Most people now live in a country where women have fewer than two children
"Virtually every country in the world has experienced a fall in fertility in recent decades," demographics researcher Øystein Kravdal said to sciencenorway.no.
The world's population is continually growing.
But populations in some countries are falling. And as time goes on, more and more countries will find themselves in the same situation.
Fewer people are born than die
Despite the fact that people in the world are living longer and longer, population growth is now slowing down.
“When the number of children per woman drops to two, after a few years fewer people will be born than die,” Kravdal said. “In this way, weaker population growth will be turned into a drop in the population, unless there are additions through immigration.”
The population researcher sees that more and more countries in the world are reaching this point.
Which countries are shrinking the fastest?
Eastern Europe stands out.
Bulgaria is the country in the world with the fastest shrinking population, according to the UN's most recently updated World Population Prospects.
From 2020 to 2050 — or in 30 years — the population of Bulgaria could shrink by 22.5 per cent, UN population experts warn.
In line after Bulgaria are Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Moldova, Albania and Romania. All these countries could see their population shrinking by between 16 and 22 per cent.
In Estonia, Hungary and Poland, the population decline could be around 12 per cent.
Japan and Cuba
Japan also stands out, with a predicted population decline of 16 per cent by 2050.
In Japan, 811,000 babies were born in 2021. In the same year, 1,440,000 Japanese people died.
The average age in Japan is now almost 50.
Greece could also have 13 per cent fewer people, while in Portugal, that drop could be 11 per cent. Italy could have 10 per cent fewer citizens. The number of elderly people in these countries is also rapidly increasing.
Cuba leads Latin America in having the lowest birth rate. Here, the population could decrease by 10 per cent.
Only two children in India
In 2023, China will no longer be the world's most populous country. India will take its place.
But the fertility rate is also falling rapidly in India.
Today, Indian women have an average of only two children each.
This is how UN population experts predict that the populations of India and China will change up to the year 2100. (Graphic from Our World in Data)
Africa continues to grow
Africa is the great exception in the world's population trends.
Here, DR Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tanzania alone will account for a significant part of the world's population increase in the coming years.
Africa has passed one billion people and may pass two billion before the year 2050.
Pakistan and the Philippines are two other countries where the population can continue to grow substantially.
“Africa south of the Sahara has persistent high fertility, although it is dropping there too,” says Kravdal.
“This drop is mainly due to more children going to school, more people living in cities and fewer people working in agriculture,” he said.
Family planning, which provides better access to contraception, may also have been important.
Kravdal believes that in a few decades there may also be a balance between births and deaths in Africa.
What about rich countries and Norway?
“Many rich, Western countries have a fertility rate of well below 2.1,” said Kravdal, who is both a professor of demography at the University of Oslo and a research head at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.
“But here the population is still growing due to immigration,” he said.
In Norway, the fertility rate fell in all years from 2010 to 2020.
According to Statistics Norway, 2021 was the first year in a long time when the fertility rate in Norway increased slightly again — to 1.55 children per woman.
Population peak in 2086
The UN's World Population Prospects says that the world's population is now growing by less than 1 per cent each year.
In November 2022, the world’s population topped 8 billion people.
In the UN's previous population report, it was predicted that the world's population could be 10.9 billion by 2100 and that it would continue to increase after that.
In the new, 2022 report, the UN says that the Earth's population will reach a peak as early as 2086.
We will not exceed 10.4 billion people on the planet, UN experts predict.
Difficult to predict
“The Earth’s population will certainly continue to grow for a few more decades,” Kravdal said.
“Fertility is falling, but in many poor countries, it is still higher than the level that provides a balance between the number of births and the number of deaths,” he said.
At the same time, Kravdal reiterated that the UN's predictions about the world's population development are very uncertain.
“Developments in fertility and mortality are affected by many factors in society. But we don't have a very good understanding about how strong these effects are,” he said. “Above all, it is very difficult to predict how social conditions that affect fertility and mortality will fare in the coming years.”
However, something UN experts have seen so far is that the fertility rate in poor countries has fallen faster than what they imagined a number of years ago.
The UN experts also do not believe that we will see any major change in the low fertility figures in rich countries.
The global fertility rate has fallen from 5 to 2.3
In the 1950s, women in the world had around 5 children each.
Today, this has dropped to 2.3 births per woman.
And most people on Earth now live in a country where fertility is too low for the population to be maintained over the long term.
In a few decades, the global fertility rate could be lower than 2, UN experts warn.
This is how the fertility rate has fallen worldwide (green) and in rich countries (red) since 1950. Projection to the year 2100. (Figures from the UN and graphics from Our World in Data.)
Emigration and immigration
In some parts of the world, emigration and immigration now play a decisive role in population development.
Several rich countries would already have experienced population decline today, had it not been for immigration from less well-off countries.
In the last ten years, most people have emigrated from Pakistan, Syria, Venezuela, India, Bangladesh and Nepal.
Does it matter?
Øystein Kravdal described a pattern demographers have observed in many places where people are poor: Namely, that families on average have about one more child than they had intended.
“This constitutes a welfare loss for these families,” he said.
“Demographers are divided over whether or not they think it’s harmful to have high population growth,” Kravdal said.
“The degree of danger varies quite a bit from country to country, depending on things like natural resources, how poor the country is and the policies being pursued,” he said. “But in most poor countries it would probably have been an advantage if population growth was a little lower.”
Read the Norwegian version of this article on forskning.no
Our World in Data: "Five key findings from the 2022 UN Population Prospects"
UN: "World Population Prospects 2022"