Q&A: Preparing for a low-fertility future

Published March 29, 2024

By 2050, more than three-quarters of countries will not have fertility rates high enough to sustain population size over time. Dr. Austin Schumacher shares the latest Global Burden of Disease findings on past and future trends in global fertility.

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This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

What are the key findings of the global fertility research published as part of the Global Burden of Disease 2021 study?

The main findings are that the world is converging on a low-fertility future where we’re projecting that by 2100, over 97% of countries will be below replacement levels of fertility, which means that generational replacement of the population will not occur unless their fertility rates are higher than that.

In addition to this, where births are distributed around the globe is shifting away from higher-income countries and into lower-income countries that will remain at higher fertility rates for longer.

And so the births will be distributed in places with lower incomes and at more risk for climate stress, which will lead to a lot of societal issues that we will have to deal with.

What factors lead to declining fertility, and what can be done to limit the decline?

There are a number of factors that are associated with these declining fertility rates. In countries that have high fertility, seeing fertility rates decline would continue to be beneficial. Access to contraceptives, as well as more access to female education, are two of the main factors that will help here.

In countries where fertility rates remain low, pro-natal policies to support parents will be crucial to help increase these fertility rates and/or slow the decline. But there needs to be more innovation on these topics in the future.

What will be the consequences of more live births happening in low-income countries, and how do we mitigate potential negative impacts?

There will be a number of consequences from the shift of births into lower-income countries. These countries are those that have the some of the poorest health outcomes in the world, so developing their health care infrastructure will be very crucial. Additionally, these countries are at the most risk for climate stress, and this will facilitate or at least bring about a lot more pressure for migration.

And dealing with migration, I think, will be one of the most important issues in the future as well.

What will be the impact of declining fertility in high-income countries, and how should it be addressed?

There will be a number of impacts in higher-income countries with falling fertility rates and continual low fertility rates. There will be this phenomenon that we call population aging, where there will be a lot more older people that will have to be supported, for example, economically, by fewer younger people.

So this could lead to issues with labor shortages and will bring about the continual importance and increasing importance of dealing with migration in an open and ethical manner.

How did the research team arrive at these predictions, and what are the challenges in doing so?

First of all, the data is very important. So we make sure that we use the most up to-date data that we can to inform these forecasts. Second, we use methodology that we feel is cutting-edge and will allow us to predict most accurately.

But with any forecasting methodology, there’s going to be a lot of uncertainty involved, and there’s no real way of knowing what’s going to happen in the future. So, we do the best that we can, and we make sure that we create forecasts with a number of alternate scenarios as well, to get a sense of what the various possible futures could look like.