From the most developed to the least developed countries, knowing the rate at which a nation's population is increasing or decreasing is helpful. One of the most commonly used metrics to measure this growth is fertility rate.
At its most basic, fertilty rate measures the average number of children that women of childbearing age give birth to in a given country. Fertility rate is closely related to birth rate, which measures the number of live births per 1,000 people in a given country each year. Fertility rate and birth rate are often used to help determine a country's replacement rate, which determines if the number of new citizens born each year is higher or lower than the number of citizens who pass away each year. Population growth or shrinkage can have a significant impact on a country's development and economic stability.
Fertility rate criteria
Fertility rate calculations are typically simplified by two standard assumptions. First, it assumes that each woman's fertility follows general age-specific fertility trends throughout her childbearing years (peaking in her early 30's). Second, it assumes that each woman will live through those childbearing years (ages 15 to 44, or in some cases, ages 15 to 49). Another important point to remember is that fertility rate is a theoretical number based upon real data, but is not real data itself. Stated another way, fertility rate is not a precise count of how many children each actual living woman in a specific country has at any particular point in time. Instead, it's the calculated average number of offspring that a woman in that country is likely to have throughout her lifetime. This is also known as the "total fertility rate."
Fertility rate highs and lows
According to World Bank data, the global fertility rate was 2.4 children per woman in 2019. This rate is approximately half of what it was in 1950 (4.7), and more economically developed countries such as Australia, most of Europe, and South Korea, tend to have lower rates than do less-developed or low-income countries. Three main factors have been credited for a decrease in the global fertility rate: fewer deaths in childhood, greater access to contraception, and more women are getting an education and seeking to establish their careers before—and sometimes instead of—having a family.
The population replacement rate, which is the fertility rate needed to maintain a society's population size, is 2.1 children per woman. Countries with fertilities rates below this number may experience an overall older demographic and a decrease in population size over time. Lower fertility rates and the resulting population contraction can be seen as beneficial in some countries, especially those experiencing overpopulation, by reducing the strain on infrastructure and social programs. However, lower fertility rates can also lead to challenges, such as a workforce that lacks the new workers it needs to replace those who are retiring, or too few workers paying into social programs (such as Social Security in the U.S.) that support those who cannot work or have retired.
Top 10 Countries with the Highest Fertility Rates (by births per woman) - World Bank 2021 (2019 data)
- Niger - 6.8
- Somalia - 6.0
- Congo (Dem. Rep.) - 5.8 (tie)
- Mali - 5.8 (tie)
- Chad - 5.6
- Angola - 5.4
- Burundi - 5.3 (tie)
- Nigeria - 5.3 (tie)
- Gambia - 5.2
- Burkina Faso - 5.1
Top 15 Countries with the Lowest Fertility Rates (by births per woman) - World Bank 2021 (2019 data)
- South Korea - 0.9
- Puerto Rico (U.S. territory) - 1.0
- Hong Kong (China SAR) - 1.1 (tie)
- Malta - 1.1 (tie)
- Singapore - 1.1 (tie)
- Macau (China SAR) - 1.2 (tie)
- Ukraine - 1.2 (tie)
- Spain - 1.2 (tie)
- Bosnia and Herzegovina - 1.3 (tie)
- San Marino - 1.3 (tie)
- Moldova - 1.3 (tie)
- Italy - 1.3 (tie)
- Andorra - 1.3 (tie)
- Cyprus - 1.3 (tie)
- Luxembourg - 1.3 (tie)
Fertility rates in Africa
The vast majority of the countries with the highest fertility rates are in Africa. Collectively, the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa have the highest average fertility rate in the world at 4.6. Niger tops the list at 6.8 children per woman, followed by Somalia at 6.0, the Democratic Republic of Congo (5.8), Mali (5.8), and Chad (5.6).
The North African country of Tunisia has the lowest fertility rate on the continent at 2.2 children per woman. But even this, the lowest rate in Africa, rests roughly in the middle of the global list of more than two hundred countries and territories. In terms of countries with the highest birth rate, Niger is again the highest in the world at 46 births per 1,000 people in 2019.
According to a paper published by the UN, Africa's high rates can be attributed to low contraception use, early and universal marriage, the high fertility rate, early childbearing, childbearing across much of a woman's reproductive life span, and high social values placed on childbearing. While it is true that many African countries are experiencing declining fertility rates—for example, Nigeria's fertility rate decreased from 6.35 in 1960 to 5.3 in 2019—these reductions reflect a global trend as opposed to a regional one.
Fertility rates in Asia
South Korea has the lowest fertility rate globally at 0.9 children per woman, closely followed by Puerto Rico at 1.0 and a trio of Malta, Singapore, and the Chinese Special Administrative Region Hong Kong all at 1.1 children per woman.
The two most populous countries in the world, China (1.7) and India (2.2) have fertility rates on the lower-middle part of the scale. Both of these figures are impacted by government policies and cultural expectations around reproduction in these countries. China, for instance, maintained a "one-child policy" from roughly 1980 until 2016, but passed a law in August 2021 formally declaring married couples could have as many as three children.
Afghanistan's fertility rate was one of the highest in the world in the 1990s at roughly 8.0. The country's current fertility rate is 4.5. This reduction is credited to the fact that more Afghan women are receiving an education and getting jobs. After the Taliban was ousted from Afghanistan, NATO countries provided aid that helped fund schools, family planning services, and birth control. Additionally, infant mortality rates have also plummeted. What effect the Taliban's 2021 reclaiming of the country might have upon these advancements, as well as fertility rate, will take some years to determine.
At 3.5, Pakistan's fertility rate is far from the highest—but because the country possesses limited resources and underdeveloped infrastructure, its rapidly growing population is still cause for alarm. Too-fast population growth is overwhelming schools, medical clinics, and poor communities across the country. Population overgrowth in Pakistan is typically attributed to a lack of family planning and birth control, among other religious and political influences.
Fertility Rates in Europe
The fertility rate in Europe is relatively low overall, with no countries above 2.0, and has declined in recent years—which is, as stated previously a global trend. Several factors are credited for driving this trend, including socioeconomic incentives to delay childbearing, a decline in the desired number of children, a lack of child care, and changing gender roles.
The highest fertility rate in Europe belongs to France at 1.9. This rate, however, is still below the population replacement level of 2.1 births per woman. France is proud to have the highest fertility rates in Europe. The slowly declining rate is a concern for the country, and the government has prioritized plans to encourage increased family sizes.
The declining fertility rate is also causing concern in Italy, which currently sits at 1.3. The average age for first-time mothers in Italy is 31 years old, the highest in Europe. A large reason women in Italy do not have children earlier is that they are not financially ready to raise a child, and the government does not provide assistance with childcare costs. This low fertility rate combined with a longer life expectancy has left Italy with a significantly older population (a median age of 45.9 years compared to Europe's median of 42.8 years).
Norway is another European country experiencing falling fertility rates, at 1.5 children per woman in 2019. An essential factor in Norway's fertility rate is the increasing age for first-time mothers, which sits at an average of 29.5 years. Additionally, there are fewer larger families. Norway's government is exploring options to encourage childbirth, such as paying a mother in pension savings for each child born.