Declining fertility rates are a trend around the world. Since 1950, the total global fertility rate has dropped by half, according to The Lancet's comprehensive Global Burden of Disease Study. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out that the U.S. fertility rate has been falling steadily since 2008, and has never returned to its recorded peak in 1958.
The fertility rate is defined as the average number of living children born to a woman who survives her reproductive years (ages 15–49). It is influenced by multiple factors, including economic and social change. The total fertility rate (TFR) is considered a measure of population growth. Globally, the population is growing while fertility rates continue to decline. This is because population growth is calculated based on fertility rate, death rate and migration.
But what are the primary reasons for declining fertility rates? The scientific community is not completely in agreement, but the following factors have a resounding impact.
1. Improved Educational Opportunities for Women
According to Oxford University's Our World in Data project, the social empowerment of women, particularly through increased education, has been shown to decrease fertility rates. Increased education also contributes positively to other factors that decrease fertility rates, such as higher use of contraception, better childhood health and women's participation in the workforce.
2. Lower Child Mortality
Historically, high child mortality — including infant deaths and deaths by early childhood illnesses — kept population growth low and fertility rates high. As child mortality rates have declined (dramatically in some countries) fertility rates have fallen.
3. Better Access to Contraception and Family Planning Advice
For some areas of the world, the sharpest declines in fertility rates have come from the introduction of safe, reliable access to contraception. This may include confidential access if local cultural norms or family members impede a woman's right to access birth control. The increased availability of sexual health education and family planning resources has also impacted fertility rates.
4. Increasing Societal Prosperity
U.S. News and World Report notes that high-income countries have experienced a steeper decline in fertility than low-income countries, but it's unclear whether confounding factors, such as increased educational opportunities, are responsible for this correlation.
A higher level of education fosters more prosperity and a lower number of children, according to The World Bank. However, Our World In Data speculates whether other factors such as career aspirations and changing cultural pressures around marriage might contribute to parents choosing to have fewer children — or none at all. People in many wealthier regions are getting married later in life, pursuing careers and choosing to have children later, according to The Week.
Predicting the Consequences of Lower Fertility Rates
With an aging population and a shrinking pool of younger workers, some analysts worry economic growth will decline in a way that will be difficult to overcome. Initially, as the birth rate declines, the economy grows; but when a tipping point is reached and fertility rates continue to fall, the imbalance between elderly and working-age people becomes unsustainable.
There may be beneficial impacts to the environment if the burden of population growth eases, but how that will happen is still unclear. Economists and population analysts don't yet fully understand how the social and economic consequences will play out.