Too Few People

New Report Confirms Decline in Fertility

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Recent years have seen a dramatic decline in the number of children being born, according to a new report from the United Nations.

The “World Fertility Report 2012″ was published earlier this year by the population division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The data covers the period from 1970 to recent times.

“Fertility has declined worldwide to unprecedented levels since the 1970s,” the report stated. In fact, fertility fell in all but 6 of the 186 countries that the United Nations surveyed.

The trend to lower fertility is accelerating. The report noted that in the most recent period covered, 80 countries or areas had a total fertility below 2.1 children per woman, which is the level required to ensure the replacement of the current population level.

The population division observed that quite a number of countries have “remarkably low total fertility.” There are 20 countries with fertility that is below 1.4 children per women and 38 countries with fertility below 1.6 children per woman.

The report said that in the last decade no European or North American countries had total fertility above 2.2 children per woman and only four (France, Iceland, Ireland and the United States of America) had levels above 2.0 children per woman.

Overall, total fertility was below 1.4 children per woman in about half of the developed


A number of countries have experienced quite dramatic falls in fertility. One mentioned in the report was Iran. From 7.0 children per woman in 1985 by 2006 it had plummeted to 1.9 children per woman.

Not surprisingly the report said that the proportion of governments that considered their fertility levels to be too low rose from 11% in 1976 to 26% in 2011.

Age at marriage

Another significant trend is the rise at the age of marriage. The estimated mean age at marriage for women has increased in 97 of the 99 countries surveyed. The higher age at marriage was particularly notable in countries with a lower fertility rate. 

When it comes to men the situation is similar to that of women, with the additional consideration that mostly men marry at an older age compared to women.

The report commented that the mean age at the first birth is an important measure of fertility as it marks the beginning of parenthood with all its social, economic and health implications. It also affects the overall level of fertility, given that the period for childbirth is shortened when the age of a woman at first birth is older.

The United Nations also looked at the number of women who do not have children. In low-fertility countries, levels of childlessness ranged from 3.8% in the Maldives to 23.1% in Singapore. In high-fertility countries, fewer women remain childless, but there were still wide differences, from 0.3% in Sao Tome and Principe to 15.9% in Jordan.

Another notable change is that childbearing is becoming less connected with marriage. According to the report, in 64 countries with data on extra-marital births for the time span covered, the median percentage of births that occurred outside of marriage rose dramatically, from 7.2% in the 1970s to 35.9% in the last decade.

In general Asian countries reported small numbers of births outside marriages, but in other areas there is a high proportion of such births. In the period 2000 to 2011 extra-marital births as a percentage of all births accounted for 80.3% in Colombia and 82.6% in Venezuela.


As well, contraceptive use has risen since the 1970s in nine out of 10 countries with data available. The use of contraception among women aged 15 to 49 who are married or in a union increased in 88% of the 74 countries that the United Nations had information for.

Overall, the median level of contraceptive use was 61.2% in the period 2000 to 2011, and contraceptive prevalence remained below 10.0% in just three countries.

By 2011, the report observed, 93% of governments supported family planning programs and the distribution of contraceptives.

The report raises the question about what will happen if more and more countries experience such low levels of fertility that their populations will decline and economic growth suffers as a consequence.

An article in the latest issue of the journal “Population and Development Review,” (December, 2013) looked at the case of Russia. Tomas Frejka and Sergei Zakharov explained that Russia was one of the first countries to reach below-replacement fertility after World War II.

Since then there have been various government initiatives to encourage more births. In spite of significant additional funding for families: “Russia’s pronatalist policies have failed so far and it is difficult to believe further population decline can be avoided,” the authors concluded.

Perhaps a fate that not a few other countries will experience, along with all the associated negative consequences.

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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