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Looming population crisis as world turns its back on parenthood

Looming population crisis as world turns its back on parenthood


Subodh Varma, TOI Crest, Apr 3, 2010

For decades, demographers have warned of a reproductive Armageddon, painting a picture of an over-crowded planet choking on its own population. The statistics seemed to bear them out. In 1950, there were 2.5 billion people on earth. Just four decades later, in 1990, the number crossed 5 billion. Currently, the world’s population is estimated at about 6.9 billion. What has gone unnoticed is a silent change of far-reaching consequences that has taken place in the last decades of the 20th century: total fertility has fallen from an average of 4.7 children per woman in 1970-1975 to 2.6 children per woman in 2005-2010. This has not only defused the demographic time bomb by slowing the growth rate of population, it has brought with it an unavoidable corollary — an aging population. Again, while it was well known that humans were living longer than ever before, the proportion of elderly in the total population is rising at an eye-popping pace with fewer children coming into the world.


Detailed country-wise data on fertility and ageing, released recently by the United Nations Population Division, shows a complex mosaic of child-bearing trends among people in different regions of the world and from different socio-economic strata of society. Also revealed is the rapidly evolving world of the elderly in our society, especially its feminisation.

Unlike in the past, when population growth slowed down in developed countries, the present sharp drop in fertility is driven mostly by developing countries, whose fertility dropped by more than half — from 5.6 in 1970-75 to 2.5 children per woman in 2005-10. The decline was less marked among the least developed countries — from 6.3 children per woman to 4.4. In many developed countries, fertility began declining as early as the 19th century and most recorded low levels of fertility long before 1950. Fertility increased in the baby boom of 1945-65, when people in the West compensated for the horrors of World War II and its huge toll on human life by higher population growth. By the 1970s, however, fertility in developed countries was falling again. In the developing world, fertility levels remained high until the ’60s and began falling in most countries of Latin America and the Caribbean and some in Asia during the late 1960s. By the ’70s and early ’80s, declining fertility was common in most developing countries except sub-Saharan Africa, where this decline occurred in the late ’80s or ’90s.

There is wide variation in fertility rates between countries from just 1 child per woman in the Macao Special Administrative Region of China to 7.4 children per woman in Guinea-Bissau. Among the 45 developed countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants in 2008, total fertility varies between 1.2 and 2.0 children per woman. Among the 150 developing countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants in 2008, all but 31 experienced a reduction of fertility averaging 0.4 children per decade or more. Total fertility in 72 of the developing countries was at or below 3 children per woman.

How has this decline in fertility taken place? There are two major factors — birth control and changes in the childbearing age. Birth control, whether traditional or modern, is practised by 70-90 per cent of people in the developed countries and by 40-60 per cent people in developing countries. In India, about 56 per cent of couples are estimated to be using some form of birth control, up from about 45 per cent in 1988. There are several least developed countries where birth control is practised by less than 20 per cent of couples.

Decisions regarding childbearing — when to start and when to stop — are perhaps the most crucial factor in fertility decline. Two distinct trends are visible across the world. Usually, fertility starts declining when women limit the size of their families by stopping childbearing earlier than their mothers did. Hence, fertility declines at older ages, making the average age of childbearing decrease. This trend is visible across Asia, Africa and Latin America. In India too, the average age of childbearing has declined from 29.4 years to 26.8 years over the past 30 years. When fertility is already moderately low, as in North America, Europe and Oceania, there is a different phenomenon: women postpone childbearing, thus increasing the average age of childbearing. In developed countries, the oldest mothers are in Ireland where the average age of childbearing was 31.1 years. Among developing nations, Bangladesh (25.1 years) had the youngest mothers.

Fertility levels among women aged 15-19 are an indicator of the status of women, since those who bear children early in life forgo the opportunity to study or find employment outside the home. In developed countries, the adolescent birth rate varies between 4 and 41 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19, with the US having the highest value of 41. In developing countries the range of variation is considerably larger: from below 5 to over 190 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19. The highest rates are recorded in Chad, Mali and the Niger. India had an adolescent birth rate of 89 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19 in 1970-75, which has nearly halved to 45 in 2005-10.

Declining fertility means fewer children are being born. On the other hand, better healthcare and more food has led to increasing life expectancy around the world, even though it varies widely between developed and under-developed countries. These two trends together have meant that the proportion of elderly (over 60 years of age) is increasing rapidly. In 1950, just 8 per cent of the population fell in this category. In 2009, it had increased to 11 per cent, and according to UN projections, it will jump to 22 per cent by 2050. These are not just statistics — the implications are mindboggling. From a mere 200 million senior citizens in 1950, their numbers will jump to 2 billion by 2050.

In the more developed regions, over a fifth of the population is currently aged 60 or more and by 2050, every third person will be in that age group. In the less developed regions, older persons account today for just 8 per cent of the population but by 2050 every fifth person will be elderly. The pace of ageing is much faster in the developing world than it was in the developed regions. This means that societies in the developing world will have a much shorter time to adjust to an ageing population, with its natural repercussions of a smaller workforce, need for wider care-systems etc.

The number of people above 80 years of age is increasing at 4 per cent per year, compared to the 2.6 per cent increase in people over 60, and a total population growth rate of just 1.2 per cent per year for the world. Today, among the elderly population, every seventh person is over 80 years. By 2050, every fifth person will be above 80 years.

Another new trend has been starkly revealed in the latest data — not only is the elderly population rising rapidly, it is increasingly feminised. Currently, women outnumber men by an estimated 66 million among those aged 60 or more. Among those aged 80 or more, women are nearly twice as numerous as men, and among centenarians women are between four and five times as numerous as men. Because they live longer and are less likely to remarry, older women are much less likely than older men to be currently married, and older women are also more likely to live alone.

Although populations in both rural and urban areas are ageing, fertility is higher in rural areas. With many working age adults migrating to earn a living, care of the two most vulnerable sections — children and elderly — is fast becoming a crisis in rural areas of developing countries. There are no social security systems in place, putting the care-giving load on cash-strapped women of the families. Due to economic distress, 35 per cent of men and 19 per cent of women among the elderly continue to work in developing countries.

The decline in the number of children and increase in number of elderly has a far-reaching impact on family ties and security as there is a progressive reduction in the availability of kin on whom future generations of older persons can rely for support. This change may significantly impact the well-being of older persons, especially in the less developed regions where social support for the aged is largely provided by the immediate family.

Cutting population down to size – key culprits

    * 60% of the world’s population resides in Asia.
    * 17% of the world’s population resides in India
    * 20% of the world’s population resides in the People’s Republic of China.
    * 12 % of the world’s population resides in Africa.
    * 11% of the world’s population resides in Europe.
    * 8% of the world’s population resides in North America.
    * 5.3% of the world’s population resides in South America.

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