The Great Contraction: Experts Predict Global Population Will Plateau

By SPIEGEL Staff

The 7-billionth human being was born last week as the UN issued dire warnings of an exploding global population. But birth rates are actually in free fall worldwide. Experts predict that the world's population will start shrinking in 2060 and that -- with a bit of imaginative policymaking -- the birth and death rates could actually balance out.

Photo Gallery: Is the Population Bomb a Dud? Photos
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A very special child was born in Kaliningrad, Russia, shortly after midnight on Oct. 31. To celebrate its birth, the child was given a certificate, a play rug from the government and a package with a number of practical items from the mayor.

As the Russian statistical service Rosstat decreed, this child was the 7-billionth person on earth -- though "only symbolically, of course," as Alexander Mordovin of the Moscow office of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) points out.

The UN left it up to each country to determine how it wished to commemorate this important milestone for mankind. The Russians decided to select a specific child to represent the event. "We want to draw attention to the country's demographic problems," Mordovin says.

The Kaliningrad baby is meant to testify to the fact that Russia's population is in decline. The birth rate is at rock bottom, while the mortality rate is one of the highest in Europe. In 40 years, the world's largest country by area will have only 100 million citizens instead of the 142 million it has today.

A very different message came from UN headquarters in New York last week, when it published its latest projection for global population growth. According to its forecast, by 2100, the world's population will grow from its current level of 7 billion to more than 10 billion.

The headlines reflected the UN revelation. The cover story in the Berlin daily newspaper Tagesspiegel was titled "Megalopolis Earth," and the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung wrote, with some concern: "How many more people can the Earth support?" With a sense of foreboding, the website of Focus, a German news magazine, asked: "Is this the beginning of the end of mankind?"

A Global Turning Point

An entire generation grew up in a world in which everything was on the increase, from the world's population to mankind's consumption of energy, food and land. Fears of a "population bomb" were reflected in the things we learned in school.

To a certain extent, the fears are justified. The global population will continue to grow for decades. "But," says Wolfgang Lutz, "that shouldn't distract us from the fact that an entirely different development has been underway for some time." Lutz is the director of the Vienna-based International Institute for Applied System Analysis (IIASA) and one of the world's most prominent demographers. As he sees it, it is "highly probable that mankind will begin to shrink by 2060 or 2070."

It will be a global turning point. For the first time since the Black Death raged in the 14th century, the world's death rate will be higher than its birth rate.

A boom in the number of births will be followed by a shrinking population in surprisingly quick succession. Someone in his mid-40s today has experienced the doubling of mankind in his lifetime and, if Lutz is right, he could also witness the first day of the Great Contraction.

Of course, Lutz's predictions contradict those of the UN. But, he says, particularly in Africa, birth rates will decline much more quickly than mankind's New York-based counters-in-chief want to admit. Lutz attributes the error to the pressure some countries put on demographers. Indeed, in many places, the command "be fruitful and multiply" is not just religious dogma, it's state doctrine.

A Birth Rate in Free Fall

Lutz's message, that the population boom will come to an end, isn't necessarily a happy one. In addition to the old challenges, such as feeding the masses, there will also be new ones, such as caring for aging baby boomers. Instead of AIDS and malaria, medicine will be faced with the challenges of diabetes and dementia.

The demographics of the poorest countries are still shaped by population growth, which is supported by three factors: First, life expectancy is on the rise, increasing statistically by three months each year. Second, child mortality is declining. And, finally, the children produced by the population boom are now reaching reproductive age.

But how many children does the average woman in this boom generation give birth to? Indeed, it is this number that will shape the long-term future -- and, in most countries, it is in free fall. In 1950, the average was five children per woman, a number that has since declined by half, to 2.5. This is alarmingly close to the so-called replacement fertility rate of about 2.1 children per woman, the value at which the size of a population remains constant.

Europe's industrialized countries dropped below this rate some time ago. Japan, the country with the highest life expectancy, also has one of the lowest birth rates, at 1.2 children per woman. The population is also beginning to decline in countries like Russia, Bulgaria and Ukraine. Without immigration, Germany's population would also number among the countries with declining populations.

Rapid Decline in Asia , Slowing Growth in Africa

The delivery rooms are particularly empty in the emerging economies of Asia and Latin America. In the so-called Asian Tiger nations -- made up of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan -- birth rates have already reached Western levels. In South Korea, for example, the average woman gave birth to five children in 1950, as compared with only 1.9 today.

In China, the one-child policy has caused the birth rate to plunge even more rapidly. Even in Shanghai, a city of 23 million, couples are not taking advantage of new rules that allow them to have two children. Statistically speaking, Chinese women here are having only 0.6 children, which is the lowest rate among all major Asian cities. "From a population standpoint," Lutz predicts, "China will begin to stagnate in 10 to 20 years."

Only Pakistan, Afghanistan and the countries in sub-Saharan Africa are still reporting significantly higher birth rates. Niger leads the pack with a particularly impressive rate of seven children per woman. Indeed, by the end of the century, Africa is expected to be home to more than 2 billion people. But the demographic pendulum is shifting even there, as women begin to have fewer children.

An Astonishing Demographic Pattern

But what are the causes of these epochal changes, and how rapidly will they progress? With their reams of figures, statistics and graphs, demographers are trying to get to the bottom of what is probably the most intimate moment for billions of people: the moment of reproduction.

Part of their job requires examining customs, cultural habits and religious convictions stretching back thousands of years. Education levels and economic growth also play an important role, as does the rate of medical progress.

The notion that all of this can be forecast may seem presumptuous. Nevertheless, scientists are convinced that they have detected an astonishingly similar pattern in all ethnic groups, from the Abkhazians in the Caucasus to the Zulu in South Africa.

The radical demographic changes that scientists believe are taking place can be divided into five phases. Step by step, these phases describe the transition from agrarian societies with large numbers of children to the saturated world of industrialized nations with disproportionate numbers of older people. The five stages are revealed on a trip to visit five families on four continents.

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