(September 2001) Concerns about high birth rates and their social, economic, and demographic effects have dominated the population field for the past 50 years. While for many countries these worries persist, for many other countries the problem now is very low rates of birth.

The aim of international efforts to reduce birth rates has been to bring them down to the replacement level of two births per woman. (At that rate, a population would continually renew itself without growing.) However, the birth rate has continued to fall in nearly all populations that have reached the replacement level. The Population Reference Bureau's 2001 World Population Data Sheet shows that 65 countries and territories now have fertility rates that are below the replacement level, including 40 of the 42 countries and territories in Europe. Over 20 countries had birth rates below an average of 1.5 births per woman (see table), and the vast majority of the governments of these countries consider their rates too low. Moreover, below-replacement fertility is now emerging in less predictable places: on the densely populated island of Java in Indonesia, in four provinces in Iran, and in the city of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.


Countries and Territories With Total Fertility Rates Under 1.5
Country/Territory TFR
Hong Kong 1.0
Armenia, Czech Republic, Ukraine 1.1
Andorra, Bulgaria, Georgia, Latvia, Macao, Russia, Slovenia, Spain 1.2
Austria, Belarus, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Romania, San Marino, Slovakia 1.3
Canada, Croatia, Liechtenstein, Moldova, Poland 1.4

Note: The total fertility rate is the average number of children a woman would have, given prevailing birth rates.
Source: PRB, 2001 World Population Data Sheet.


The Earth is already heavily populated. Its population will grow from the present 6 billion to at least 9 billion by 2050. Since low fertility is slowing the growth rate of the world's population, why should we be concerned? The answer is that the governments of the countries with very low fertility rates are evidently not celebrating the prospect that a somewhat lower global population would be achieved as a result of major population decline in their countries. That is, while some people like to think in terms of a common global humanity, most people and most governments care more about the future viability of their own families and countries.

The problem with low fertility is that it reduces population size not at all ages but only among the young. Low fertility produces an age structure that creates a momentum for future population decline, a situation that must be stopped at some point if the population is to be demographically sustainable. Also, populations with low fertility can fall in size at an extremely rapid rate. The longer low fertility is maintained, the harder it becomes to reverse population decline. Countries wishing to avoid this situation need to be aiming at attaining higher levels of fertility while their age structures still provide momentum for population growth.

At the same time that they strive to increase birth rates, governments will need to deal with more immediate impacts of low fertility, namely shrinking labor forces. If present demographic trends continue, between 1999 and 2050 Japan's labor force will fall from 68 million to 46 million, Italy's from 23 million to 14 million, and Germany's from 41 million to 28 million. Although increases in labor productivity in the next half century are likely to be sufficient to maintain the size of any one country's economy, in a global economy fixated on rates of economic growth, capital will flow to countries with relatively high fertility and immigration, such as the United States.

Can low fertility be reversed? To answer this, we need to know why fertility has fallen to such low levels. The reasons and the remedies vary across countries, but some general statements can be made. In Southern and Western Europe and in East Asia, very low fertility seems to be associated with the persistence of a male-dominated family structure combined with economies that provide major advantages to women so long as they do not have children. In this environment, children are costly to parents, especially to mothers. Economic hardship appears to be particularly important in Eastern Europe and in some less developed countries relative to people's aspirations and the costs of children. Finally, the market approach of the global economy promotes investment in self rather than in others.

Reversal of low fertility thus implies a new social contract in which those who have children are not severely disadvantaged in economic terms. The policy options available are:

  • supporting parental leave at the birth of children
  • encouraging the sharing of leave
  • letting employees switch to part-time work, with the right to return to full-time work
  • providing quality, affordable child care, including after-school care
  • recognizing the costs of children in the tax system.

These measures would foster family-friendly workplaces that support rather than discriminate against workers who have children.


Peter McDonald heads the demography program at Australian National University and chairs the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population's working group on low fertility.


For More Information

This article is excerpted from a paper presented by the author at a seminar on international perspectives on low fertility, sponsored by the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population earlier this year.