Terrifying threat of ‘underpopulation’ is laid bare as startling maps reveal how 75% of countries are facing baby busts by 2050

Photo of author
Written By Rivera Claudia

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur pulvinar ligula augue quis venenatis. 

com com com com com com com

Three in four countries face the threat of ‘underpopulation’ by 2050, researchers warned today. 

By 2100 this could even rise to 97 per cent of all nations, following current trends.

Researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) warned the global fertility rate — the number of children born per woman — is plummeting, leaving the world at risk of economic collapse. 

The problem is particularly acute in wealthy nations. 

In the UK, the birth rate is predicted to fall to 1.3 children per woman of childbearing age by 2100, well below the replacement level of 2.1 children — the number each woman would need to have, on average, to replace both parents.





Only low-income countries will see rising birth rates, but they will struggle to support a young population. 

The study also predicted half of all babies will be born in sub-Saharan Africa by 2100.

Fertility replacement, however, doesn’t account for the impact of migration, meaning overall population levels can still increase in a country despite a drop in fertility rates.

While many scientists have warned about the threat of overpopulation on the environment, food and housing supplies, underpopulation is also a challenge.

If unaddressed, it can lead to an increasing ageing population, with a significant proportion needing care and unable to work.

The study’s senior author Professor Stein Emil Vollset, from the University of Washington, said women in high-income countries who wish to have children must be better supported to maintain population size and economic growth.

‘We are facing staggering social change through the 21st century,’ he said. 

‘The world will be simultaneously tackling a baby boom in some countries and a baby bust in others.’

He also warned that some of the poorest and most politically unstable countries in Africa will be grappling with how to support the youngest, fastest-growing population on the planet.

The figures project that by 2050, seven of the top 10 countries with the highest birth rates will be in sub-Saharan Africa. Niger tops the list with a rate of 5.15.

In the UK, the fertility rate was 2.19 in 1950, dropping to 1.85 in 1980. In 2021 it stood at just 1.49, the study found. Separate data suggests similar figures.

By 2050, however, it is predicted to fall even further to 1.38. Researchers forecast it will sit at 1.3 in 2100.

The US will see a similar trajectory as the UK. 

But the reasons why people are, on average, having less children in some countries have long been considered complex.

Some women are simply enjoying the independence modern society brings compared to a century ago and are choosing not to have children.

Others are only choosing to have children later in life and instead focus on their careers during their younger years.

As fertility is linked to age, this can lead to some women never having children or fewer than they might originally have planned.

For men, lifestyle factors like the rising prevalence of obesity in many countries is also thought to be having a downward impact on fertility.

Rising cost-of-living pressures, especially the price of childcare, is another factor that puts a dampener on couples having children or deciding to have multiple.

In recent years, fears of a pending climate-change driven environmental catastrophe have also put younger people off having children.

The threat of underpopulation has been a pet topic of eccentric Tesla billionaire Elon Musk, who has preached about it for years.

In 2017, he said that the number of people on Earth is ‘accelerating towards collapse but few seem to notice or care’.

Then in 2021 he warned that civilisation is ‘going to crumble’ if people don’t have more children.

Study co-lead author and lead research scientist Dr Natalia Bhattacharjee said the trends will completely reconfigure the global economy and the international balance of power, forcing societies to reorganise.

She added: ‘The implications are immense. Global recognition of the challenges around migration and global aid networks are going to be all the more critical when there is fierce competition for migrants to sustain economic growth and as sub-Saharan Africa’s baby boom continues.’

The international research project, published in The Lancet, looked at past, current, and future trends in fertility and live births.

The authors warned that governments must start planning for threats to economies, food security, health, the environment and geopolitical security brought on by the demographic changes.

So what is behind the West’s baby bust? 

Women worldwide, on average, are having fewer children now than previous generations.

The trend, down to increased access to education and contraception, more women taking up jobs and changing attitudes towards having children, is expected to see dozens of countries’ population shrink by 2100.

Dr Jennifer Sciubba, author of 8 Billion and Counting: How Sex, Death, and Migration Shape Our World, told MailOnline that people are choosing to have smaller families and the change ‘is permanent’.

‘So it’s wise to focus on working within this new reality rather than trying to change it,’ she said.

Sex education and contraception

A rise in education and access to contraception is one reason behind the drop off in the global fertility rate.

Education around pregnancy and contraception has increased, with sex education classes beginning in the US in the 1970s and becoming compulsory in the UK in the 1990s.

‘There is an old adage that “education is the best contraception” and I think that is relevant’ for explaining the decline in birth rates, said Professor Allan Pacey, an andrologist at the University of Sheffield and former chair of the British Fertility Society.

Elina Pradhan, a senior health specialist at the World Bank, suggests that more educated women choose to have fewer children due to concerns about earning less when taking time off before and after giving birth.

In the UK, three in 10 mothers and one in 20 fathers report having to cut back on their working hours due to childcare, according to ONS data.

They may also have more exposure to different ideas on family sizes through school and connections they make during their education, encouraging them to think more critically about the number of children they want, she said.

And more educated women may know more about prenatal care and child health and may have more access to healthcare, Ms Pradhan added.

Professor Jonathan Portes, an economist at King’s College London, said that women’s greater control over their own fertility means ‘households, and women in particular, both want fewer children and are able to do so’.

More women entering the workplace

More women are in the workplace now than they were 50 years ago — 72 vs 52 per cent — which has contributed to the global fertility rate halving over the same time period.

Professor Portes also noted that the drop-off in the birth rate may also be down to the structure of labour and housing markets, expensive childcare and gender roles making it difficult for many women to combine career aspirations with having a family.

The UK Government has ‘implemented the most anti-family policies of any Government in living memory’ by cutting services that support families, along with benefit cuts that ‘deliberately punish low-income families with children’, he added.

As more women have entered the workplace, the age they are starting a family has been pushed back. Data from the ONS shows that the most common age for a women who were born in 1949 to give birth was 22. But women born in 1975, were most likely to have children when they were 31-years-old.

In another sign that late motherhood is on the rise, half of women born in 1990, the most recent cohort to reach 30-years-old, remained childless at 30 — the highest rate recorded.

Women repeatedly point to work-related reasons for putting off having children, with surveys finding that most women want to make their way further up the career ladder before conceiving.

However, the move could be leading to women having fewer children than they planned. In the 1990s, just 6,700 cycles of IVF — a technique to help people with fertility problems to have a baby — took place in the UK annually. But this skyrocketed to more than 69,000 by 2019, suggesting more women are struggling to conceive naturally.

Declining sperm counts

Reproductive experts have also raised the alarm that biological factors, such as falling sperm counts and changes to sexual development, could ‘threaten human survival’.

Dr Shanna Swan, an epidemiologist at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, authored a ground-breaking 2017 study that revealed that global sperm counts have dropped by more than half over the past four decades.

She warned that ‘everywhere chemicals’, such as phthalates found in toiletries, food packaging and children’s toys, are to blame. The chemicals cause hormonal imbalance which can trigger ‘reproductive havoc’, she said.

Factors including smoking tobacco and marijuana and rising obesity rates may also play a role, Dr Swan said.

Studies have also pointed to air pollution for dropping fertility rates, suggesting it triggers inflammation which can damage egg and sperm production.

However, Professor Pacey, a sperm quality and fertility expert, said: ‘I really don’t think that any changes in sperm quality are responsible for the decline in birth rates.

‘In fact, I do not believe the current evidence that sperm quality has declined.’

He said: ‘I think a much bigger issue for falling birth rates is the fact that: (a) people are choosing to have fewer children; and (b) they are waiting until they are older to have them.’

Fears about bringing children into the world

Choosing not to have children is cited by some scientists as the best thing a person can do for the planet, compared to cutting energy use, travel and making food choices based on their carbon footprint.

Scientists at Oregon State University calculated that the each child adds about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the ‘carbon legacy’ of a woman. Each metric ton is equivalent to driving around the world’s circumference.

Experts say the data is discouraging the climate conscious from having babies, while others are opting-out of children due to fears around the world they will grow up in.

Dr Britt Wray, a human and planetary health fellow at Stanford University, said the drop-off in fertility rates was due to a ‘fear of a degraded future due to climate change’.

She was one of the authors behind a Lancet study of 10,000 volunteers, which revealed four in ten young people fear bringing children into the world because of climate concerns.

Professor David Coleman, emeritus professor of demography at Oxford University, told MailOnline that peoples’ decision not to have children is ‘understandable’ due to poor conditions, such as climate change.


Leave a Comment