There has been a long established global trend for the average family size to decrease.  Since 1950, the global average has gone from around 5 children per woman, to 2.5 by 2010.

Projections from the UN population prospects database suggest that this trend will continue.  All regions will see a decline in family size, with the global average currently expected to reach around 2.24 children per woman by 2050.  For some regions, the decline has been quite marked, with places like Latin America and Asia, seeing the average drop below 2 children per woman – a significant drop over a 100 year period.  Other regions, such as Europe and North America, will see either a slight increase or the maintenance of existing fertility levels.

Why has family size decreased?

There are a variety of reasons for why family size is decreasing.  Some of the most commonly referenced are:

  1. Declining child mortality.  Child birth is, generally, becoming safer and more children are surviving into adulthood.  This is combined with a general trend for parents to also support their children for longer through life, as opposed to having children to support the ‘family livelihood’.
  2. Changing social norms and employment.  Parenting roles and types of employment have changed significantly over the past 100 years and the increased diversity of different family types reflects this.

The pro’s and con’s of smaller families.

When family sizes decrease rapidly a national economy can actually benefit.  For a while, something called a ‘demographic dividend‘ can occur.  This happens when the next generation has family sizes considerably lower than its parents (for example, if you had five siblings and you and each of your siblings went on to have 1-2 children).  If child mortality stays low and life expectancy increases, then the parents of these smaller families could, theoretically, be economically productive for longer and have less dependents to support.  This can be a tremendous boom for an economy and has helped many countries to advance rapidly – China, as a result of the one child policy, benefited from a long period of productive economic growth.

However, there is a downside.  This increase in economic productivity only lasts while the individuals themselves are productive.  When they start to age and need social support, this dividend can turn into a liability.  Instead of having 5 children to care for them in their old age, parents now only have one or two, both of whom could themselves be in continuos employment with 1-2 children to support.  When this occurs, who ensures social support for the elderly – the state or the individual?  See below for a projected demographic profile for China in 2050.

Demographic and social policies are likely to remain delicate and challenging issues for most states.  Over the next forty years, states are likely to balance the need to provide health and pension provision to their ageing populations by attempting to keep their populations at relatively ‘healthy’ levels.  This means, that for most states, as well as ensuring the provision of care, will probably look to keep people working longer, whilst implementing the policies to support working parents to attempt to keep future population growth at around replacement levels, which is generaly about 2.1 children per woman.