Charted: The Global Decline of Fertility Rates
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Charted: The Global Decline of Fertility Rates

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Chart showing the change in global fertility rates since 1951

Charted: The Global Decline of Fertility Rates

Over the last 50 years, fertility rates have dropped drastically around the world. In 1952, the average global family had five children—now, they have less than three.

This graphic by Pablo Alvarez uses tracked fertility rates from Our World in Data to show how rates have evolved (and largely fallen) over the past decades.

What’s The Difference Between Fertility Rates and Birth Rates?

Though both measures relate to population growth, a country’s birth rate and fertility rate are noticeably different:

  • Birth Rate: The total number of births in a year per 1,000 individuals.
  • Fertility Rate: The total number of births in a year per 1,000 women of reproductive age in a population.

As such, the fertility rate is a more specific measure, which as Britannica highlights, “allows for more efficient and beneficial planning and resource allocation.” Not including immigration, a given area needs an overall total fertility rate of 2.1 to keep a stable population.

Global Fertility Rates since 1952

For the last half-century, fertility rates have steadily decreased worldwide. Here’s a look at the average number of children per woman since 1952:

YearAverage # of children per family% change (y-o-y)
19515.0-0.5%
19525.0-1.4%
19534.9-0.7%
19544.9-0.5%
19554.9-0.3%
19564.9-0.1%
19574.90.1%
19584.90.3%
19594.90.4%
19605.00.5%
19615.00.5%
19625.00.4%
19635.00.3%
19645.00.1%
19655.0-0.2%
19665.0-0.5%
19675.0-0.8%
19684.9-1.1%
19694.8-1.4%
19704.7-1.8%
19714.6-2.1%
19724.5-2.5%
19734.4-2.7%
19744.3-2.9%
19754.2-2.9%
19764.0-2.8%
19773.9-2.7%
19783.8-2.4%
19793.8-2.1%
19803.7-1.7%
19813.6-1.3%
19823.6-1.0%
19833.6-0.8%
19843.6-0.7%
19853.5-0.8%
19863.5-1.0%
19873.4-1.4%
19883.4-1.7%
19893.3-2.1%
19903.2-2.4%
19913.1-2.6%
19923.1-2.6%
19933.0-2.4%
19942.9-2.2%
19952.9-1.8%
19962.8-1.5%
19972.8-1.3%
19982.8-1.1%
19992.7-1.1%
20002.7-0.9%
20012.7-0.9%
20022.7-0.7%
20032.6-0.6%
20042.6-0.6%
20052.6-0.5%
20062.6-0.5%
20072.6-0.5%
20082.6-0.5%
20092.6-0.5%
20102.5-0.5%
20112.5-0.5%
20122.5-0.5%
20132.5-0.5%
20142.5-0.4%
20152.5-0.4%
20162.5-0.4%
20172.5-0.4%
20182.5-0.4%
20192.5-0.4%
20202.4-0.4%

Why are women having fewer children? There are a number of theories and empirical research studies to help explain this decrease, but according to Dr. Max Roser, the founder of Our World in Data, most of the literature boils down to three main factors:

  • Women’s empowerment, particularly in education and the workforce
  • Lower child mortality
  • Increased cost to raising children

Research has found that higher education in women is correlated with lower fertility. For instance, in Iran in the 1950s, women had an average of three years of schooling and raised seven children on average.

But by 2010, when Iranian women had nine years of schooling on average, the average fertility rate in the country had dropped to 1.8.

This theory is further supported when you look at countries where women’s education is still relatively lagging. For instance, in 2010, women in Niger had 1.3 years of education on average, and an average of more than seven children—more than double the global average at that time.

The Societal Impact

Lower fertility rates, coupled with increased life expectancies around the world, are creating an aging population. Since 1950, the global median age has grown from 25 years to 33 years.

An older population comes with a number of economic risks, including rising healthcare costs and a smaller global workforce.

share of population that's working age is shrinking

According to a report by the World Bank, the world’s working-age population peaked back in 2012. Since then, it’s been on the decline.

A smaller working population puts more pressure on those who are working to support those who are collecting pensions. This could ultimately lead to an economic slowdown if countries don’t prepare and alter their pension systems accordingly, to account for our aging population.

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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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Demographics

Ranked: The 20 Countries With the Fastest Declining Populations

Population decline is a rising issue for many countries in Eastern Europe, as well as outliers like Japan and Cuba.

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Visualizing Population Decline by Country

Since the mid-1900s, the global population has followed a steep upwards trajectory.

While much of this growth has been concentrated in China and India, researchers expect the next wave of growth to occur in Africa. As of 2019, for example, the average woman in Niger is having over six children in her lifetime.

At the opposite end of this spectrum are a number of countries that appear to be shrinking from a population perspective. To shed some light on this somewhat surprising trend, we’ve visualized the top 20 countries by population decline.

The Top 20

The following table ranks countries by their rate of population decline, based on projected rate of change between 2020 and 2050 and using data from the United Nations.

RankCountryDecline 2020-2050
1🇧🇬 Bulgaria22.5%
2🇱🇹 Lithuania22.1%
3🇱🇻 Latvia21.6%
4🇺🇦 Ukraine19.5%
5🇷🇸 Serbia18.9%
6🇧🇦 Bosnia and Herzegovina18.2%
7🇭🇷 Croatia18.0%
8🇲🇩 Moldova16.7%
9🇯🇵 Japan16.3%
10🇦🇱 Albania15.8%
11🇷🇴 Romania15.5%
12🇬🇷 Greece13.4%
13🇪🇪 Estonia12.7%
14🇭🇺 Hungary12.3%
15🇵🇱 Poland12.0%
16🇬🇪 Georgia11.8%
17🇵🇹 Portugal10.9%
18🇲🇰 North Macedonia10.9%
19🇨🇺 Cuba10.3%
20🇮🇹 Italy10.1%

Many of these countries are located in or near Eastern Europe, for reasons we’ll discuss below.

The first issue is birth rates, which according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), have fallen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Across the region, the average number of children per woman fell from 2.1 in 1988 to 1.2 by 1998.

Birth rates have recovered slightly since then, but are not enough to offset deaths and emigration, which refers to citizens leaving their country to live elsewhere.

Eastern Europe saw several waves of emigration following the European Union’s (EU) border expansions in 2004 and 2007. The PIIE reports that by 2016, 6.3 million Eastern Europeans resided in other EU states.

The Outliers

There are two geographical outliers in this dataset which sit on either side of Europe.

Japan

The first is Japan, where birth rates have fallen continuously since 1970. It wasn’t until 2010, however, that the country’s overall population began to shrink.

By the numbers, the situation appears dire. In 2021, 811,604 babies were born in Japan, while 1.44 million people died. As a result of its low birth rates, the island nation also has the world’s highest average age at 49 years old.

The Japanese government has introduced various social programs to make having kids more appealing, but these don’t appear to be getting to the root of the problem. For deeper insight into Japan’s low birthrates, it’s worth reading this article by The Atlantic.

Cuba

The second country is Cuba, and it’s the only one not located within the Eastern Hemisphere. Cuba’s fertility rate of 1.7 children per woman is the lowest in the Latin American region. It can be compared to countries like Mexico (2.2), Paraguay (2.5), and Guatemala (3.0).

Cuba’s immigration is also incredibly low compared to its neighboring countries. According to the International Organization for Migration, immigrants account for just 0.1% of its total population.

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Demographics

Mapped: A Decade of Population Growth and Decline in U.S. Counties

This map shows which counties in the U.S. have seen the most growth, and which places have seen their populations dwindle in the last 10 years.

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A Decade of Population Growth and Decline in U.S. Counties

There are a number of factors that determine how much a region’s population changes.

If an area sees a high number of migrants, along with a strong birth rate and low death rate, then its population is bound to increase over time. On the flip side, if more people are leaving the area than coming in, and the region’s birth rate is low, then its population will likely decline.

Which areas in the United States are seeing the most growth, and which places are seeing their populations dwindle?

This map, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, shows a decade of population movement across U.S. counties, painting a detailed picture of U.S. population growth between 2010 and 2020.

Counties With The Biggest Population Growth from 2010-2020

To calculate population estimates for each county, the U.S. Census Bureau does the following calculations:

A county’s base population → plus births → minus deaths → plus migration = new population estimate

 
From 2010 to 2020, Maricopa County in Arizona saw the highest increase in its population estimate. Over a decade, the county gained 753,898 residents. Below are the counties that saw the biggest increases in population:

RankCountyPoint of ReferenceStatePop. Growth (2010–2020)
#1Maricopa CountyPhoenix, ScottsdaleArizona+753,898
#2Harris CountyHoustonTexas+630,711
#3Clark CountyLas VegasNevada+363,323
#4King CountySeattleWashington+335,884
#5Tarrant CountyFort Worth, ArlingtonTexas+305,180
#6Bexar CountySan AntonioTexas+303,982
#7Riverside CountyRiverside, Palm SpringsCalifornia+287,626
#8Collin CountyPlanoTexas+284,967
#9Travis CountyAustinTexas+270,111
#10Hillsborough CountyTampaFlorida+264,446

Phoenix and surrounding areas grew faster than any other major city in the country. The region’s sunny climate and amenities are popular with retirees, but another draw is housing affordability. Families from more expensive markets—California in particular—are moving to the city in droves. This is a trend that spilled over into the pandemic era as more people moved into remote and hybrid work situations.

Texas counties saw a lot of growth as well, with five of the top 10 gainers located in the state of Texas. A big draw for Texas is its relatively affordable housing market. In 2021, average home prices in the state stood at $172,500$53,310 below the national average.

Counties With The Biggest Population Drops from 2010-2020

On the opposite end of the spectrum, here’s a look at the top 10 counties that saw the biggest declines in their populations over the decade:

RankCountyPoint of ReferenceStatePop. Growth (2010–2020)
#1Cook CountyChicagoIllinois-90,693
#2Wayne CountyDetroitMichigan-74,224
#3Cuyahoga CountyClevelandOhio-50,220
#4Genesee CountyFlintMichigan-20,165
#5Suffolk CountyLong IslandNew York-20,064
#6Caddo ParishShreveportLouisiana-18,173
#7Westmoreland CountyMurrysvillePennsylvania-17,942
#8Hinds CountyJacksonMississippi-17,751
#9Kanawha CountyCharlestonWest Virginia-16,672
#10Cambria CountyJohnstownPennsylvania-14,786

The largest drops happened in counties along the Great Lakes, including Cook County (which includes the city of Chicago) and Wayne County (which includes the city of Detroit).

For many of these counties, particularly those in America’s “Rust Belt”, population drops over this period were a continuation of decades-long trends. Wayne County is an extreme example of this trend. From 1970 to 2020, the area lost one-third of its population.

U.S. Population Growth in Percentage Terms (2010-2020)

While the map above is great at showing where the greatest number of Americans migrated, it downplays big changes in counties with smaller populations.

For example, McKenzie County in North Dakota, with a 2020 population of just 15,242, was the fastest-growing U.S. county over the past decade. The county’s 138% increase was driven primarily by the Bakken oil boom in the area. High-growth counties in Texas also grew as new sources of energy were extracted in rural areas.

The nation’s counties are evenly divided between population increase and decline, and clear patterns emerge.

population changes in u.s. counties (%)

Pandemic Population Changes

More recent population changes reflect longer-term trends. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the counties that saw the strongest population increases were located in high-growth states like Florida and Texas.

Below are the 20 counties that grew the most from 2020 to 2021.

RankCountyPoint of ReferenceStatePop. Growth (2020–2021)
#1Maricopa CountyPhoenixArizona+58,246
#2Collin CountyPlanoTexas+36,313
#3Riverside CountyRiverside, Palm SpringsCalifornia+35,631
#4Fort Bend CountySugar LandTexas+29,895
#5Williamson CountyGeorgetownTexas+27,760
#6Denton CountyDentonTexas+27,747
#7Polk CountyLakelandFlorida+24,287
#8Montgomery CountyThe WoodlandsTexas+23,948
#9Lee CountyFort MyersFlorida+23,297
#10Utah CountyProvoUtah+21,843
#11Pinal CountySan Tan ValleyArizona+19,974
#12Clark CountyLas VegasNevada+19,090
#13Pasco CountyNew Port RicheyFlorida+18,322
#14Wake CountyRaleighNorth Carolina+16,651
#15St. Johns CountySt. AugustineFlorida+15,550
#16Hillsborough CountyTampaFlorida+14,814
#17Bexar CountySan AntonioTexas+14,184
#18Ada CountyBoiseIdaho+13,947
#19Osceola CountyKissimmeeFlorida+12,427
#20St. Lucie CountyFort PierceFlorida+12,304

Many of these counties are located next to large cities, reflecting a shift to the suburbs and larger living spaces. However, as COVID-19 restrictions ease, and the pandemic housing boom tapers off due to rising interest rates, it remains to be seen whether the suburban shift will continue, or if people begin to migrate back to city centers.

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