs.
But there are also fears that it could drive a reversal in women’s rights, if governments that have failed to encourage more people to have children by supporting parents try to force up birthrates by limiting access to birth control and abortion. Iran last year halted state provision of contraceptives and vasectomies for this reason.