Declining fertility rates around the world should be cause for celebration, not alarm, a leading expert has said, warning that the focus on boosting populations was outdated and potentially bad for women.
Recent figures revealed that, globally, women now have on average 2.4 children in their lifetime a measure known as total fertility rate (TFR). But while in some countries that figure is far higher – in Niger it is more than seven – in almost half of countries, including the UK, Russia and Japan, it has fallen to below two.
But Sarah Harper, former director of the Royal Institution and an expert on population change, working at the University of Oxford, said that far from igniting alarm and panic falling total fertility rates were to be embraced, and countries should not worry if their population is not growing.
Harper pointed out that artificial intelligence, migration, and a healthier old age, meant countries no longer needed booming populations to hold their own. “This idea that you need lots and lots of people to defend your country and to grow your country economically, that is really old thinking,” she said.
Having fewer children is also undoubtedly positive from an environmental point of view; recent research has found that having one fewer child reduces a parent’s carbon footprint by 58 tonnes of CO2 a year.
Capping our consumption, said Harper, was crucial, not least because countries in Africa and Asia, where the fastest population rises were occurring, would need a bigger share of resources if global inequality were to be curbed.
“What we should be saying is no, [a declining total fertility rate] is actually really good because we were terrified 25 years ago that maximum world population was going to be 24bn,” said Harper, who has three children herself. She said estimates now predicted the population would reach somewhere between 10bn and 12bn by the end of the century.
Declines in total fertility rate have been seen time and again after national economies develop, public health improves, and infant mortality falls, and women find themselves raising larger families. “This is a natural process,” said Harper, adding that drivers for such declines included huge strides in family planning and women’s education – with girls staying at school and entering the workforce – allowing women to delay childbearing and choose how many children to have – if any.
But there is still a ripple of alarm spreading among countries where total fertility rates have dropped below so-called replacement levels – the magic figure of 2.1.