Why the world needs fewer babies – part three

The final of a three-part series exploring the widespread push to increase birth rates around the world. In this edition, Campaign and Communications Specialist Florence Blondel discusses our continuing population growth and how we can adapt to a low-fertility future.


The issue of birth rates is complex. While some countries face population decline, others grapple with high population growth and its environmental strains. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) argues that:

continuing rapid population growth is partly the result of a failure to ensure that all people, everywhere, have the knowledge, ability and means to determine whether and when to have children.” 

There is a dramatic increase in Sub-Saharan Africa (average of 4.6 births per woman) and Africa in general is going to be fueling the world’s population growth across most of the 21st century. Population has not stopped growing, despite a slowdown, the world still adds over 73 million people annually, and lifespans are extending (which is good).

In 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified population growth as one of the two “strongest drivers” of carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion, and in 2018, identified future high population growth as a “key impediment” to keeping global warming under 1.5°C.  

Our planet simply cannot continue to have huge childbearing, particularly from high income, high-consuming countries. And I think it is politically very irresponsible to put pressure on young couples to have more children in a high consuming country, not only environmentally. We know it’s not good for women, it’s not necessarily good for communities. Demographically, it really doesn’t make sense.” 

Sara Harper, professor of gerontology (the study of the impact of ageing) at the University of Oxford


The Global Footprint Network calculates that humanity uses the planet’s resources 1.75 times faster than they can be renewed. They recently announced that Earth Overshoot Day, the day we have used the earth’s replenishable resources for the entire year, falls on 1 August. For some countries, the date has already passed. 

 If every other family had one less child and parenthood was postponed by two years, by 2050 we would move Overshoot Day 49 days.”  


The answer doesn’t lie in pronouncements from billionaires or coercive government policies. We need a balanced approach, one that respects individual choice, promotes family well-being and also considers the environmental impact of population growth.

Traditionally, younger generations supported older ones. But what if that model could change? Our report, Silver Linings, not Silver Burdens, explores policy solutions for a shrinking workforce and ageing population. 


Sara Harper, Professor of Gerontology (the study of the impact of ageing) at the University of Oxford says this trend isn’t a surprise. She explains it as a “demographic transition”. As societies become more educated and developed, infant mortality declines, then fertility. Populations start to fall, then massively expand before contracting and ageing. 

Professor Sara Harper

The economic challenges are clear: pensions, healthcare and worker shortages. Professor Harper proposes “demographic levers” as solutions including migration, a complex issue but a natural demographic balancing act. Historically, high-income countries have benefited from immigration, boosting their workforce. 

And it should, in theory, pan out across to the end of the 21st century when we believe in theory the whole world will be more or less at replacement. But of course, countries intervene and we only have to look at our own country. That has really brought the curtains down on migration and people are beginning to bandy around the fact that, of course, Britain has an ageing population. We’ve got to do something about it. Well, actually we were doing something about it and it was called immigration.”  

The UN reports immigration is playing an increasingly significant role in population growth. In high-income countries, it’s expected to become the primary driver in the near future. This is partly because immigrants tend to be younger and have more children. 

Subsequently, the children of immigrants enlarge the cohort of persons moving into the reproductive age range; as they begin to have children of their own, they may help to sustain a higher birth rate than would have been observed in the absence of migration, even as individual reproductive behaviours in the migrant community converge towards local norms.” 


Pronatalism subjugates young girls and women, reducing them to mere child-bearing and rearing machines. Encouraging rapid population growth could exacerbate environmental problems. Moreover, critics argue pronatalism prioritises quantity over quality, neglecting issues like child well-being and education. Shifting focus to sustainable living practices can help maintain a good quality of life with a smaller population. Amid all this trending pronatalism, we have got to ask ourselves whether we are really giving people a choice. Judith Blake in her paper Coercive Pronatalism and American Population Policy writes: 

…people make their voluntary reproductive choices in an institutional context that severally constrains them not to remain single, not to choose childlessness, not to bear only one child, and even not to limit themselves to two children.”  

The changing demographic landscape requires policies that prioritise individual choice, gender equality and environmental sustainability above population scaremongering. 


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