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Charted: The Rapid Decline of Global Birth Rates

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Multiple charts tracking the birth rates for the 49 most populous countries of the world, accounting for 85% of the world’s population.

Charted: The Rapid Decline in Global Birth Rates

In 1798, British economist Thomas Malthus proposed a groundbreaking theory now known as the “Malthusian Trap”—suggesting that human population growth is exponential and thus would outpace the linear growth of resources such as food supply.

He worried that this runaway population growth would become unsustainable, eventually relying on sudden shock events—wars, disasters, famines—to reset the population to more sustainable levels. And over the next 200 years, the world population skyrocketed from 1 billion to 8 billion people on the planet.

However, as it turns out, no such shock events were required to turn the tide of population growth. Instead, it’s been rapidly declining birth rates across the world that seem to be leading to an unthinkable outcome for Malthus: a gradually plateauing or even shrinking global population.

In the visualization above, Pablo Alvarez has visualized the crude birth rate for the 49 most populous countries of the world in 2021, using data from the UN’s World Population Prospects 2022 to examine changes since 1950.

Understanding Birth Rates vs Fertility Rates

Birth rates are commonly measured using a metric called the “crude birth rate” (CBR), which represents the number of live births per 1,000 individuals in a given population during a specific period—usually one year.

The measured decline in CBR is also a result of plummeting fertility rates across the globe. Not to be confused with birth rates, fertility rates measure how many children a woman will have over the course of her lifetime.

While a country’s birth rate is directly impacted by the fertility rate, it also takes into account other factors: population size, age structure of the population, access to contraception, cultural norms, government policies, and socioeconomic conditions.

Birth Rates of the Most Populated Countries

Here’s a snapshot of the CBR for the 49 most populous countries of the world at different years from 1950 to 2021.

Country195019902021% Change (1950-2021)
🇦🇫 Afghanistan48.8751.4235.84-27%
🇩🇿 Algeria51.0530.7621.52-58%
🇦🇴 Angola46.1551.3438.81-16%
🇦🇷 Argentina26.0021.9913.90-47%
🇧🇩 Bangladesh46.5234.9717.82-62%
🇧🇷 Brazil46.4324.8412.88-72%
🇨🇦 Canada26.8015.469.82-63%
🇨🇳 China41.0524.447.63-81%
🇨🇴 Colombia46.7427.3714.20-70%
🇨🇩 DRC46.0246.0142.05-9%
🇪🇬 Egypt54.2033.2122.56-58%
🇪🇹 Ethiopia49.4050.0532.38-34%
🇫🇷 France20.7713.3410.50-49%
🇩🇪 Germany16.2211.309.17-43%
🇬🇭 Ghana46.7640.3727.55-41%
🇮🇳 India43.8431.8216.42-63%
🇮🇩 Indonesia40.6425.5216.42-60%
🇮🇷 Iran50.1432.4613.70-73%
🇮🇶 Iraq45.7339.4127.37-40%
🇮🇹 Italy19.7010.016.93-65%
🇯🇵 Japan28.349.916.57-77%
🇰🇪 Kenya49.4743.5227.68-44%
🇲🇾 Malaysia44.3127.8915.24-66%
🇲🇽 Mexico49.3129.3014.86-70%
🇲🇦 Morocco51.0829.2317.55-66%
🇲🇿 Mozambique46.6646.3836.60-22%
🇲🇲 Myanmar45.5827.4817.10-62%
🇳🇵 Nepal47.0638.1120.40-57%
🇳🇬 Nigeria45.6143.7937.12-19%
🇵🇰 Pakistan43.7243.1527.52-37%
🇵🇪 Peru48.1630.9017.62-63%
🇵🇭 Philippines49.8433.2621.81-56%
🇵🇱 Poland30.8514.289.49-69%
🇷🇺 Russia28.8013.529.64-67%
🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia53.3434.4117.47-67%
🇿🇦 South Africa41.6531.1519.82-52%
🇰🇷 South Korea40.0315.695.58-86%
🇪🇸 Spain20.0110.307.55-62%
🇸🇩 Sudan47.7543.0933.60-30%
🇹🇿 Tanzania47.7543.7836.21-24%
🇹🇭 Thailand43.8419.739.00-79%
🇹🇷 Türkiye46.3925.8714.68-68%
🇺🇸 U.S.22.8116.7311.06-52%
🇺🇬 Uganda52.4251.3736.80-30%
🇬🇧 UK16.4413.8810.08-39%
🇺🇦 Ukraine22.9512.767.72-66%
🇺🇿 Uzbekistan39.8533.9823.55-41%
🇻🇳 Vietnam38.8228.5115.01-61%
🇾🇪 Yemen52.5950.6430.54-42%

Every country on the list has seen a decline in birth rates in the last 70 years, with some declines more staggering than others. For example, China recorded 41 births per 1,000 people in 1950. By 2021, that number had fallen to just 7.6, a 81% decrease.

South Korea, the 29th most populous country in the world in 2021, saw an even larger 86% drop in its birth rate since 1950. In fact, almost every single country in this dataset has seen a double-digit fall in their birth rates over the past 70 years. Only the Democratic Republic of Congo has seen a single-digit percentage decline between 1950 and 2021.

Why are Global Birth Rates Falling?

For the 49 most populated countries in 2021, birth rates have halved on average in the last 70 years:

49 Most Populated Countries195019902021
Average Birth Rate40.9930.1819.50
Median Birth Rate45.7330.7617.10

But while the thought of a shrinking world population may seem worrisome, declining birth rates are generally thought of as a triumph of rapid socio-economic development.

As countries progress and living standards improve, there is a shift in societal norms and aspirations. For example, expanded education and career opportunities for women allow the pursuit of professional growth and personal goals, with some women choosing to delay starting a family or having smaller families.

Growing urbanization is another key driver of declining birth rates, characterized by smaller living spaces, increased focus on careers, and limited support networks. Another is the growing access to family planning services and contraceptives, particularly since the 1970s.

What are the Future Consequences?

The biggest consequence of declining birth rates—and one that is already being seen in many parts of the world—is a rapidly aging population.

With fewer children being born, the proportion of elderly individuals increases relative to the working-age population. This demographic imbalance poses challenges for social welfare systems, healthcare, and pension schemes.

Declining birth rates can also impact the labor market and economic productivity. A smaller workforce may lead to labor shortages, skill gaps, and reduced innovation. And shrinking populations reduce consumer demand, a cornerstone of the global economy, which may trigger a restructure of the current growth model of development.

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This article was published as a part of Visual Capitalist's Creator Program, which features data-driven visuals from some of our favorite Creators around the world.

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Africa

Mapped: Africa’s Population Density Patterns

We map out Africa’s population density, spotlighting the continent’s most populous countries and cities.

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A cropped map of Africa’s population density, spotlighting the continent’s most populous countries and cities, and the fastest-growing regions.

Mapped: Africa’s Population Density Patterns

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

Africa, the world’s second largest continent, spans over 30 million km2, home to the not only world’s biggest desert but also the second-largest tropical rainforest, and of course, approximately 1.4 billion people.

In this infographic, we map out the continent’s population density patterns. It’s a prime example of how humans congregate near fresh water and around the edges of natural obstacles.

This population density data comes from the Gridded Population of the World dataset created by the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) hosted by NASA’s Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC).

Ranked: Most Populous African Countries

Africa’s second largest economy, Nigeria, is also its most populous: more than 220 million people live in this diverse West African country with 250 ethnic groups, speaking over 500 different languages.

And the nation is only growing. By 2100, it’s estimated that the Nigerian population could be more than three-fold its current size, at nearly 800 million residents, becoming the second-most populous country in the world.

RankCountryPopulation
1🇳🇬 Nigeria224M
2🇪🇹 Ethiopia127M
3🇪🇬 Egypt112M
4🇨🇩 DRC 102M
5🇹🇿 Tanzania67M
6🇿🇦 South Africa59M
7🇰🇪 Kenya55M
8🇺🇬 Uganda49M
9🇸🇩 Sudan48M
10🇩🇿 Algeria46M

Source: UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World Population Prospects. (2022)

Across the continent, along its eastern side, Ethiopia, is the second-most populous country on the continent. Unlike Nigeria—which has nearly 20 cities with at least half a million residents—more than three-quarters of Ethiopia’s 127 million people live in rural communities.

Ranked third, Egypt (112 million) is the only North African country in the top five by population. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) comes in fourth (102 million), with Tanzania (67 million) rounding out the top five.

Ranked: Fastest Growing African Countries By Population

In the year 1900, Africa accounted for 9% of the world’s population. Currently its share stands close to 18%. By 2025, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects one in four people in the world to live in Africa, and says the continent’s demographic transition has the power to “transform the world.”

The most populous African countries (DRC, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Egypt) will contribute the lion’s share to this growth of course, but within the continent, other countries are also seeing relatively rapid population growth.

RankCountryGrowth Rate
1🇸🇸 South Sudan4.78%
2🇳🇪 Niger3.66%
3🇧🇮 Burundi3.59%
4🇬🇶 Equatorial Guinea3.36%
5🇦🇴 Angola3.34%
6🇧🇯 Benin3.31%
7🇺🇬 Uganda3.22%
8🇨🇩 DRC3.13%
9🇹🇩 Chad3.05%
10🇲🇱 Mali2.93%

Source: CIA World Factbook.

In South Sudan, the world’s newest country, the population is growing at nearly 5% every year. The broader sub-Saharan population meanwhile is growing at half that rate. Aside from a higher fertility rate, the country is also seeing an influx of refugees from conflict areas in neighboring Sudan.

While no other African nation is quite matching South Sudan’s population growth, several of Africa’s poorer economies are also posting an annual population increase of more than 3% including Niger, Burundi, and Chad.

Ranked: Most Populous African Cities

About half of Africa lives in urban areas, which is less than the global average of 57%. The 10 most populous cities on the continent together account for about 115 million people, more than 1.5x the UK’s total population.

Egypt’s capital, Cairo, built along the banks of the Nile, is home to more than 22 million residents, and ranks as Africa’s largest city. This bustling metropolis has stood as an important trade juncture between continents for more than 1,400 years—and is still somehow one of Egypt’s younger cities.

RankCityCountryPopulation
1Cairo🇪🇬 Egypt22.2M
2Lagos🇳🇬 Nigeria21.4M
3Kinshasa🇨🇩 DRC 15.0M
4Johannesburg🇿🇦 South Africa14.8M
5Luanda🇦🇴 Angola9.0M
6Khartoum🇸🇩 Sudan6.9M
7Abidjan🇨🇮 Cote d'Ivoire6.6M
8Nairobi🇰🇪 Kenya6.6M
9Accra🇬🇭 Ghana6.4M
10Dar es Salaam🇹🇿 Tanzania6.0M

Source: Urban agglomerates (2023) Citypopulation.de.

Down south, across the Sahara desert, and near the shores of the Atlantic, Nigeria’s former capital Lagos has slightly more than 21 million people. The city’s name comes from the numerous surrounding lagoons, and its original name in Yoruba, “Eko”, also means “lake.” Population estimates for the city are often disputed because of several different administrative regions, but also because of how fast Lagos is growing: it’s estimated 2,000 new residents move in every day.

Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC ranks third with about 15 million residents, and is slated to become the fourth largest city in the world, with 35 million people, by 2050.

Johannesburg, South Africa (15 million), and Luanda, Angola (9 million) round out the top five most populous African cities.

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