2.3.8 Low Fertility and Population Decline

Facts/messages: Although the prospect of negative population growth is still far into the future for most African countries, there is a growing number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia, in addition to Europe, that are either already experiencing population decline or negative intrinsic growth rates which in the long run will also lead to population decline. The situation is particularly dramatic in Eastern Europe, where countries such as Georgia, Moldova Bulgaria, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Ukraine have lost more than 10% of their populations in recent years. Countries with negative intrinsic growth rates now include Brazil, Chile, China, Costa Rica, Iran, Mongolia, Thailand and Vietnam. At present, these countries only maintain positive population growth because they have substantial immigration or (more commonly) because they have large proportions of women of reproductive age. In the world as a whole, the percentage of women of reproductive age is currently at a maximum and 70% of total world population growth is due to population inertia (i.e. an age distribution conducive to growth), rather than to intrinsic growth (i.e. a positive long-term balance of fertility and mortality).

Population decline and ageing, that typically accompanies it, are thought to have several undesirable consequences such as deflationary pressures, labour shortages, high social security costs, and loss of competitiveness due to lack of innovation. It is worthwhile to spend some time analyzing these potential implications and the degree to which they are actually reflected in the current country situation. Also, government efforts to influence demographic behaviour should be discussed in this section. For example, Spain instituted the “baby bonus” of 2500 Euros in 2007, which may be responsible for the slight increase of the total fertility rate in 2008. Estonia instituted a maternity leave of 455 days with full income compensation in 2004, which was followed by a major fertility increase. Russia started subsidizing second births in 2007, which apparently raised fertility in 2008. On the other hand, Japan has attempted several measures of this kind in the 1990s, without any noticeable effect; whereas Ukraine had a fertility increase similar to Russia’s in 2008 without having instituted any explicit policy measures.

In recent years, there has been a lot of publicity given to the apparent partial restoration of birth rates in countries with extremely low fertility. About half of this apparent increase has to do with the fact that there has been a shift towards later childbearing which during the 1980s and 1990s depressed period fertility rates to levels which were unrealistic in terms of the completed fertility of actual cohorts. Thus in Denmark the total fertility rate for the period dropped to 1.38 in 1983 and then rose sharply again, even though the completed fertility of actual cohorts of women never fell below 1.8 and has only increased by about 0.1 in recent years. But there also seems to be some real recovery of fertility in several countries, particularly in Central-Eastern Europe. Research suggests that declining unemployment may be partly responsible for the trend, with a fall of unemployment from 10 to 5% accounting for an increase of 0.09 in the total fertility rate. An interesting finding of recent research is that while greater gender equality in high fertility countries is generally associated with fertility reduction, the tendency in countries with extremely low fertility is for greater gender equality to be associated with higher fertility. This suggests that the stereotype of raising fertility by making women return to their traditional role as homemakers is not correct.

Methodology: This analysis is irrelevant in countries that have Net Reproduction Rates larger than 1, unless they have massive emigration. For those countries where population decline is a relevant issue, the starting point should be a detailed study of natural and migratory growth, where the natural growth component should be divided into intrinsic growth and demographic inertia. Different growth scenarios should be analyzed, based not only on raising fertility rates, but also on changes in the timing of fertility, changes in mortality, and changes in international migration. Some of the countries in Eastern Europe that face depopulation also have high mortality of middle-aged and older men. The potential effects of bringing down this mortality should be analyzed. In some countries, fertility differentials between different population groups (e.g. immigrants) may be relevant. On the other hand, different policy options should be considered with respect to such issues as greater incentives for immigration or return migration, more generous provisions for maternity and paternity leave, subsidized housing for larger families, child care for working mothers, etc.

Primary Sources:

  • Fertility, mortality and international migration data by age and sex, preferably from civil registration systems;
  • National population projections;
  • The Human Fertility Data Base (http://www.fertility.org) is a collaborative project of the Vienna Demographic Institute and the Max Planck Institute in Rostock, Germany with (at present) detailed mortality data for 10 developed countries.

Secondary Sources:

  • United Nations (2005). The New Demographic Regime: Population Challenges and Policy Responses. New York / Geneva, United Nations;
  • UN Population Division. National population projections;
  • Joshua R. Goldstein, Tomás Sobotka and Aiva Jasilioniene (2009). “The end of “lowest-low” fertility?” Population and Development Review 35 (4): 663-699;
  • Studies on the economic implications of population trends and the demographic effects of specific policy interventions if they exist in the country or for neighbouring countries.

53  United Nations Population Division (2009). World Population Prospects: the 2008 Revision. New York.
54  Keyfitz, Nathan (1971). “On momentum of population growth”. Demography 8(1):71-80.