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Depopulation, or population decline, has become an especially relevant topic given that depopulation is projected to occur in most countries of the world during the twenty-first century. Despite the vast amount of attention paid to the phenomenon of overpopulation since the late 1960s (see Ehrlich 1968; Meadows, Randers, and Meadows 2004; Friedman 2005), declines in population are expected to occur in around fifty or more countries by the year 2050, according to the Population Reference Bureau, and in even more countries thereafter. Although the overall population of the world is projected to continue to grow, reaching around 9.1 billion by 2050 (according to the United Nations medium-variant projection), a slowing of the rate of population growth is already under way, and a decline in the size of the population of the world could begin as early the middle of the twenty-first century. The region of the world most significantly impacted by depopulation is Europe. Between 2000 and 2005 at least sixteen countries in Europe had already experienced a decline in population. The largest net loss in population has occurred in Russia, with a decline of almost 3.4 million persons in the five years between 2000 and 2005.

For most of the worlds countries, the reason for the net loss in population is sustained low fertility. In order for a population to be stationary (neither grow nor decline), the total fertility rates (TFRs) need to be at replacement level (2.1 children per woman) for an extended period of time, and the cohorts in the childbearing ages cannot be larger than those in other age groups. If there are large numbers of people in the parental ages, replacement level fertility alone will not result in depopulation. This is due to the phenomenon of what demographers refer to as population momentum, which is the lag between the decline in total fertility rates and the decline in crude birth rates. This occurs when there are large numbers of women still in their childbearing years because of past high fertility. The United Nations reports that in the 2000-2005 period there were sixty-five countries with fertility rates below replacement levels. Fifteen of these had rates that were at extremely low levels (a TFR below 1.3). In 2006 the Population Reference Bureau reported that as many as seventy-three countries were experiencing total fertility rates below the replacement level (Population Reference Bureau 2006).

Many countries with relatively high TFRs experienced declines in their fertility in the late twentieth century. For example, the United Nations reports that of the thirty-five countries with a TFR of five or higher, twenty-two experienced declines in fertility between 1990 and 2005. These rates of fertility, which are lower than they were previously, coupled with low rates of mortality and immigration are responsible for population declines in the majority of countries projected to lose population. For a few countries, population decline is expected to occur even though their fertility rate is above replacement level. These countries, namely, Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland, are significantly impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, leading to a net loss in population.

The depopulation of most of the countries in the developed world has significant economic impacts and implications. Major impacts will most likely be felt through population aging. As fertility declines, birth cohorts become progressively smaller. These smaller birth cohorts, coupled with increases in life expectancy, lead to an increasingly larger proportion of the population over the age of sixty-five and a smaller proportion of the population in the working age range. The United Nations reports that the period between 2005 and 2050 will see a doubling of the old-age dependency ratio (the ratio of the population aged 65 and over to the population aged 15 to 64, times 100) in developed countries, with this ratio growing from 22.6 to 44.4 (United Nations 2005). For many countries, health care and pension programs are ill-equipped to handle large increases in the numbers of elderly persons, who themselves will live longer than their predecessors.

The long-term effects of depopulation have prompted some countries to enact policies to encourage increases in fertility. These include financial remittances for each child born, liberal parental leave policies, and guaranteed child care and schooling for children. According to Michael Balter, writing in 2006, one of the most expansive and generous fertility policies has been enacted in Australia, where remittances per child have exceeded US$3,000. However, the effectiveness of these fertility incentives is hotly debated. Some argue that incentives are beneficial in easing the financial burdens caused by additional children, making families more willing to increase their childbearing. Others emphasize that any increases due to these policies will be small. While financial resources may make it easier for families to pay for the children they already want to have, they are unlikely to raise fertility to the level necessary to stave off population decline.

As an alternative to policies that encourage fertility increases, some demographers suggest that imbalances in population age structure can be corrected through increases in immigration. Ben Wattenberg notes in Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future (2004) that since most developing countries are still experiencing high birthrates and population growth, immigration originating from these countries can supplement small working age cohorts in other countries. While international migration may be beneficial in the redistribution of national populations, immigration policies encouraging immigration from developing countries remain the least favored policies of countries experiencing population declines.

SEE ALSO Demography; Fertility, Human; Migration; Morbidity and Mortality; Overpopulation; Population Control


Balter, Michael. 2006. The Baby Deficit. Science 312 (5782): 18941897.

Ehrlich, Paul. 1968. The Population Bomb. New York: Ballantine.

Friedman, Benjamin M. 2005. The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. New York: Knopf.

Meadows, Donella, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis L. Meadows. 2004. Limits to Growth: The Thirty-Year Update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.

Population Reference Bureau. 2006. 2006 World Population Data Sheet. Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau.

United Nations. 2003. Demographic Yearbook 2003. New York: United Nations. htm.

United Nations. 2005. Analytical Report. Vol. 3 of World Population Prospects: The 2004 Revision. New York: United Nations.

Wattenberg, Ben J. 2004. Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.

Lindsay M. Howden

Dudley L. Poston Jr.