• Birthrates are falling globally.
  • In many countries, COVID-19 has suppressed population growth by causing a decline in births, migration and life expectancy.
  • Even before the pandemic, urbanization was driving population decline.

At the end of May, the Chinese Government announced that parents in China would now be permitted to have up to three children. This announcement came only five years after the stunning reversal of the 1980 one-child policy.

Something is clearly going on.

That something is that China has experienced a fertility collapse. According to the latest census released in May, China is losing roughly 400,000 people every year. China still claims its population is growing, but even if these projections are taken at face value, the population decline previously projected to start by midcentury may now begin as early as 2030. This means China could lose between 600 and 700 million people from its population by 2100.

That’s right: 600 and 700 million people, or about half of its total population today.

China’s population changes are not unique among the superpowers. According to the United States’ most recent census, the US birthrate has declined for six straight years and 19% since 2007 in total. Like China, the US birthrate is now well below replacement rate at 1.6. (China is now at 1.3.) For a country to naturally replace its population, its birthrate needs to be at least 2.1.

You can also add the world’s second-most populous country, India, to the list of low-fertility countries, with a birthrate at replacement rate (2.1). Also include Japan (1.3), Russia (1.6), Brazil (1.8), Bangladesh (1.7) and Indonesia (2.0).

There are still big countries with high birthrates, such as Pakistan (3.4) and Nigeria (5.1). But even these numbers are lower than they were in 1960 – when Pakistan was at 6.6 and Nigeria at 6.4 – and declining every year.

The role of COVID-19 in declining birthrates

The COVID-19 pandemic is serving as a modifier – but not in the way commentators and comedians suggested when lockdowns began.

Remember all the jokes about people being stuck at home leading to a baby boom? As the data rolls in, its clear that in many countries, the opposite has occurred. Most children these days are wanted or planned children, especially in the developed world. Deciding to have a baby is contingent on being optimistic about the future – and optimism is difficult to muster during a global pandemic. In fact, the Brookings Institute estimates that 300,000 babies were not born in the US as a result of economic insecurity related to the pandemic.

Estimated impact of COVID on births in late 2020
As many as 300K babies were not born in the US due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Image: Brookings

Could this be a short-term phenomenon ready for correction? Possibly. Some analysts are anticipating a mini baby boom once vaccines are widely available and restrictions are lifted. But even a mini baby boom is unlikely to fully compensate for the decline. Experience shows that when a couple defers having a child, for whatever reason, they typically don’t make it up later. The unborn baby remains unborn.

A decline in fertility is just one way the pandemic is suppressing population growth in many developed nations. The other: closed borders. In 2020, Australia recorded its first population decline since World War I, due to stricter COVID-related border controls. Canada granted permanent-resident status to 180,000 applicants in 2020, far short of the target of 381,000 – and most of the new permanent residents were already in the country on student or work visas.

A third, grim factor is also at work: the death toll of the disease itself. Researchers predict that life expectancy in the United States has declined by a full year as a result of COVID deaths. Racial minorities were particularly hard hit, with African American life expectancy suppressed by two years and Latino life expectancy by three years. Officially, the pandemic is responsible for more than 3 million deaths – but that figure could be far higher, since some countries may be under-reporting deaths. This is probable, for example, in India, where the pandemic is claiming 4,000 lives a day; many authorities believe the real count is far higher.

But it's not only the pandemic...

As John Ibbitson and I wrote in Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, the forces driving population decline have been in place since at least the turn of the century.

The biggest force is urbanization. The largest migration in human history has happened over the last century and it continues today as people move from the country to the city. In 1960, one-third of humanity lived in a city. Today, it’s almost 60%. Moving from the country to the city changes the economic rewards and penalties for having large families. Many children on the farm means lots of free hands to do the work. Many children in the city means lots of mouths to feed. That’s why we do the economically rational thing when we move to the city: we have fewer kids.

Moving to the city also changes the lives of women, exposing them to a different version of life than their mothers and grandmothers lived in the country. Urban women are much more likely to have an education and a career, as well as easier access to contraception. Lower birthrates are the inevitable result. That’s why first-time mothers today are older and have fewer children, and teenage pregnancies have dramatically declined. In most developed countries, the birthrate of women over 40 has surpassed the rate of women age 20 and younger.

We can expect that a great defining moment of the 21st century will occur in three decades or so when the global population starts to decline. COVID might have even pushed the start of this decline forward – but it certainly didn’t cause it.

Why population decline matters

Why should you care about population decline? Fewer people are good for the climate, but the economic consequences are severe. In the 1960s, there were six people of working age for every retired person. Today, the ratio is three-to-one. By 2035, it will be two-to-one.

Some say we must learn to curb our obsession with growth, to become less consumer-obsessed, to learn to manage with a smaller population. That sounds very attractive. But who will buy the stuff you sell? Who will pay for your healthcare and pension when you get old?

Because soon, humanity will be a lot smaller and older than it is today.

coronavirus, health, COVID19, pandemic

What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.

As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.

To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications - a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.

The report reveals that the economic impact of COVID-19 is dominating companies’ risks perceptions.

Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.

The author is a member of the World Economic Forum Expert Network.