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The global challenge of declining birth rates – what can we do?

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Pope Francis spoke about declining birth rates as one of the most concerning figures on a global level, at a forum dedicated to the issue.

Different governments and world institutions have been reporting on it for some time, as they prepare to navigate for the future.

“The problem in our world is not children being born: it is selfishness, consumerism and individualism, which make people complacent, lonely and unhappy,” the pope said.

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“The number of births is the first indicator of people’s hope. Without children and young people, a country loses its desire for the future.”

And the figures reflect this. According to the United Nations and the World Bank, the number of children per woman globally fell from 5 in 1950 to 2.3 in 2021.

These figures are even worse when looking at specific countries.

For example, in just over 70 years, women in the United States have had an average of two fewer children.

In other regions, the drop is exponential. In Mexico, it has gone from almost 7 children per woman in 1960 to less than 2 in 2021. The same is true of South Korea, which has dropped from 5.95 to 0.81.

declining birth rate - the Catholic weekly
Pope Francis greets children as he leaves the stage after a meeting on Italy’s declining birthrate at an auditorium in Rome 10 May, 2024. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Africa is the continent that breaks this trend in the world’s birth rate figures. But the decline can still be seen.

For example, Niger is the country with the highest fertility rate with 7.53 children per woman and this figure fell in 2021 to 6.82.

There are several reasons for this worldwide decline, mainly related to a number of socio-cultural phenomena. One example is the incorporation of women into the workforce, which tends to delay the age at which they have children.

Decades ago, women had large families when they were only 23 or 24 years old. Nowadays, a woman decides to become a mother on average at the age of 27.

“We cannot keep silent about the weight that legitimate female emancipation has had on this trend,” stressed Donatella Pacelli, Sociologist at LUMSA University in Rome.

“Perhaps if empowered women had found more support, more help in the private and public sectors, we would have a trend today that is not so negative in terms of children.

“So the economic issue is a very serious one. The matter of not supporting working mothers is an equally serious issue.”

As a result, governments and companies are now being asked to implement policies that help families balance work and family life in order to counteract the declining birth rates.

declining birth rates - the Catholic weekly
Pope Francis speaks at a meeting on Italy’s declining birthrate at an auditorium in Rome 10 May, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

“This means implementing serious and effective family-friendly choices. For example, putting a mother in the position of not having to choose between work and childcare or freeing many young couples from the burden of job insecurity and the inability to buy a house,” the pope advised.

It is precisely young people’s fear of instability in the future that is another social factor affecting the birth rate.

“The family value is perceived, but the fear of an uncertain future from a job, economic and overall well-being point of view that one can guarantee to one’s children is clearly persisting and will contribute to even more negative data,” said Donatella.

But there is another key figure to be added to all this data: life expectancy.

Today, people live an average of 28 years longer than in 1950. This means that, in that decade, the average life expectancy was 45 years; now, it is about 73 years.

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