France at the start of the 20th century faced with an existential threat: its citizens did not have enough babies. In 1900, the average Frenchwoman gave birth to three children during her lifetime, while across the border, in Germany, women had an average of five. For decades, France’s population hovered stubbornly around 40 million while that of its European rivals grew. “It is the most significant fact of French life. In no other country in the world is the birth rate so low,” wrote the American journalist Walter Weyl in 1912.
French society has mobilized to avoid the crisis. Natalist organizations were born and, in 1916, half of French parliamentarians belonged to a pressure group that pushed policies aimed at increasing birth rates. An annual prize is inaugurated, awarding 25,000 francs to 90 French parents who have raised nine or more children. Laws restricting abortion and contraceptives were passed, and mothers of large families were honored with medals according to the number of children they had raised.
None of this has changed the trajectory of falling birth rates in France. “Forty-one million French people face 67 million Germans and 43 million Italians,” lamented former minister Paul Reynaud in January 1937. “In terms of numbers, we are beaten.” Reynaud was right, of course, but only for so long. In the decades following World War II, France’s population swelled, supported by a baby boom and heavy immigration. This post-war boom has long since dissipated, but France still has the highest fertility rate in any EU country: The dreaded demographic collapse never happened.
However, the concern over falling populations never dissipated. Today, the biggest public concern is Elon Musk, for whom stagnating birth rates represent not just a crisis for specific countries, but an existential threat to the entire planet. “Assuming there’s a benevolent future with AI, I think the biggest problem the world will face in 20 years is population collapse,” Musk told a talk on AI. ‘IA in August 2019. The question plays clearly in his mind. “Population collapse due to low birth rates is a far greater risk to civilization than global warming,” he said. tweeted in 2022. “Note these words.”
Demographers have labeled Musk’s words, but they disagree with his dire predictions. “With 8 billion people and counting on the earth, we don’t see a collapse happening right now, and it’s not even planned,” says Tomas Sobotka of the Institute of Demography in Vienna. Even the most pessimistic projections place the world population in 2100 at around 8.8 billion. This is well below what the UN has more widely agreed estimate of 10.4 billion, but that’s still about 800 million more people than on the planet today. Most projections agree that the world’s population will peak at some point in the second half of the 21st century and then level off or gradually decline. Presenting this as a collapse “is probably too dramatic,” says Patrick Gerland, chief of the United Nations Population Estimates and Projections Section.
According to the UN, the only region that will see an overall decline between 2022 and 2050 is East and Southeast Asia. Other regions tell a completely different story. Sub-Saharan Africa’s population will almost double, from 1.2 billion in 2022 to just under 2.1 billion in 2050. Over the same period, India’s population will increase by more than 250 million to overtake that of China as the world’s largest population. For most of the world, population decline is simply nothing to worry about — “not now or in the foreseeable future,” says Gerland.
But what about the very distant future? Japan’s population is already declining and the country has one of the lowest total fertility rates in the world.japanese women 1.3 children on average during their lifetime. For a population to remain constant, this number should be 2.1, assuming there is no migration and life expectancy remains roughly constant. If the fertility rate remains below 2.1 long enough, the population will begin to decline. In Japan, we can see this happening – after peaking at 128.1 million in 2010, the country’s population slowly fell to 125.8 million over the following decade.