Birth Rates Rising in Some Low Birth-Rate Countries

(September 2009) “1.57 Shock” was a popular media phrase in Japan back in 1990 after the fertility rate (TFR) fell to its lowest value ever: 1.57 lifetime births per woman, recorded for 1989.1 This was even below the 1.58 children per woman reached during the inauspicious year of the Fire Horse—1966. But the deep fertility decline of the 1990 “shock” was different because it signaled a long-term trend. Couples were delaying marriage and drastically reducing their family size for very practical reasons, such as the high cost of living and the difficulties of raising children in two-earner urban families. Nearly two decades later, Japan’s TFR is still below the 1989 rate. It was 1.37 in 2008.

Japan was following similar trends in other industrialized countries when its fertility declined to such low levels.2 In the 1990s, a new sociological phenomenon emerged: birth rates so low that countries could easily see population decline in their futures, along with unprecedented population aging. True, France had worried about population decline in the 1930s, but the French TFR never fell below 2.0 during those years. Some European countries later feared decline because of famine after World War II. But after 2000, concern over low fertility reached a crescendo: Such phrases as “population implosion,” “demographic suicide,” “demographic winter,” and the like appeared regularly in the media.

Patterns of Fertility Increase

Has fertility bottomed out and begun to rise in any of these countries? Answering such a question can be tricky because fertility trends follow different patterns from country to country. A country’s TFR may begin to rise, decline for a time, and then rise again (Russia). Or, it may increase and turn back downward (South Korea). Countries whose low point occurred relatively recently have had less time to “recover” (Portugal).

In the listing below, the lowest fertility countries have been grouped by several objective criteria. All are countries whose TFRs had declined to 1.6 or lower. Those who have experienced an increase in the TFR of 0.3 or more belong to Group A and could be considered “risers.” Group B are those whose TFRs have increased less than 0.3 (usually much less) or, in the case of Taiwan, are still declining. Nonetheless, there has been a nearly universal tendency for low TFRs to rise in low birth-rate countries, or to have at least bottomed out. It does appear that the trend of declining fertility in these countries has ended for now.

Fertility Trends in Very Low-Fertility Countries

Group A. Very Low-Fertility Countries With Notable Fertility Increases† Group B. Very Low-Fertility Countries* With Slight or No Fertility Increase or Continuing Decline
Northern Europe Western Europe
Estonia Austria
Latvia Belgium
Sweden Germany
United Kingdom Luxembourg
Eastern Europe Switzerland
Bulgaria Eastern Europe
Czech Republic Belarus
Russia Hungary
Ukraine Moldova
Southern Europe Poland
Slovenia Romania
Spain Southern Europe
China, Hong Kong SAR
South Korea
† Countries whose TFR had declined to 1.6 or less and whose TFR has risen at least 0.3 from the low point. * Countries whose TFR had declined to 1.6 or less.
** Continuing decline.

Note: Hong Kong SAR is a Special Administrative Region of China.

Where fertility is increasing, it is often a result of delayed childbearing caused by a long-term shift in childbearing patterns or by marriages delayed by an unfavorable economy. In Sweden, the peak age group of childbearing for women is now 30 to 34, up from 25 to 29 in 2001. In Russia, childbearing below age 25 dropped sharply after 1990 so that women ages 25 to 29 are just as likely to have a birth as those ages 20 to 24. A similar pattern has emerged in Ukraine.

Fertility can also appear to rise and then suddenly fall, as it did in South Korea between 2006 and 2008. South Korea’s TFR rose in 2006, the Year of the Dog, an auspicious year for marriages, and in 2007, the Year of the Golden Pig, auspicious for births. After a flurry of marriages and births in those years, the TFR slipped to 1.192 in 2008, one of the lowest in the country’s history.

Immigration, Government Policies Can Affect Fertility Rates

Sometimes a TFR increase is generated by births to immigrants. In 2007, the rise in births in Spain was completely due to births to immigrant women (births to Spanish-born women actually declined). Two-thirds of the increase in births in the United Kingdom between 2001 and 2007 were births to foreign-born women.

Many governments have moved to address the problem of low fertility and extreme societal aging. In Russia, couples can receive about $9,000, a huge sum, for a second or subsequent child. Child payments are lower in Ukraine, but are still significant. Singapore has introduced beneficial tax packages and lengthened government-subsidized maternity leave from 12 to 16 weeks. Spain introduced a 2,500 Euro payment for each birth. Other countries debate ways to encourage childbearing, without reaching a consensus. In Japan, there has been much discussion in government and the media on steps that might be taken but little has actually been done. The very slight rise in births from 2007 to 2008, heralded in the press, was almost entirely due to births to non-Japanese resident in the country.

Will Economic Recession Depress Births?

There has been much discussion about the possible effect of the worldwide recession on birth rates. Early reports of monthly births seem to suggest that fertility kept rising in a number of countries. In Russia, there were 37,800 more births reported in the first half of 2009 than for the same period in 2008. That was slower than the increase from 2007 to 2008, but a sizable increase nonetheless. In Poland, births were nearly 10 percent higher in the first half of 2009 than in 2008, a rate of increase that would likely make Poland a “riser,” as defined above. In Taiwan, which currently has the world’s lowest fertility, the number of births through the end of July 2009 decreased slightly. The future course of birth rates in these countries with extremely low fertility will have long-lasting consequences. As data on the latest trends become available, they will be posted to the PRB website.

Carl Haub is a senior demographer and Conrad Taeuber Chair of Public Information at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. The TFR is the average number of children a woman would have during her lifetime if the birth rate of a particular year were to remain constant.
  2. The term industrialized, as used here, covers countries considered more developed by the United Nations plus a number of less developed countries often referred to as newly industrialized, such as South Korea. Only countries whose registration of births is considered complete are included.