For much of modern history, one thing has held true: there are always more babies. Even though the global fertility rate has been falling since the 1960s, the number of women has grown faster, so baby numbers have kept rising. Births dipped a bit in the 1970s, and again in the 1990s, but those were minor interruptions in an arduous climb.
Now the world is reaching the summit. Demographers at the UN estimate that there will be 140.89m births in 2018. That is 61,000 fewer than in 2017 (see chart). The nipper population is expected to drift down for several more years, then rise slightly, before finally peaking in the late 2040s at 1.5% above the present level. The movements up and down are expected to be subtle, and we know alarmingly little about some large countries: Congo’s most recent population census was conducted in 1984. Picture not a clean, straight-sided graph like Mount Fuji, but the craggy Welsh mountain of Snowdon, which is topped with a bumpy ridge and is obscured by cloud more often than not.
The tots of 2018 will look different from those of the past. Asia will produce more than half of the world’s babies, as usual—but only just. The continent is losing its status as the dominant global nursery to sub-Saharan Africa. In 1990 just 19% of babies were born in Africa; in 2018, 31% of them will be. If the UN is right, there will be more Nigerian newborns than Chinese ones by the late 2050s. It is an early sign of one of this century’s great trends: the Africanisation of the world population.
People who fret about population growth were once obsessed with Asia. Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book “The Population Bomb” gives a starring role to India. But its birth rate has collapsed. The country is already hovering around its “replacement fertility” level, which in rich countries is just below 2.1 births per woman but in India is slightly higher. Bangladesh and Mexico may already be producing too few babies to keep their populations growing naturally. Brazil and Iran have fallen well below the line, as have all European countries and America.
As the babies of 2018 grow up, they will give rise to new migration patterns. Because Central America is producing fewer children, the yanquis ought to feel less pressure on their southern border. By contrast, Africa will press more heavily on Europe. But the migration corridor to watch is the one that leads from increasingly baby-filled African countries to rapidly ageing Asian ones.
In many ways the baby slowdown is good news. A high birth rate can be a sign that women are unable to control their childbearing, because they lack proper contraceptives or because they have no sway in the household. For governments, fewer births mean fewer children to educate. But the trend also hints at new agonies. India’s cities are already thick with fertility clinics. Some quietly engage in the illegal business of aborting unwanted girls, but many cater to couples who held off on babies while they pursued careers and are now struggling. What was once a rich-world problem is going global.
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