An abandoned school in central Japan. (Janine Pendleton/Obsidian Urbex Photography)

Where Are the People?

Within a few decades, the global population is expected to begin falling. What does that mean for future generations?

Hospitals in some parts of Italy are shutting down their maternity wards. Ghost cities are appearing in northeastern China. And in South Korea, many universities can’t find enough students.

These are all signs of a population decline that experts expect to gather steam in the years ahead. The global trend toward more deaths than births seems to be accelerating. Many demographers now predict that by the latter half of the century or possibly earlier, the global population will enter a sustained decline for the first time.

A planet with fewer births could ease pressure on resources, slow the destructive impact of climate change, and reduce household burdens for women.

Hospitals in some parts of Italy are shutting down their maternity wards. Ghost cities are appearing in northeastern China. And in South Korea, many universities can’t find enough students.

These are all signs of a population decline that experts expect to accelerate in the years ahead. The global shift toward more deaths than births seems to be growing fast. Many people who study population trends now predict that things will be different by the latter half of the century or possibly earlier. They say that the global population will enter a continuous decline for the first time.

A planet with fewer births could ease pressure on resources. It could also slow the harmful impact of climate change and reduce household burdens for women.

Up and Down

After huge growth in the 20th century, the world’s population is expected to decline in the coming decades

PERCENTAGE of countries and territories projected to have declining populations by the year 2100.

SOURCE: The New York Times

PERCENTAGE of countries and territories projected to have declining populations by the year 2100.

SOURCE: The New York Times

PROJECTED POPULATION of China in 2100, down from 1.4 billion people today.

SOURCE: The New York Times

PROJECTED POPULATION of China in 2100, down from 1.4 billion people today.

SOURCE: The New York Times

NUMBER of 18-year-olds in South Korea today, down from 900,000 in 1992.

SOURCE: The New york Times

NUMBER of 18-year-olds in South Korea today, down from 900,000 in 1992.

SOURCE: The New york Times

But the decline threatens to upend how societies are organized—around the notion that a surplus of young people will drive economies and through taxes help pay for services for the elderly. Imagine entire regions where everyone is 70 or older or governments paying huge bonuses for immigrants and to families that opt to have a lot of children.

“A paradigm shift is necessary,” says Frank Swiaczny, a German demographer. “Countries need to learn to live with and adapt to decline.”

The 20th century posed a very different challenge. The global population saw its greatest increase in known history, from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000, as life spans increased and infant mortality declined. In some countries, those growth dynamics remain in play; across sub-Saharan Africa, families are still having four or five children.

But the decline threatens to alter how societies are organized. Societies have been built around the notion that having many young people will drive economies. The thought is that the taxes they pay will help pay for services for the elderly. Imagine entire regions where everyone is 70 or older. Picture governments paying huge bonuses for immigrants and to families that choose to have a lot of children.

“A paradigm shift is necessary,” says Frank Swiaczny, a German demographer. “Countries need to learn to live with and adapt to decline.”

The 20th century presented a very different challenge. The global population saw its greatest increase in known history. As life spans increased and infant deaths declined, the world populace grew from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000. In some countries, those growth dynamics remain in play. For example, families across sub-Saharan Africa are still having four or five children.

But nearly everywhere else, the era of high fertility is ending. As women have gained more access to education and contraception, fewer babies are being born. Even in countries long associated with rapid growth, such as India and Mexico, birth rates are falling toward, or are already below, the replacement rate of 2.1 children per family. (Replacement rate is the number of kids each family needs to have to keep the country’s population the same over time.)

The change may take decades, but once it starts, the decline in population will likely accelerate. With fewer births, fewer girls grow up to have children, and if they have smaller families than their parents did, the cycle speeds up.

Some countries, like the United States, Australia, and Canada, where birth rates hover between 1.5 and 2, have blunted the impact of lower birth rates by encouraging immigrants to come and settle. But in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, populations are already declining.

But nearly everywhere else, the era of high fertility is ending. As women have gained more access to education and birth control, fewer babies are being born. Fertility rates have even declined in countries long associated with rapid growth, such as India and Mexico. Their birth rates are nearing, or are already below, the replacement rate of 2.1 children per family. Replacement rate is the number of kids each family needs to have to keep the country’s population the same over time.

The change may take decades, but once it starts, the population decline will likely be swift. With fewer births, fewer girls grow up to have children. And if they have smaller families than their parents did, the cycle speeds up.

In some countries, like the United States, Australia, and Canada, birth rates hover between 1.5 and 2. These nations have reduced the impact of lower birth rates by encouraging immigrants to come and settle. But in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, populations are already declining.

Gianni Cipriano/The New York Times

An elderly couple in Acciaroli, Italy, a small town that’s losing population

Not Enough 18-Year-Olds

South Korea’s fertility rate dropped to a record low of 0.92 in 2019—less than one child per woman, the lowest rate in the developed world. In regional towns, it’s easy to find schools shut and abandoned, their playgrounds overgrown with weeds, because there aren’t enough children. The number of 18-year-olds in South Korea has fallen from about 900,000 in 1992 to 500,000 today, and universities below the elite level find it increasingly hard to fill their ranks.

“My grandparents had six children, and my parents five, because their generations believed in having multiple children,” says Kim Mi-kyung, 38, a stay-at-home parent. “I have only one child. To my and younger generations, all things considered, it just doesn’t pay to have many children.”

South Korea’s fertility rate dropped to a record low of 0.92 in 2019. At less than one child per woman, it’s the lowest rate in the developed world. In regional towns, it’s easy to find schools that have closed. Their playgrounds are often overgrown with weeds. This has become the norm because there aren’t enough children. The number of 18-year-olds in South Korea has fallen from about 900,000 in 1992 to 500,000 today. Universities below the elite level find it harder every year to fill their ranks.

“My grandparents had six children, and my parents five, because their generations believed in having multiple children,” says Kim Mi-kyung, 38, a stay-at-home parent. “I have only one child. To my and younger generations, all things considered, it just doesn’t pay to have many children.”

JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

To fill its schools, South Korea has begun enrolling illiterate senior citizens.

From Schools to Nursing Homes

Thousands of miles away, in Italy, the sentiment is similar. In Capracotta, a small town in Southern Italy that has shrunk from 5,000 people to about 800, a sign in red letters on an 18th-century stone building reads “Home of School Kindergarten.” But today the building is a nursing home.

“There were so many families, so many children,” says Concetta D’Andrea, 93, who was once a student and a teacher at the school and is now a resident of the nursing home. “Now there is no one.”

In the nearby town of Agnone, the maternity ward closed a decade ago because it had too few births. This year, six babies were born in Agnone.

Thousands of miles away, in Italy, the feeling is similar. Capracotta, a small town in Southern Italy, has shrunk from 5,000 people to about 800. A sign with red letters hangs there on an 18th-century stone building. It reads “Home of School Kindergarten.” But today the building is a nursing home.

“There were so many families, so many children,” says Concetta D’Andrea, 93. She was once a student and a teacher at the school. Now she’s a resident of the nursing home. “Now there
is no one.”

In the nearby town of Agnone, the maternity ward closed a decade ago because it had too few births. This year, six babies were born in Agnone.

‘My grandparents had six children . . . I have only one child.’

By 2100, 183 countries and territories—out of 195 surveyed—will have fertility rates below replacement level, according to projections by
an international team of scientists published in The Lancet, a medical journal. Their model shows an especially sharp decline for China,
with its population expected to fall from 1.4 billion now to about 730 million in 2100.

In many countries, people would like to have more children but face too many obstacles. Anna Parolini tells a common story. She left her small hometown in Northern Italy to find better job opportunities. Now 37, she lives with her boyfriend in Milan and has postponed having children. She’s afraid her salary of $2,300 a month wouldn’t be enough, and her parents
still live where she grew up.

“I don’t have anyone here who could help me,” she says. “Thinking of having a child now would make me gasp.”

By 2100, 183 countries and territories out of 195 surveyed will have fertility rates below replacement level, according to projections by an international team of scientists published in The Lancet, a medical journal. Their model shows an especially sharp decline for China. Its population will fall from 1.4 billion now to about 730 million in 2100.

In many countries, people would like to have more children but face too many barriers. Anna Parolini tells a common story. She left her small hometown in Northern Italy to find better job opportunities. Now 37, she lives with her boyfriend in Milan and has put off having children. She’s afraid her salary of $2,300 a month wouldn’t be enough, and her parents still live where she grew up.

“I don’t have anyone here who could help me,” she says. “Thinking of having a child now would make me gasp.”

With reporting by Damien Cave, Emma Bubola, and Choe Sang-Hun of The New York Times.

With reporting by Damien Cave, Emma Bubola, and Choe Sang-Hun of The New York Times.

Countries with the biggest projected decline by 2050

1. Bulgaria

2. Lithuania

3. Latvia

4. Ukraine

5. Serbia

6. Bosnia and Herzegovina

7. Croatia

8. Republic of Moldova

9. Japan

10. Albania

SOURCE: Population Reference Bureau

1. Bulgaria

2. Lithuania

3. Latvia

4. Ukraine

5. Serbia

6. Bosnia and Herzegovina

7. Croatia

8. Republic of Moldova

9. Japan

10. Albania

SOURCE: Population Reference Bureau

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