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Population decline (sometimes known as depopulation) is the reduction over time in a region's census. It can be caused for several reasons; notable ones include sub-replacement fertility (along with limited immigration), heavy emigration, disease, famine and war.

Prior to the 20th century, population decline was mostly observed due to disease or starvation. The Black Death in Europe, the arrival of Old World diseases to the Americas, the tsetse fly invasion of the Waterberg Massif in South Africa, and the Great Irish Famine have all caused sizable population declines. In modern times, the AIDS epidemic has caused declines in the population of some African countries. Less frequently, population declines are caused by genocide or mass execution; for example, in the 1970s, the population of Cambodiamarker underwent a period of decline due to wide-scale executions by the Khmer Rouge.

According to 2002 reports by the United Nations Population Division and the US Census Bureau, population decline is occurring today in some regions. According to the UN, below-replacement fertility is expected in 75% of the developed world by the year 2050. The US Census Bureau notes that the 74 million people added to the world's population in 2002 were fewer than the high of 87 million people added in 1989–1990. The annual growth rate was 1.2 percent, down from the high of 2.2 percent in 1963-64.

"Census Bureau projections show this slowdown in population growth continuing into the foreseeable future," stated the Bureau's brief on the findings. "Census Bureau projections suggest that the level of fertility in many countries will drop below replacement level before 2050...In 1990 the world's women, on average, were giving birth to 3.3 children over their lifetimes. By 2002 the average was 2.6." Of course, this value still ensures the continuing rapid growth of the human population as a whole, even if some regions may decline.

Sometimes the term underpopulation is applied in the context of a specific economic system. It does not relate to carrying capacity, and is not a term in opposition to overpopulation, which deals with the total possible population that can be sustained by available food, water, sanitation and other infrastructure. "Underpopulation" is usually defined as a state in which a country's population has declined too much to support its current economic system. Thus the term has nothing to do with the biological aspects of carrying capacity, but is an economic term employed to imply that the transfer payment schemes of some developed countries might fail once the population declines to a certain point. An example would be if retirees were supported through a social security system which does not invest savings, and then a large emigration movement occurred. In this case, the younger generation may not be able to support the older generation.

By specific countries

Population Decline.
Red is decline, pink is approaching.

Today, emigration and sub-replacement fertility rates are the principal issues related to any regional population decline. A number of nations today are experiencing population decline, stretching from North Asia (Japanmarker) through to Eastern Europe through Russiamarker including Kazakhstanmarker, Ukrainemarker, Belarusmarker, Moldovamarker, Estoniamarker, Latviamarker, Lithuaniamarker, Bulgariamarker, Georgiamarker, Armeniamarker, Bosniamarker, Croatiamarker, Sloveniamarker, Hungarymarker, and now Italymarker. Countries rapidly approaching population decline (but currently still growing, albeit slowly) include Greecemarker, Spainmarker, Cubamarker, Uruguaymarker, Denmarkmarker, Finlandmarker, Austriamarker and Lesothomarker.

The population of former Soviet Republics, with the exception most of the Muslim majority nations (Uzbekistanmarker, Turkmenistanmarker, Tajikistanmarker, Kyrgyzstanmarker, Azerbaijanmarker), is falling due to health factors and low replacement. Much of Eastern Europe has lost population due to migration to Western Europe. In Eastern Europe and Russiamarker, natality fell abruptly after the end of the Soviet Union, and death rates generally rose. Together these nations occupy over 8 million square miles and are home to over 400 million people (less than six percent of the world population), but if current trends continue, more of the developed world and some of the developing world could join this trend.

Many nations in Western Europe (and the EU as a whole) today would have declining populations if it were not for international immigration. The total population of the continent of Europe (including Russia and other non-EU countries) already peaked around the year 2000 and is currently declining. Japanmarker began depopulating in 2005; Japan's situation is related to low fertility rates and an extremely low level of immigration.

AIDS plays some role in population decline; however, data available suggest that, even with high AIDS mortality, fertility rates in Africa are sufficiently high, so that overpopulation trends continue.

Table:1 Population Decline in Percent by Country (from various sources)
Country Year Population in million Rate of natural decrease in percent Main reason for decrease
Armeniamarker 2009 2.967.004 0.03 emigration
Belarusmarker 2009 9.648.533 0.378 declining births and life expectancy
Bulgariamarker 2009 7.204.687 0.79 declining births and life expectancy
Croatiamarker 2009 4.489.409 0.052 declining births
Czech Republicmarker 2009 10.211.904 0.094 declining births
Estoniamarker 2009 1.299.371 0.632 low number of births
Georgiamarker 2009 4.615.807 0.325 emigration
Germanymarker 2009 82.329.758 0.053 declining births
Italymarker 2009 58.126.212 0.047 declining births
Hungarymarker 2009 10.031.000 0.257 declining birth and life expectancy
Japanmarker 2009 127.078.679 0.191 declining births
Latviamarker 2009 2.231.503 0.614 declining births and life expectancy
Lithuaniamarker 2009 3.555.179 0.279 declining births and life expectancy
Federated States of Micronesiamarker 2009 0.107 0.238 emigration
Moldovamarker 2009 4.320.748 0.079 declining births and life expectancy
Montenegromarker 2009 0.672180 0.851
Polandmarker 2009 38.482.919 0.047 emigration, declining births
Romaniamarker 2009 22.215.421 0.147 declining births
Russiamarker 2009 140.041.247 0.467 more deaths than births
Sloveniamarker 2009 2.005.692 0.113
Swazilandmarker 2009 1.123.913 0.459 HIV AIDS
Trinidad & Tobagomarker 2009 1.229.953 0.102 emigration
Ukrainemarker 2009 45.700.395 0.632 declining births and life expectancy
Zimbabwemarker 2008 11.35 0.787 HIV AIDS

Economic consequences

The effects of a declining population can be adverse for an economy which has borrowed extensively for repayment by younger generations.Economically declining populations are thought to lead to deflation, which has a number of effects. However, Russia, whose economy has been rapidly growing (8.1% in 2007) even as its population is shrinking, currently has high inflation (12% as of late 2007). For an agricultural or mining economy the average standard of living in a declining population, at least in terms of material possessions, will tend to rise as the amount of land and resources per person will be higher. But for many industrial economies, the opposite might be true as those economies often thrive on mortgaging the future by way of debt and retirement transfer payments that originally assumed rising tax revenues from a continually expanding population base (i.e. there would be fewer taxpayers in a declining population). However, standard of living does not necessarily correlate with quality of life, which may even increase as the population declines due to presumably reduced pollution and consumption of natural resources. There may also be reduced pressure on infrastructure, education, and other services as well.

A considerable adverse effect of depopulation on quality of life for the younger is an increased social and economic pressure in the sense that they have to increase per-capita output in order to support an infrastructure with costly, intensive care for the oldest among their population, removing focus from the planning of elder and future families and therefore further degrading rates of procreation.

The period immediately after the Black Death, for instance, was one of great prosperity, as people had inheritances from many different family members. However that situation was not comparable, as it did not have a continually declining population, but rather a sudden shock, followed by population increase. Predictions of the net economic (and other) effects from a slow and continuous population decline (e.g. due to low fertility rates) are mainly theoretical since such a phenomenon is a relatively new and unprecedented one.

A declining population due to demographics will also be accompanied by population ageing which can contribute problems for a society. The decade long economic malaise of Japanmarker and Germanymarker is often linked to these demographic problems. The worst case scenario is a situation where the population falls too low a level to support a current social welfare economic system, which is more likely to occur with a rapid decline than with a more gradual one.

The economies of both Japanmarker and Germanymarker both went into recovery around the time their populations just began to decline (2003–2006). In other words, both the total and per capita GDP in both countries grew more rapidly after 2005 than before. Russiamarker's economy also began to grow rapidly from 1999 onward, even though its population has been shrinking since 1992-93 (the decline is now decelerating). In addition, many Eastern European countries have been experiencing similar effects to Russia. Such renewed growth calls into question the conventional wisdom that economic growth requires population growth, or that economic growth is impossible during a population decline. However, it may be argued that this renewed growth is in spite of population decline rather than because of it, and economic growth in these countries would potentially be greater if they were not undergoing such demographic decline. For example, Russia has become quite wealthy selling fossil fuels such as oil, which are now high-priced, and in addition, its economy has expanded from a very low nadir due to the economic crisis of the late 1990s. And although Japan and Germany have recovered somewhat from having been in a deflationary recession and stagnation, respectively, for the past decade, their recoveries seem to have been quite tepid. Both countries fell into the global recession of 2008-2009, but are now recovering once again, being the among first countries to recover.

In a country with a declining population, the growth of GDP per capita is higher than the growth of GDP. For example, Japan has a higher growth per capita than the United States, even though the US GDP growth is higher than Japan's . Even when GDP growth is zero or negative, the GDP growth per capita can still be positive (by definition) if the population is shrinking faster than the GDP.

A declining population (regardless of the cause) can also create a labor shortage, which can have a number of positive as well as negative effects. While some labor-intensive sectors of the economy may be hurt if the shortage is severe enough, others may adequately compensate by increased outsourcing and/or automation. Initially, the labor participation rates (which are low in many countries) can also be increased to temporarily reduce or delay the shortage. On the positive side, such a shortage increases the demand for labor, which can potentially result in a reduced unemployment rate as well as higher wages.

A smaller national population can also have geo-strategic effects, but the correlation between population and power is a tenuous one, especially in today's world.

National efforts to reverse declining populations

Former Russian President Vladimir Putin directed Parliament to adopt a 10-year program to stop the sharp decline in Russiamarker's population, principally by offering financial incentives and subsidies to encourage women to have children. Australia currently offers a $5,000 bonus for every baby plus additional fortnightly payments, a free immunization scheme and recently proposed to pay all child care costs for women who want to work. Many European countries, including Francemarker, Italymarker and Polandmarker, have offered some combination of bonuses and monthly payments to families. Some Japanesemarker localities, facing significant population loss, are offering economic incentives. Yamatsurimarker, a town of 7,000 just north of Tokyomarker, offers parents $4,600 for the birth of a child and $460 a year for 10 years. The Republic of Singaporemarker has a particularly lavish plan: $3,000 for the first child, $9,000 in cash and savings for the second; and up to $18,000 each for the third and fourth. The effectiveness of these policies is currently the subject of debate.

Paid maternity and paternity leave policies can also be used as an incentive. For example, Sweden has generous parental leave where parents are entitled to share 16 months paid leave per child, the cost divided between both employer and State.

Alternative concept relative to skills

Sometimes the concept of population decline is applied where there has been considerable ex-migration of skilled professionals. In such a case, the government may have ceased to reward or value certain skills (e.g. science, medicine and engineering), and sectors of the economy such as health care and technology may go into decline. Such characterizations have been made of Italymarker and Russiamarker in the period starting about 1990.

See also


  2. CIA World Factbook--Italy CIA World Factbook Retrieved on October 6, 2009
  3. CIA World Factbook--Japan [CIA World Factbook] Retrieved on October 6, 2009
  4. 2007 World Population Data Sheet
  5. CIA World Factbook--Russia [CIA World Factbook] Retrieved on November 14, 2008
  6. Nicholas Eberstadt. 2005. "Russia, the Sick Man of Europe". Public Interest, Winter 2005[1]
  9. Grossly distorted picture

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