Joe Robbins on the Prospect of a Shrinking Population

Joe Robbins here: free-lance CFO, amateur boxer, and occasional sleuth living in Austin, Texas.



Three hundred thousand years ago—pre-Homo Sapiens—the world looked like this.





During the following hundred millennia, the first of us was born, and from that small beginning, we grew to number over seven-and-a-half billion.IMG_3166


Now the world looks like this.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge Sponge Bob fan. Who isn’t?


But many people fear that our very success as a species will eventually bring about our ruin.


Have you ever wondered how we’ve managed to dominate the world? Many factors have contributed to our success, not the least of which is a powerfully strong fertility rate.

Okay. So what exactly is a fertility rate?

The definition can get a little technical, but basically, the fertility rate of a population is the average number of children born to a woman over her lifetime.

So, a key to our success is that we have procreated prodigiously. Ten thousand years ago, the world’s population was somewhere in the neighborhood of ten million people, the same as that of present day Michigan.

In the succeeding ten thousand years, we grew slowly, up in good times, down in bad. But during the modern age, we floored the population accelerator: a billion people by 1804, two billion by 1927, four billion by 1974.

Nevertheless, there are now signs that our growth may soon come to an end. Why? Simple. A declining fertility rate. Check out these stats: (source: Wikipedia/UNdata)

From 1950-1955, the global total fertility rate (TFR) was 4.95.

But by 2010-2015, the TFR had fallen to 2.36.

That’s right. Our TFR declined by more than half in a mere six decades.

Does that mean the world’s population is declining? No. For growth to turn negative, the TFR would have to fall below 2.0. But our rate of increase is declining. In 1965, our numbers were increasing 2% annually; now we’re growing at just over 1% per year. (Source: The World Bank)

Why the rapid decline? Let’s take a closer look.

Of the one hundred and ninety-five countries in the world, these ten have the highest fertility rates. (Source:

Niger 6.62

Burundi 6.04

Mali 5.95

Somalia 5.89

Uganda 5.8

Burkina Faso 5.79

Zambia 5.67

Malawi 5.54

Angola 5.31

Afghanistan 5.22


And these ten have the lowest fertility rates.

Singapore 0.83

Macau 0.95

Taiwan 1.13

South Korea 1.26

British Virgin Islands 1.29

Bosnia and Herzegovina 1.3

Montserrat 1.33

Poland 1.35

Romania 1.35

Slovenia 1.36

Andorra 1.4

This is a BIG range. Women in Niger birth an average of more than six children; while in Singapore, they birth an average of less than one child. Why do some countries procreate like mad while others hardly procreate at all?

Research has uncovered many drivers of fertility rates: social structures, religious beliefs, economic prosperity, average age at marriage, infant mortality rate, urbanization, levels of female education, employment opportunities for women, accessibility of birth control, abortion rates, and income levels.

Does anything on the list surprise you? My attention was drawn to one factor: levels of female education.

Why would educated women have fewer children? This World Bank blog post explores that question.

It’s not hard to understand. Under the best of circumstances, a poor single woman who wants to get ahead has a steep hill to climb. But if she has three kids, the hill becomes a mountain that is nearly impossible to scale. An educated woman understands this. She knows about family planning and birth control. And apparently, she decides to have fewer children.

Who can blame her? The emotional payoff of having kids is huge, but the economic costs are high. An educated woman may well decide to accomplish other goals before taking on motherhood, and when she does have kids, she may stop with one or two.

If enough women become educated and make these kinds of trade-offs, fertility rates will continue to decline, and eventually, instead of expanding, our population will shrink.

Would this lead to the demise of the human race? Not anytime soon. If every woman decided to have only one child (i.e. a global fertility rate of 1.0), it would take 1000 years for the world’s population to decline to 10 million, the same number we had ten thousand years ago.

A world filled with people is good. Life with no one else to talk to, or laugh with, or share a meal with, would be deathly boring. Only a hermit could find such a life worth living.

But at the same time—you know—maybe we have enough people now. Maybe we don’t need any more. Perhaps a shrinking population would be just fine.

Best, Joe


Disclaimer: Joe Robbins is a fictional character. Even so, his opinions leap from the keyboard unbidden, and thus, out of necessity, the author and the publisher disavow any responsibility for his words.


Joe Robbins, an amateur detective with mixed emotions, is the hero of three novels: A Fateful Greed, A Just Rage, and A Siren’s Love.