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Falling Fertility Rates, Sluggish Economic Growth and an Inconvenient Truth

Falling Fertility Rates, Sluggish Economic Growth and an Inconvenient Truth

By Esha Rao

Edited by Anjini Chandra, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

Dan Brown’s recent thriller novel, Inferno, dealt with population explosion and measures taken to reduce population by decreasing the fertility rates. According to the book, the plague that a character called Zorbist, described as a genius scientist and madman, created is revealed to be a vector virus that randomly activates to employ DNA modification, to cause a third of the world’s population to be sterile. Although the book has received heavy criticism regarding incorrect statements and facts, I have come to realise that there is some truth in the theory of falling fertility rates.

Fertility rates have fallen steadily in Brazil from 5.3 children per woman in 1970, to less than 1.8 children per woman in 2010, and are projected to fall further to 1.5 children per woman by 2030. Countries like Iran (seven in 1984 to 1.9 in 2006, and to merely 1.5 in Tehran) UK, US and Turkey have also seen a sharp fall in fertility rates, along with some parts of India and Indonesia. The fertility rate of half the world is now 2.1 (a replacement fertility rate is the rate consistent with stable population) or less. With rates falling faster and more dramatically than ever before, poor countries are facing the same demographic transition as rich countries, starting at earlier stages of development and then moving rapidly.

Falling fertility rates can prove to be detrimental as it leads to an aging population. Concerns regarding economic growth and welfare are all linked to low fertility rates. Evidence reveals that where unemployment has risen, the number of births have fallen. In the United States, three-quarters of the people surveyed by Gallup last year said the main reason couples weren’t having more children was a lack of money, or fear of the declining economy. With a slow growth in the pool of potential workers, there are barely enough new workers to replace the older ones, let alone add to their numbers in any significant way.

Couples in the five most developed economies of the world -the United States, Japan, Germany, France and Britain – had 3,50,000 fewer babies in 2012 than in 2008, which is a drop of nearly 5 per cent. In Japan, the sales of adult diapers will exceed the sales of baby diapers this year, according to Euromonitor International, a marketing research firm. In South Korea, where births have fallen by 11 per cent in the last decade, 121 primary schools had no new students last year, according to one of the country’s news agencies.

Demographers say the fertility rate needs to reach 2.1 just to replace deaths and keep populations constant. The effects on economies, personal wealth and living standards are far reaching. Without new workers, a return to the normal growth rate of 3% a year in developed countries seems unlikely. A sluggish economic growth will limit wage gains and will also hinder attempts to raise the standard of living for people. The Gross Domestic Product, often regarded as a measure of the standard of living of the people, fell by 1% in the aforementioned countries between 2008 to 2012, according to the World Bank. Moreover, a slower economic growth means companies will generate lower profits, thereby weighing down stock prices.

However, another inconvenient truth is the stifling effect an increasing population is having on the environment. According to Thomas Malthus’ ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’, published in 1798, population growth will eventually outrun the food supply. Birth rates have fallen, but the world’s population is still increasing, although at a decreasing rate.

The poorest Asian or African citizen produces 0.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, as compared to the 20 tonnes produced by an American citizen. However, these figures may change drastically, with poorer and fast growing countries following a path paved by developed nations. The environmental damage that will occur by the time the population peaks at 9 billion in 2050, is paramount. Another unfortunate truth is that, the parts of the world which see adverse changes in population growth are extremely sensitive to climate change. A rising population, though at a decreasing rate, will exacerbate the consequences of global warming – water shortages, mass migration, declining food yields etc.

This drastic demographic transition has caused fear and has raised alarms among economists. The only question that remains is; is a population catastrophe around the corner?


  • The Economist
  • Desert News National
  • – Population Reference Bureau
  • – World Bank

Esha Rao is a first year student pursuing Economics Honours at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University. Being an avid reader she loves books by Paulo Coelho, Khaled Hosseini and Corban Addison. Esha has also represented her schools at various command level basketball matches and finds immense pleasure in playing the sport. She enjoys debating, turn quotes, symposiums, extempore, group discussions etc. Social service has been one of her utmost priorities. Being a part of Enactus LSR has helped widen her reach. She is also fortunate enough to work with the women of the National Association of the Blind.

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