The UN recently convened a meeting of demographers to discuss whether the fertility rates of developing countries like India and Brazil will continue to fall, perhaps even reaching the extremely low fertility rates found in many developed nations. The Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs concluded that it is altogether likely that the fertility of much of the world will sink well below replacement level, which is 2.1 children per woman. In fact, the Population Division reported at the meeting that, “before 2050, 80 per cent of the (world) population will be projected to have below-replacement fertility.”

In light of this new assessment, the Population Division is revising its projections of world population growth. For instance, the Population Division has reduced its 2100 projection for India by 600 million people. Overall, the UN now believes that 74 countries, such as India, Indonesia, Brazil, Bangladesh, Mexico, and the Philippines, will follow this pattern of drastic fertility reduction.

Demographers have long held that certain levels of development, education and health care are necessary to achieve fertility decline. According to the Population Division, however, the decline has occurred in many seemingly contradictory situations, “when economic conditions have been improving and when they have deteriorated; it has occurred in populations with high standards of living and in those where standards of living are low; it has taken hold in countries with strong links to the global consumer culture and in those where those links are weak; and it has happened under a wide array of political regimes and policy settings.”

Although it is difficult to point to broad causes for the decline, the Population Division believes that it is possible that a “diffusion” of modern values, including “individualism, feminism, consumerism, secularization” may be contributing to it.

According to the Population Division, “one clear implication of the theories of fertility decline is that the availability of effective contraceptive methods is an important condition facilitating the maintenance of very low fertility levels.” Some demographers fear that an anti-natal ethos, which is promoted by the contraceptive movement, may be impossible to reverse and that fertility rates will continue to fall well below 2.1 children per woman.

The meeting did not address whether the trend of worldwide fertility decline should be encouraged or discouraged. However, the Population Division has been steadfast in its assertion that the fertility decline that has already occurred in countries such as Italy, Spain and Japan, is beginning to have profoundly negative implications for those societies. The ever-increasing proportion of older people will overtax social security systems, pension funds, and health care facilities. In a recent report, the Population Division concluded that even massive migration may not save these countries from the problems associated with below-replacement level fertility.

Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute calls even these new numbers “science fiction.” He says it is impossible for anyone to know the future of population growth rates.