Why depopulation and birthrate decline are on the rise
This article is available also in Spanish here

Why depopulation and birthrate decline are on the rise

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Author | Raquel C. Pico

The headline dominated media coverage in the early months of 2024: Spain’s 2023 birth count of 332,075 marked a historic low, echoing across front pages as the lowest figure since records commenced in 1941. The number of births was not a new revelation; for years, media outlets have been drawing comparisons between Spain’s fertility rates and those observed during the Civil War and the challenging post-war period. In Spain, birth rates mirror those seen during its most tumultuous period in recent history, fueling growing concerns about depopulation.

The situation in Spain serves as a poignant example, reflecting a broader trend seen in many countries where reports and surveys addressing declining birth rates and potential depopulation decline are garnering significant media attention. Similarly to Spain, in other countries, the average age at which individuals choose to become parents has increased, the average number of children per family has dwindled, and there is an increasing percentage of individuals opting to remain childless. The fertility rate in Spain stands at 1.19 children per woman, while in France it is 1.83, Italy 1.25, Portugal 1.38 and United States 1.7. In the United Kingdom, the fertility rate is reportedly at its lowest point in the past two decades.

The global birth rate, according to World Bank estimates, stands at 2.3. It has been steadily declining since 1963, when it was recorded at 5.3. Despite this, the global population continues to expand within growth parameters. Recent projections by the United Nations anticipate a population growth of 2 billion over the next 30 years, with the global population projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 and 10.4 billion by the 2080s.

The issue of a declining global population may seem improbable given these total numbers; however, the reality is exceptionally complex and nuanced. The decline in birth rates has been a recurring trend observed in economies of the so-called Global North over recent decades, but it is even becoming evident outside of these regions as well. As Ipsos CEO Darrell Bricker concludes, in an estimate published on the World Economic Forum website, the decline in birth rates is indeed a global phenomenon. Contrary to expectations of a baby boom following the pandemic, the COVID-19 crisis has actually accelerated population decline in many countries.

Similarly, the decline in births has been intricately linked to depopulation processes in rural environments, where aging populations are not being replenished by new inhabitants. Few examples illustrate the challenges of rural areas better than the closure of local schools.

However, cities are not immune to these trends either. Demographic patterns are not merely shaping future landscapes; they are already requiring decisions to be made in crucial areas such as service provision and public investments.

Are birth rates dropping?

depopulation empty street

Alongside reports of population decline, media articles often compare the number of pets to children in these countries. In Spain, there are 3 million more dogs than children, which has gained viral attention on social media in recent weeks and which has been leveraged to encapsulate a particular perception regarding the factors contributing to dropping birth rates and the challenges of depopulation faced by certain regions of the country. The reality is far more complex than simply summarizing it as people preferring pets over the demanding responsibilities of raising a child.

In developed countries, there is a belief that gender inequality may be one of the factors contributing to the population decline. The professional penalties faced by women who become mothers, along with the absence of a conducive work-life balance and adequate childcare support networks, often lead to delays or the outright elimination of motherhood. In countries like South Korea, these factors contribute to exceptionally low maternity rates (0.81 children per woman).

This is coupled with precarious employment and economic uncertainty mainly affecting Generation Z and Millennials, who are currently in their fertile age. According to a study by Michigan State University, 1 in 5 adults in the United States has expressed a desire not to have children.

Equally significant is the global shift in lifestyle: as more people migrate to urban areas, the average number of children per family tends to decrease as well. Cities serve as the primary magnet for the global population in the 21st century.

The consequences of the declining population

depopulation

The connections between cities and birth rates extend beyond explaining the reasons for declining birth rates; they also entail significant consequences: One of them is that of the aforementioned population decline, which will present a significant problem for the cities of the future.

The study conducted by the University of Illinois Chicago revealed that 43% of cities analyzed in the United States are projected to experience population decline by the year 2100. Only major metropolitan areas, despite  experiencing a decline in popularity during the pandemic, will see an increase in their population. The effects of climate change, the rising cost of living, and declining birth rates are expected to be key factors for this to happen, as indicated by the main researcher, Sybil Derrible.

In the not-too-distant future, medium-sized cities may face a population decline similar to that currently being experienced in rural areas. This is actually already occurring in small cities in certain regions of Europe.

Addressing population decline and the challenges posed by aging populations will require proactive decision-making by urban planning departments. The changing dynamics will render certain urban infrastructure and services obsolete while requiring the development of new ones.

As indicated by experts Natalia Rossetti and Ramón Pablo Malagrida in an  article in Desacatos: Revista de Ciencias Sociales, European cities need to adopt a series of best practices to respond to this challenge. Success cases provide valuable insights and potential directions for addressing these challenges: Zaragoza, Spain, has implemented “friendly stores” tailored to the needs of older people, while Oslo, Norway, has prioritized low-cost mobility services. Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, has introduced culture initiatives and debates to address the needs of an aging population, and Barcelona, once again in Spain, has supported intergenerational cohabitation through shared housing. The aim of all these initiatives is to foster coexistence and effectively address the challenges associated with an aging population.

Because, after all, the scope of demographic issues extends far beyond simply counting the number of people living in a given place.  They are also linked to economic, social and even political issues. Cities must incorporate depopulation and declining birth rates into their strategies and forecasts to effectively address the challenges and opportunities that arise.

Images | Piranka/iStock, Miguel A Amutio, Mary Blackwey

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