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We need to prepare for a shrinking world population – but will we?

By 2100, just six of the world’s 204 economies will still have growing populations. All of them are small. Three of them are in poverty-stricken sub-Saharan Africa. The rest – including all of the largest economies – will for many decades have been living with shrinking birth rates and steadily ageing populations.

The study, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, tracks with precision that annual live births worldwide peaked at 142 million in 2016 and fell to 129 million in 2021. The world’s total fertility rate (TFR) has fallen since 1950, halving from 4.84 to 2.23 in 2021. For a society to replace itself, this rate has to be above 2.1. But by 2050, global TFR is forecast to fall to 1.83, and by 2100 to 1.59.


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These demographic shifts have profoundly altered where the world’s children are born and the problems they face. In 1950, more than half of the world’s babies were born into the comparative comfort of upper-middle and high-income societies. In 2021, around 70 per cent were born in low-income and lower-middle income countries. By 2100, nearly 80 per cent will be born in these poor countries – the majority of these in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Broadly, over the coming decades, the majority of live births will become concentrated in the areas of the world that are most vulnerable to climate change, resource insecurity, political instability, poverty and child mortality,” the Lancet report notes. It points to “a clear demographic divide between a subset of low-income countries and the rest of the world”.

The report’s authors call for “focused and