The end of babies: a birth rate emergency

Growing pains: Japan’s population is expected to shrink by a third by 2065. © Alamy

Is the world running out of babies? Almost half of countries are facing a “baby bust”. Experts think wealthy lifestyles, long working hours and even chemical pollutants could be to blame.

“The End of Babies,” declared a striking headline in The New York Times yesterday.

Across the world, fertility rates are tumbling. Since 1950, the average number of children per woman has fallen from 4.7 to just 2.4.

Generally, as countries get wealthier, birth rates fall. Having fewer babies can be extremely beneficial for women, but problems arise when births fall below the rate needed to replace their parents. The UN puts the “replacement rate” at 2.1 children per family.

In November last year, a report warned that almost half of countries — not just rich ones — are facing a “baby bust”.

In Japan, where 25.9% of the population is aged 65 or above, the first seven months of 2019 showed the sharpest drop in births for 30 years. In response, the Japanese government has set a fertility rate target of 1.8. Some families are being paid to have babies.

But government efforts to encourage baby-making have often missed the mark. In 2015, Danes were angered by a Copenhagen billboard reading: “Have you counted your eggs today?”, which many argued equated women with farm animals. In Italy, which has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, the government’s #FertilityDay campaign was criticised for being “amateurish” and “demeaning”.

Why aren’t we having babies? National circumstances play a role: unemployment in southern Europe; gender inequality in South Korea, or anti-family policy in the USA where women are not entitled to maternity leave.

But there are global trends too. People everywhere are working longer hours for lower wages, leaving them without the time or money to raise a family. The oncoming climate crisis makes us fear that future generations will endure disaster. For the wealthy, children can seem like a burdensome responsibility in a world of almost limitless freedom.

Those who do want children are waiting longer, often until it is too late. In Denmark, IVF and other assisted reproduction methods now account for roughly one in 10 births

Perhaps most worrying of all, scientists now think that chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, which are found in many food and consumer products, could be damaging fertility in both sexes.

Is the world running out of babies?

Boom and bust

Not really, argue some. Each woman in sub-Saharan Africa has, on average, five children. By 2050, there will be 10 billion people on Earth and, thanks to environment devastation driven by the climate crisis, the planet might not have enough food to support them all. We should be more worried about having too many babies.

But John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker, authors of Empty Planet, disagree. These figures don’t “take into account the expansion of education for females”, which is the biggest factor in falling fertility. Many areas of Africa that currently have high birth rates are urbanising twice as fast as the global average. Then there is the financial instability, anxiety and chemical pollution embedded in modern societies. Babies are a scarce resource.

You Decide

  1. Could the world run out of people?
  2. Should we celebrate falling fertility rates?


  1. Draw a line graph showing the changing fertility rate in your country, or a country of your choice, since 1950.
  2. Design your own government campaign to raise fertility rates. What policies would you put in place? Would you use posters or other forms of advertising? In groups, draw up a detailed plan.

Some People Say...

“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.”

William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English playwright

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Since 1950, the average number of children per woman across the globe has fallen from 4.7 to just 2.4. But there are huge regional differences: the fertility rate in Niger, West Africa, is 7.1; on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, women are having just one child on average. For the first time, low birth rates are spreading to developing countries: Thailand’s fertility rate is just 1.2.
What do we not know?
If and when we will see populations shrink in countries with low fertility rates. Low birth rates do not necessarily mean that the number of people living in these countries is falling. The size of a population is a mix of the fertility rate, death rate and migration. It can also take a generation for changes in fertility rate to take hold.

Word Watch

Extremely beneficial
Women get a better education, enter the workforce, and gain easier access to contraception that allows them to take control of their fertility.
Half of countries
Cyprus, Taiwan and South Korea have the world’s lowest fertility rates.
A country’s fertility rate is calculated by the average number of children born per woman.
In the Minato area, parents can receive one-time cash payouts of up to 180,000 yen (about £1,280) a birth.
Denmark 1.7 births per woman — roughly, the same as the US.
Maternity leave
US employers are not obligated to give paid maternity leave to their workers. The Family and Medical Leave Act requires that US employers with 50 or more employees to allow mothers to take up to 12 weeks off, but not necessarily with pay.
Waiting longer
In Switzerland, Japan, Spain, Italy and South Korea, the average age of first birth for a mother is 31.
Endocrine disruptors
Studies have shown that these chemicals can affect oestrogen levels in women, and sperm production in men.
Below the Sahara desert.
When a growing proportion of the population lives in cities.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.