Ageing and Longevity

What does the global decline of the fertility rate look like?

For the last half-century, fertility rates have steadily decreased worldwide.

For the last half-century, fertility rates have steadily decreased worldwide. Image: Unsplash/Suhyeon Choi

Pablo Alvarez
Share:
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Ageing and Longevity is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Ageing and Longevity

  • For the last 70 years, fertility rates have decreased worldwide, with a total 50% decline.
  • Reasons include women's empowerment in education and the workforce, lower child mortality and the increased cost of raising children.
  • Lower fertility rates, coupled with increased life expectancies around the world, are creating an aging population, which puts pressure on healthcare systems globally.
A chart detailing the global decline of fertility rates, with a 50% reduction in the last 70 years
The global fertility rate has halved in the past 70 years. Image: Pablo Alvarez | Data from Our World In Data

Charted: The Global Decline of Fertility Rates

Over the last 50 years, fertility rates have dropped drastically around the world. In 1952, the average global family had five children—now, they have less than three.

This graphic by Pablo Alvarez uses tracked fertility rates from Our World in Data to show how rates have evolved (and largely fallen) over the past decades.

What’s The Difference Between Fertility Rates and Birth Rates?

Though both measures relate to population growth, a country’s birth rate and fertility rate are noticeably different:

  • Birth Rate: The total number of births in a year per 1,000 individuals.
  • Fertility Rate: The total number of births in a year per 1,000 women of reproductive age in a population.

As such, the fertility rate is a more specific measure, which as Britannica highlights, “allows for more efficient and beneficial planning and resource allocation.” Not including immigration, a given area needs an overall total fertility rate of 2.1 to keep a stable population.

Discover

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

Global Fertility Rates since 1952

For the last half-century, fertility rates have steadily decreased worldwide. Here’s a look at the average number of children per woman since 1952:

A table showing how global fertility rates have declined since 1952
A table showing how global fertility rates have declined since 1952 Image: Visual Capitalist
A table showing how global fertility rates have declined since 1952
A table showing how global fertility rates have declined since 1952 Image: Visual Capitalist
A table showing how global fertility rates have declined since 1952
A table showing how global fertility rates have declined since 1952 Image: Visual Capitalist
A table showing how global fertility rates have declined since 1952
A table showing how global fertility rates have declined since 1952 Image: Visual Capitalist
A table showing how global fertility rates have declined since 1952
A table showing how global fertility rates have declined since 1952 Image: Visual Capitalist
A table showing how global fertility rates have declined since 1952
A table showing how global fertility rates have declined since 1952 Image: Visual Capitalist
A table showing how global fertility rates have declined since 1952
A table showing how global fertility rates have declined since 1952 Image: Visual Capitalist

Why are women having fewer children? There are a number of theories and empirical research studies to help explain this decrease, but according to Dr. Max Roser, the founder of Our World in Data, most of the literature boils down to three main factors:

  • Women’s empowerment, particularly in education and the workforce
  • Lower child mortality
  • Increased cost to raising children

Research has found that higher education in women is correlated with lower fertility. For instance, in Iran in the 1950s, women had an average of three years of schooling and raised seven children on average.

But by 2010, when Iranian women had nine years of schooling on average, the average fertility rate in the country had dropped to 1.8.

This theory is further supported when you look at countries where women’s education is still relatively lagging. For instance, in 2010, women in Niger had 1.3 years of education on average, and an average of more than seven children—more than double the global average at that time.

Have you read?

The Societal Impact

Lower fertility rates, coupled with increased life expectancies around the world, are creating an aging population. Since 1950, the global median age has grown from 25 years to 33 years.

An older population comes with a number of economic risks, including rising healthcare costs and a smaller global workforce.

Lower fertility rates, coupled with increased life expectancies around the world, are creating an aging population.
Lower fertility rates, coupled with increased life expectancies around the world, are creating an aging population. Image: The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund

According to a report by the World Bank, the world’s working-age population peaked back in 2012. Since then, it’s been on the decline.

A smaller working population puts more pressure on those who are working to support those who are collecting pensions. This could ultimately lead to an economic slowdown if countries don’t prepare and alter their pension systems accordingly, to account for our aging population.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

These 6 ‘longevity economy’ principles can help an ageing population live well

Victoria Masterson

February 8, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum