Elon Musk thinks the population will collapse. Is the global birth rate that bad?
“He’s better off making cars and engineering than at predicting the trajectory of the population,” said Joseph Chamie, a consulting demographer and a former director of the United Nations Population Division, who has written several books about population issues.
“Yes, some countries, their population is declining, but for the world, that’s just not the case.”
It’s true that what’s driving current population growth is not a higher birth rate. What drives global population growth is that fewer people are dying young. Global life expectancy was 72.8 years in 2019, an increase of nine years since 1990. That is expected to increase to 77.2 years by 2050.
Globally, the fertility rate has not “collapsed,” nor should it, according to the UN, but it has dropped significantly.
In 1950, women typically had five births each; globally, last year, it was 2.3 births. By 2050, the UN projects a further global decline to 2.1 births per woman.
“Virtually every developed country is below two, and it’s been that way for 20 or 30 years,” Chamie said. Most countries have gone through what’s called a demographic transition.
The only continent that hasn’t finished this transition, he said, is parts of Africa, where there are 15 to 20 countries where the average number of children couples have is five. But in those countries, children still face high death rates. The infant mortality rate for kids under 5 is 8 to 10 times higher than in developed regions, and maternal mortality is more than double, Chamie said.
If women in these African regions had more access to contraception, education, and health care, these problems could be addressed and the global population could decline further — but people would be better off in terms of individual health.
The ‘gold medal’ century
In terms of population growth, the 20th century was an anomaly.
“That century was the most impressive demographic century ever. It had more gold medals than all the other centuries,” Charmie said.
The world has antibiotics, vaccines, public health programs and improved sanitation to thank for people living longer and more mothers and children surviving birth.
With contraception, especially in 1964, when the oral pill was widely introduced in the US, couples were now better able to determine when and how many children they had.
“Contraception, the oral pill had a much more significant effect on the world than the car,” Charmie said.
In 2020, the global population growth rate fell under 1% for the first time since 1950.
The picture in the US
“Most demographers would see that as a good thing,” he said.
He said the other driver was a decline in the number of births to women in their 20s. That trend has been around since 2008. People put off or decided not to have babies in part because of the recession, he said. Covid then exacerbated this trend.
Between July of 2020 and 2021, the growth rate of the US population was the lowest it’s been in probably 100 years he said.
He said there are a few factors at play in the low US growth rate: fewer births, fewer immigrants due to Trump-era policies, and more deaths as the US population is ages. Covid-19 contributed to higher deaths, too.
“It’s almost like a perfect storm if you will,” Johnson said. “Births are way down, Covid pushes deaths way up, and then immigration is quite slow, too, so it is no wonder that the population growth rate is so low when you bring all those factors together at the same time.”
Preventing population problems down the road
As the population ages and birth rates decline in some areas of the globe, that could put strain on social systems.
The share of the population over age 65 will rise from 10% in 2022 to 16% in 2050. That’s twice the number of kids under age 5.
Globally, the trick to make such a population age imbalance work, is that governments will need to be proactive, the UN says. Countries with aging populations need to adapt public programs that will support this growing population of older people. That means shoring up programs like social security, pensions and establishing universal access to health care and long-term care.
Fertility is below the replacement rate in the US, meaning couples are having fewer than two children each, but the rate is not as low as it is in most of Europe, he said.
“I don’t think in the US it’s an issue of collapse, because we can certainly open the faucet for more immigrants anytime we want to,” Frey said. “We’ll have no paucity of people who want to come through the door to immigrate here in the future. Immigrants and their children are younger than the population as a whole and so that will help to keep the population from aging as well.”