In a wonderful TEDx talk (“The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen”), Swedish scientist Hans Rosling uses an impressive display of statistics and graphs where he shows population growth trends in most of the world, especially the developing world. Most of us are familiar with the notion that people nowadays are having much fewer children than their parents or grandparents did; but also that the world is populated enough that the demographic momentum created by earlier generations means that population keeps growing almost everywhere.
Still, population growth is a topic which can bring up anxieties to specific groups. Those anxieties tend to boil down to – often hugely misguided – ideas about how people of one certain group are reproducing “too little”, while people from another group (vaguely or overtly treated as “undesirable”) are reproducing “too much”. It should be reinforced that in these sets of ideas, “too little” or “too much” are of course arbitrary measures. When taken to extremes, these notions can end up translated as gross human rights violations – as has historically happened numerous times. Genocides would be the most extreme violent form to try to alter population numbers within a certain group; but it need not take such an extreme or overtly violent form: there have historically been other ways to try to coerce groups into having more or less children, depending on the case. Some still believe that it’s only people in affluent countries who have reduced their fertility rates by significant amounts, while people in the global south are supposedly “still reproducing too much”. Rosling and others however, show us that in reality it’s the entire world that has reduced birth rates (with significant variations between countries). Places that we still think of as having very traditional gender roles or conservative family structures such as Russia, Saudi Arabia or many African countries, also have significantly decreased their birth rates – although it’s true that places like Niger or Bangladesh still do have very high numbers of average children per woman.
These incredibly significant changes have a lot of reasons behind them; many of them cultural (contraceptives and family planning are much more accessible and accepted nowadays), but others are related to other social trends. One of them is the hand-in-hand trend towards later marriage ages, for both men and women. This means people also have children much later in life and, as a related consequence, fewer children in total. But when people wait too long to try to have children, women can also start to have reduced fertility and ultimately problems to conceive. For many women – especially in rich countries – this will ultimately mean having fewer children than they actually would have wanted to have.
However, these trends can still be viewed as yielding net positives. The fact that people wait to have children later in life, and that access to contraceptives is so widespread, means that these days more people are having children because they truly want to and are better prepared to provide for them – with fewer unplanned pregnancies, and fewer children being conceived with the intent (or the traditional aim) to employ them as family farm labor or eventual retirement insurance. Total population numbers continue to rise, however. Is this a cause for worry?... Only insofar as it relates to resources, especially scarce non-renewable resources. Technological changes in our societies and industries have been so huge that large population numbers are not the clear advantage that they used to be – manufacturing and agriculture can be much more productive while employing fewer people; whereas health and education as public goods might mean that the future really will depend on a wise resource allocation worldwide.