Sunday, April 21, 2024

Ageing future

The world is approaching a low-fertility future. By the end of this century, more than 97% of countries in the world could have a shrinking population. Although people are living longer due to advances in healthcare and a decline in poverty, they are also having fewer babies. Over the past 50 years, the global fertility rate ~ the total number of births per woman ~ has roughly halved to 2.3. In most advanced economies, it is already well below the replacement rate of 2.1, where the population replaces itself from one generation to the next, taking into account mortality. Developing nations are on a similar downward trajectory. The upshot is a decline in the working-age population across the developed world, which will bring significant social, economic and political costs if left unaddressed. The recent report published in The Lancet paints a bleak picture of our world’s demographic future. With half of all nations already experiencing fertility rates below the replacement level, and forecasts suggesting a staggering 97% of countries facing population decline by the end of the century, it’s evident that we’re standing on the precipice of a crisis. India, one of the most populous nations on Earth, is not immune to this trend. The research presents estimates from the Global Burden of Disease, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study (GBD) 202 ~ a global research effort led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine ~ for past, current, and future global, regional and national trends in fertility and live-births. In general, countries need to have a total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1 children per person who could give birth, to sustain long-term generational replacement of the population. The TFR of a population is the average number of children that are born to a female over a lifetime, assuming childbearing at current fertility rates throughout the reproductive years. The warning bells ring loud as projections indicate a significant drop in India’s total fertility rate to a mere 1.29 by 2050. This decline, if left unchecked, could plunge the nation into a whirlwind of challenges ranging from an ageing population and labour shortages to potential social upheavals driven by gender imbalances. The reasons behind this downward spiral in fertility rates are many. Economic development, while uplifting communities, inadvertently leads to increased costs associated with raising children, dissuading families from having more offspring. Moreover, as more and more women get empowered and pursue education and professional ambitions, marriages also get delayed (as compared to earlier practices) and thus childbirth, further contributing to declining birth rates. Urbanisation, improved access to family planning and shifting social norms towards smaller families also play pivotal roles in this demographic shift. While these developments signal progress in some respects, they also sound alarm bells for the future sustainability of our societies. Thus it is no wonder that the Population Foundation of India has emphasised the urgent need for promoting gender equality and reducing the burdens of motherhood. Governments and societies must take proactive measures to alleviate the financial and social constraints faced by women ~ ensuring that motherhood remains an empowering choice rather than a daunting burden. However, India is not an isolated case in this global predicament. The Lancet study underscores that 76% of nations are projected to fall below the replacement level of fertility by 2050 ~ with this figure skyrocketing to 97% by the turn of the century. This is a wake-up call for concerted international action to address the root causes of declining fertility rates and mitigate their far-reaching consequences. The economic and social forces behind declining births are unlikely to be reversed in the long term. As we stand at this pivotal juncture, complacency is not an option. Governments, policymakers and civil society must collaborate on comprehensive strategies that prioritise gender equality, access to education and healthcare and supportive family policies.