Population bomb, in reverse: Too few babies — not too many — is emerging as a major global problem

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Credit: James Ferguson
Credit: James Ferguson

In Japan, people buy more diapers for the elderly than babies… And the population growth rate in the U.S. is at historic lows, reminiscent of the Great Depression era.

A new study published in npj Urban Sustainability explores the future of underpopulation and how it’s likely to affect sustainability goals. Using demographic data from United Nations reports, the study argues that the underpopulation problem is dynamic and twofold: Populations are simultaneously shrinking and ageing.

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[S]ome nations are already passing or exploring policies to boost fertility rates, including “baby bonuses,” subsidized child care, and paid paternity and maternity leave.

If successful, these interventions could usher in a new demographic phase which the study calls the “vulnerable hourglass,” characterized by low mortality but recently high fertility. This could result in a population with many young and elderly people, but relatively few working-age adults, who could become overburdened.

The researchers noted that demographic shifts are complex, and much remains uncertain about how factors like urbanization will affect not only population levels but also the environment and socioeconomic conditions worldwide.

Proportion of aged population (in 2020 and 2050) and urban population (in 2018). Credit: Jarzebski et al./Urban Sustainability

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