In population policy, the magic number is 2.1. This is the “replacement level”: if a country’s fertility rate (the average number of children a woman has in her lifetime) is 2.1, then the country’s population will remain stable . Above this number, it begins to grow; below 2.1, it eventually drops. And something really important is happening in Asia.
The big news is that India’s fertility rate has now fallen below replacement level: it is 2.0 per woman.
This does not mean that India’s population will start declining right away. India will still overtake China and become the most populous country in the world later this decade, with around 1.45 billion people, but in due course it will stop growing and start shrinking.
The delay is because human beings are not salmon: they do not spawn and die. Instead, they still live thirty, forty or even fifty years after the birth of their children, so there is still a bit of growth left in most Asian countries.
Let me explain, using the Dyer clan. I was the eldest of five children, which was part of an average-sized family in Newfoundland at the time. We all lived to grow up and we averaged exactly 2.0 children each – just below replacement level.
These kids all lived to grow up too, and it looks like they’re also going to end up with an average of 2.0 kids each – but me and my siblings are all STILL alive.
We were three generations, and where there were ten people in my generation (including spouses), we are now thirty.
The baby boom ends there, because when my generation dies, we will be replaced by great-grandchildren. At this point, the Dyer clan will have finally broken even – or even started to shrink a bit, if some of the grandchildren have reduced procreation. It takes a long time to stabilize if you stay at 2.0.
However, Asian populations do not stop at 2.0. The phenomenon is most extreme in East Asia, where the population of each country is already in steep decline.
In South Korea, where the fertility rate has reached an astonishing 0.86 (less than one child per woman, on average), the population is in freefall. At this rate, it will halve by the end of the century.
Ditto for China, where official statistics predict that an average woman will have only 1.3 children in her lifetime. At this rate, China will grow from 1.41 billion people to 700 million by 2100, less than double the population of the United States at that time.
Even that may be overly optimistic. Fertility expert Fuxian Yi, a senior researcher in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Wisconsin, recently estimated that China’s 2020 population was actually 1.28 billion, not 1.41 billion. recorded in the census, and that China’s actual fertility rate is well below 1.3.
If Dr. Yi is correct, then the United States, despite a fairly low growth rate (443 million in the year 2100), could have about the same population as China by the end of the century. Japan’s fertility rate is 1.35, but that still means its population will grow from 125 million today to 75 million by the end of the century.
Most of South and Southeast Asia are already below replacement level (Vietnam 2.0, Bangladesh 1.9, Thailand 1.5). The others are almost there (Indonesia 2.2, Myanmar 2.15, Sri Lanka 2.15). Apart from the Muslim countries of the Greater Middle East (from Pakistan to Syria), the only major country in Asia that is still experiencing rapid growth is the Philippines (2.5).
Populations in Europe are stable or slightly declining, and in the Americas almost all countries have a growth rate of less than 1%. The only regions of the world that are still growing rapidly are the Middle East and Africa, where population growth rates are between 1.5 and 3 percent.
Project these numbers out to 2100, even allowing for a gradual decline in fertility rates in the Middle East and Africa (which is not happening at all now), and only these two regions will contain half of the population of the planet at the end of the century: more than four billion people.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is The Shortest History of War.