The population implosion

Yes. That’s right. Implosion! For decades the tabloid media have regaled us with stories about the global population explosion. The have warned of dwindling resources, particularly food, water and the negative impact on the environment.  As a result, we envisage a world in the 22nd Century like the one portrayed in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). In that film the population is packed into vast multicultural mega cities reaching into the skies and possessing their own inhospitable micro-climates.

There’s only one small, teeny-weeny, fly-in-the-ointment problem with that vision! As Edmund Blackadder might say, “It’s nonsense!” Or words to that effect! Far from facing a population explosion, it turns out that the world is instead facing a population IMPLOSION. According to researchers at Washington University, USA, the world is ill-prepared for the global crash in children being born. This is set to have a jaw-dropping impact on societies.

This is a global issue, with 183 out of 195 countries having a fertility rate below the replacement level. Here are some examples:

  • Japan’s population is set to fall from 128 million in 2017 to less than 53 million by 2100
  • China, the most populous nation in the world, will decline to 732 million from a high of 1,400 million
  • Italy will decline from its current level of 61 million to 28 million

These are just three of 23 countries, including Spain, Portugal, Thailand and South Korea. These will see their populations more than halve.

Global birth rate by year

Source: BBC from data provided by The Lancet.

Talking to the BBC, lead researcher for this study at Washington University, Professor Christopher Murray said, “That’s a pretty big thing; most of the world is transitioning into natural population decline. I think it’s incredibly hard to think this through and recognise how big a thing this is; it’s extraordinary, we’ll have to reorganise societies.”

What is a sustainable replacement level for a population?

The golden number here is 2.1. If, as a national statistic, couples have less than two children, the population will decline, statisticians choose the number 2.1 to account for child mortality and the fact that there are very slightly more males than females born. In the 1950s the global replacement level was 4.7. But by 2017 this had halved to 2.4. And by 2100 it is expected to fall below 1.7.

Why is it happening?

According to the researchers the phenomenon is mainly being driven by greater access to contraception.  There is also the option for women to pursue education and work. But there may be other factors at work in individual countries including declines in fertility.

What will it mean?

In some ways it could be a good thing. For a start, the dire predictions of the science fiction writers have less chance of becoming reality! Fewer people, a billion less by 2100 means less consumption, which in turn means less impact on the environment. For a period, it will also mean a surfeit of old people compared to young. The number of over 80-year-olds will soar from 141 million in 2017 to 866 million in 2100. Those people will need to be cared for by younger generations.

How are countries planning to cope with the population implosion?

Some countries like the UK and the US have counted on migration to fill the gap, putting the brakes on their declines. Populations in Africa and India where there is less access to contraception are still set to increase through to 2100. This is where the immigrants are likely to come from. However, immigration is only a temporary fix as ALL countries will eventually be in the same boat. Professor Murray argues, “We will go from the period where it’s a choice to open borders, or not, to frank competition for migrants, as there won’t be enough.”

Some countries are already gearing up to take on the challenge of encouraging their own populations to procreate more vigorously and this is a more sustainable fix in the long term than immigration.

Here are some examples:


Sweden has dragged its fertility rate up from 1.7 to 1.9. It has achieved these by offering a package of incentives to would be parents:

  • Maternal employment rates are the highest in the EU, with excellent and affordable childcare facilities for working mothers
  • Child poverty rates are among the lowest in the EU
  • Parents receive $167 monthly per child, which increases at age 11 and again at 15
  • Parents are entitled to 480 days paid parental leave
  • Working hours are lower in Sweden than in other countries. 


France has a Ministry of Families that is responsible administering a range of social policies to encourage people to have children. As a result, France is one of the very few countries that is not experiencing a dramatic drop in birth rate. According to the EU, the country has extensive social policies, which provide subsidised childcare for younger children and a generous benefits system especially for larger families.


Italy has not been as successful as France and Sweden in incentivising the population to procreate. In 2015 the government launched a scheme to pay parents $914 per new child. However, without the social benefits package offered by Sweden and France, uptake has been minimal, with the replacement rate not exceeding 1.3, far off the golden number of 2.1.


In Russia, President Putin has gone all out on the cash incentive idea for new parents. With a birth rate of only 1.1 in 1999, it was clear that something needed to be done quickly and Russia rose to the occasion. In this country parents are entitled to:

  • A one-off maternity capital payment, worth $7,600 a large amount of money for the average parent in Russia, was introduced for families with two or more children in 2007 under a 10-year programme
  • Extra welfare benefits are paid for children aged three to seven in low-income families
  • Free school meals are provided for the first four years of school
  • Big tax breaks for larger families.

With this programme the birth rate has increased to 1.48 and is on target to reach 1.7. But this is STILL below the golden number.

What does it all mean for couples struggling with infertility?

The picture is unclear at the moment. But it is certainly conceivable that in many countries financial help will be on the way to assist with conception, particularly in groups where the chances of success are reasonable for instance, healthy women under 40. We can also envisage a situation where the state partly sponsors women who are considering surrogacy. This is speculation, of course, but the sound of the slow population implosion, thanks to people like Professor Murray and his team is reaching the politicians’ ears. Once the immigration card has been played, we can assume that the more proactive governments of the world will soon start looking at ALL the options on the table.