Population decline

Population decline

Population decline can refer to the decline in population of any organism, but this article refers to population decline in humans. It is a term usually used to describe any great reduction in a human population.[1] It can be used to refer to long-term demographic trends, as in urban decay or rural flight, but it is also commonly employed to describe large reductions in population due to violence, disease, or other catastrophes.[2]



Sometimes known as depopulation, population decline 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. History is replete with examples of large scale depopulations. Many wars, for example, have been accompanied by significant depopulations. Prior to the 20th century, population decline was mostly observed due to disease, starvation and/or emigration. 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 Cambodia underwent a period of decline due to wide-scale executions by the Khmer Rouge.

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.

Historical Background

During the Age of Imperialism, Europeans migrating to new continents brought with them not only devastating new means of waging warfare but also, often inadvertently, infectious diseases such as smallpox to which indigenous peoples had no resistance. These factors, particularly the latter, sometimes had a devastating impact on the indigenous inhabitants.

Some notable historical examples of large depopulation of entire continents include:

Some examples of depopulation of large regions brought about mainly by warfare include:

Famine has also frequently played a role in depopulation, whether as a result of war, climatic conditions, human incompetence and so on.

According to 2002 reports by the United Nations Population Division[5] and the US Census Bureau,[6] 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, and by 2009, 2.5. This is marginally above the global replacement fertility of 2.33. This fall has been accompanied by a decline in the world's population growth rate and in the actual annual population increase.

Changing trends

Today, emigration and sub-replacement fertility rates as well as high death rates in the former Soviet Union and its former allies are the principal issues related to any regional population decline. However, governments can influence the speed of the decline, including measures to halt, slow or suspend decline. Among such measures include pro-birth policies and subsidies, media influence, immigration, bolstering healthcare and laws aimed at rooting out vice (lowering death rates). Such is the case in Russia and Armenia, as well as many Western European nations who have used immigration and other policies as a means of suspending or slowing population decline. Therefore although very long term trends may favor accelerating population decline, short term trends may slow decline or even reverse from decline to growth and back and so on, creating seemingly conflicting statistical data. A great example of changing trends occurring over a century is Ireland.

Statistical misreadings

Statistical data, especially comparing only two sets of figures, can show an incorrect population trend. A nation's population could be increasing, but an one-off event could have resulted in decline and vice-versa. Nations can acquire territory or lose territory and people, consider people citizens they previously denied citizenship to, e.g. stateless persons, indigenous people, and undocumented immigrants or long stay foreign residents. Political instability can render an area within a nation's count unreliable for comparison.

A common misreading is due to time. Populations on the verge of decline could rise in summer and decline in winter as deaths increase in winter in cold regions, similarly, census dates over too long a time range could show a rise when a country has already tipped into decline. Therefore, numerous sets of statistics should be interpreted to get an idea of a trend.

Decline by nation

Population Decline. Red is decline, pink is approaching.

A number of nations today are facing long term population decline, stretching from North Asia (Japan through to Eastern Europe through Russia including Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Germany, Hungary, and now Italy. Countries rapidly approaching long term population declines (but currently still growing, albeit slowly) include Greece, Spain, Cuba, Uruguay, Denmark, Finland, Austria and Lesotho.

Yet some of these very nations like Russia[7] have claimed to have suspended or nearly suspended population decline as of 2010. Kazakhstan's population is now growing, and the 2009 Census reported over 16 million people.[8]

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 as of 2004 is falling.[9]

AIDS plays some role in population decline; however, data available suggests that, even with high AIDS mortality, fertility rates in Africa are sufficiently high, so that overpopulation trends continue.[10]

Table:1 Population Decline in Percent by Country (from various sources)
Country Year Population Rate of natural decrease
in percent[11]
Main reason for decrease
Armenia Armenia 2009 2,967,004 0.03 emigration
Belarus Belarus 2009 9,648,533 0.378 low birth rate
Bulgaria Bulgaria 2009 7,300,000 0.79 low birth rate, high death rate, high rate of abortions, a relatively high level of emigration of young people and a low level of immigration[12]
Croatia Croatia 2009 4,489,409 0.052 low birth rate
Czech Republic Czech Republic 2009 10,211,904 0.094 low birth rate
Cuba Cuba 2009 11,239,363 0.04 emigration, low birth rate[13]
Estonia Estonia 2009 1,299,371 0.632 low birth rate
Georgia (country) Georgia 2009 4,615,807 0.325 emigration
Germany Germany 2009 82,329,758 0.053 low birth rate
GreenlandGreenland 2009[14] 56,000 low birth rate
Italy Italy 2009 58,126,212 0.047[15] low birth rate
Hungary Hungary 2009 10,031,000 0.257 low birth rate
Japan Japan 2009 127,078,679 0.191[16] low birth rate and a low level of immigration
Latvia Latvia 2009 2,231,503 0.614 low birth rate
Lithuania Lithuania 2009 3,555,179 0.279 low birth rate
Federated States of Micronesia Federated States of Micronesia 2009 111,000 0.238 emigration
Moldova Moldova 2009 4,320,748 0.079 low birth rate
Montenegro Montenegro 2009 672,180 0.851
Poland Poland 2009 38,482,919 0.047 low birth rate
South Africa South Africa 2009 50,586,757 0.0401 "white flight"[17], high incidence of disease (HIV/AIDS)
Romania Romania 2009 22,215,421 0.147 low birth rate
Russia Russia 2009 141,927,297 0.177 high death rate, low birth rate, high rate of abortions, and a low level of immigration[18]
Slovenia Slovenia 2009 2,005,692 0.113
Swaziland Swaziland 2009 1,123,913 0.459 high incidence of disease (HIV AIDS)
Trinidad and Tobago Trinidad & Tobago 2009 1,229,953 0.102 emigration
Ukraine Ukraine 2009 45,700,395 0.632 declining births
Zimbabwe Zimbabwe 2008 12,521,000 0.787 high incidence of disease (HIV-AIDS) and emigration due to political oppression

Long term decline situation

A long-term population decline is typically caused by sub-replacement fertility, coupled with a net immigration rate that fails to compensate the excess of deaths over births.[19] A long-term decline is accompanied by population aging and creates an increase in the ratio of retirees to workers and children.[19] When a sub-replacement fertility rate remains constant, population decline accelerates over time.[19]

Eastern Europe and Former Soviet Republics

Population is falling due to health factors and low replacement, as well as emigration of ethnic Russians to Russia. Exceptions to this rule is in those ex-Soviet states which have a Muslim majority (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan) as high birth rates are traditional. Much of Eastern Europe has lost population due to migration to Western Europe. In Eastern Europe and Russia, natality fell abruptly after the end of the Soviet Union, and death rates generally rose. Together these nations occupy over 8,000,000 square miles (21,000,000 km2) 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.[citation needed]


Armenia's population peaked at 3,604,000 in 1991[20] and has continued its decline to 3,260,000[21] estimated in 4Q 2010. This represents a 10.5% decrease in total population since the peak.


Belarus' population peaked at 10,151,806 in 1989 Census, and then has declined to 9,467,300 in August 1, 2011.[22] This represents a 7.2% decline since the peak.


Bulgaria's population has declined from a peak of 9,009,018 in 1989 and since 2001, has lost yet another 600,000 people, according to 2011 census preliminary figures to no more than 7.3 million.[23] This represents a 23.4% decrease in total population since the peak, and a -0.82% rate in the last 10 years.


Greece's latest census reported its population fell to 10,787,690 from 10,934,097 in 2001 census.[24]


Though Japan has been forecast to decline in population for years, and its monthly and even annual estimates have shown a decline in the past, the 2010 census result figure was slightly higher at just above 128 million[25] than the 2005 census and its population has yet to register a decline between census periods though shorter periods may show declines. The 2010 census figure is expected to be the long term census peak. One factor in higher figures was more Japanese returnees than expected.


Hungary's population peaked in 1980 at 10,709,000,[26] far earlier than its Soviet cousins, and has continued its decline to under 10 million as of August 2010.[27] This represents a decline of 7.1% since its peak, compared to neighbors to the East the rate has been far more modest averaging -0.23% a year over the period.


Regarding the current area of the Republic of Ireland, the population has fluctuated dramatically. The population was 6.53 million in 1841, and dropped due to the Irish famine to under 3 million by the 1930s, and began rising, in 2011 to 4.58 million.


When Lithuania split from the Soviet Union, it had a population of 3.7 million, which was close to its peak population.[28] The latest census recorded a population of 3.05 million in 2011, down from 3.4 million in 2001.[28] This represents a 21.3% decline since the peak, and some 11.5% since 2001.


Russia's total population is no longer declining (thus slowly increasing) due to efforts of the government. Such statistics are subject to change as new information comes in, any increase is very modest. Its peak was 148,689,000 in 1991, and its own estimate was 141,927,297 for January 1, 2011.[29] This represents a 4.7% decrease in total population since the peak.


Ukraine census in 1989 resulted in 51,452,034 people,[30] the closest known data to the peak, however than number has plummeted to 45,687,000 as of June 1, 2011.[31] This represents a 12.6% decrease in total population since the peak.

Declines within race or ethnicity

Some large and even majority groups within a population have shown an overall decline in numbers while the total population increases. Such is the case in California, where the Non-Hispanic Whites population declined from 15.8 million to 14.95 million,[32] meanwhile the total population increased from 33 million to over 37 million from 2000 to 2010 censuses. In Western Europe, the population of people of local origins have been in absolute decline for a number of years while total populations have shown increases.

Populations of certain ethnic groups worldwide has slowed down considerably while others have marched on. In particular, 5 groups: North American Whites (~230 million), Europeans in Europe (~700 million), Japanese (~128 million), Chinese (~1380 million), and Koreans (~73 million) population growth rates have declined sharply to very modest growth, and all these groups are expected to see population declines in the next 20–30 years, if they aren't seeing them already. Ethnic Thais (~65 million) are also expected to follow not far behind, although their cousins the ethnic Lao birth rates still in the high range.

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).[33] 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 increase as the population declines due to presumably reduced pollution and consumption of natural resources, and the decline of social pressures and overutilization of resources that can be linked to overpopulation. There may also be reduced pressure on infrastructure, education, and other services as well.

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 low fertility rates will also be accompanied by population ageing which can contribute problems for a society. This can adversely affect the quality of life for the young 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 decade-long economic malaise of Japan and Germany in the 1990s and early 2000s is often linked to these demographic problems, though there were also several other causes. 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 Japan and Germany 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. Russia'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).[34] 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 among the first countries to recover.[35][36]

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.[37] 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 and 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. Conversely, a high population means labour is in plentiful supply, which usually means wages will be lower. This is seen in countries like China and India.

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 Russia'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 France, Italy, Germany and Poland, have offered some combination of bonuses and monthly payments to families. Some Japanese localities, facing significant population loss, are offering economic incentives. Yamatsuri, a town of 7,000 just north of Tokyo, offers parents $4,600 for the birth of a child and $460 a year for 10 years. The Republic of Singapore 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.[38] The effectiveness of these policies is currently the subject of debate.

Paid maternity and paternity leave policies can also be used as an incentive. Sweden built up an extensive welfare state from the 1930s and onward, partly as a consequence of the debate following Crisis in the Population Question, published in 1934. Today, 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 Italy, Bulgaria and Russia in the period starting about 1990.[citation needed]

See also

Case studies:


  1. ^ Depopulate - Webster's Online Dictionary
  2. ^ Depopulate - yourdictionary.com.
  3. ^ Population crises and cycles in history. A review of the book Population Crises and Population cycles by Claire Russell and W.M.S. Russell.
  4. ^ Stacy Goodling, "Effects of European Diseases on the Inhabitants of the New World"
  5. ^ "World Population Prospects - The 2002 Revision" (PDF). United Nations Population Division. http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/wpp2002/WPP2002-HIGHLIGHTSrev1.PDF. 
  6. ^ "Global Population Profile: 2002". US Census Bureau. http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/wp02.html. 
  7. ^ http://www.russia-media.ru/mainmore.php?tpl=General+News&iditem=2488
  8. ^ http://www.eng.stat.kz/news/Pages/n1_12_11_10.aspx
  9. ^ http://www.populationpress.org/publication/2004-1-myers.html
  10. ^ "2006 World Population Datasheet" (PDF). Population Reference Bureau. http://www.prb.org/pdf06/06WorldDataSheet.pdf. 
  11. ^ 2007 World Population Data Sheet
  12. ^ http://www.nsi.bg/census2011/pagebg2.php?p2=36&sp2=37&SSPP2=4 2011 National Demographic Census, Age Structure
  13. ^ Cuban Population still on the Decrease
  14. ^ Greenland: Dubai on the Arctic or slow decline?
  15. ^ CIA World Factbook—Italy CIA World Factbook Retrieved on October 6, 2009
  16. ^ "CIA World Factbook – Japan". CIA World Factbook. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ja.html. Retrieved October 6, 2009. 
  17. ^ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_flight#South_Africa
  18. ^ Rosenberg, Matt Population Decline in Russia
  19. ^ a b c Bonin, Holger (2001). Generational accounting: theory and application. Springer. ISBN 3540422668. 
  20. ^ http://www.armstat.am/en/
  21. ^ http://docs.armstat.am/nsdp/
  22. ^ http://naviny.by/rubrics/english/2011/08/27/ic_news_259_375078/
  23. ^ http://www.sofiaecho.com/2011/03/01/1052038_bulgarian-population-shrinks-by-about-600-000
  24. ^ http://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_wsite1_1_25/07/2011_399816
  25. ^ http://www.e-stat.go.jp/SG1/estat/Csvdl.do?sinfid=000008640423
  26. ^ http://portal.ksh.hu/pls/ksh/docs/eng/xstadat/xstadat_long/h_wdsd001a.html
  27. ^ Gulyas, Veronika (October 28, 2010). "Hungarian Population Falls Below 10 Million". The Wall Street Journal. http://blogs.wsj.com/new-europe/2010/10/28/hungarian-population-falls-below-10-million/. 
  28. ^ a b http://www.businessweek.com/ap/financialnews/D9N8JV6G0.htm
  29. ^ http://www.gks.ru/free_doc/2010/popul10-Pr.xls
  30. ^ http://demoscope.ru/weekly/ssp/sng_nac_79.php
  31. ^ http://www.ukrstat.gov.ua/ Statistical Table 21.06.2011
  32. ^ http://www.sacbee.com/2011/05/16/3629466/californias-latino-and-asian-population.html
  33. ^ CIA World Factbook—Russia [CIA World Factbook] Retrieved on November 14, 2008
  34. ^ Nicholas Eberstadt. 2005. "Russia, the Sick Man of Europe". Public Interest, Winter 2005 [1]
  35. ^ Wheatley, Alan (August 18, 2009). "Japan Could Defy the Skeptics". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/18/business/global/18inside.html. Retrieved March 27, 2010. 
  36. ^ Gilmore, Grainne; Walsh, Dominic (August 13, 2009). "France and Germany emerge from recession". The Times (London). http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/economics/article6794291.ece. Retrieved March 27, 2010. 
  37. ^ Economist.com Grossly distorted picture
  38. ^ C. J. Chivers (May 11, 2006). "Putin Urges Plan to Reverse Slide in the Birth Rate". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/11/world/europe/11russia.html. 

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