What does it mean that more and more countries are facing a “demographic winter”?

Countries around the world are facing stagnant population growth and plummeting birth rates in the most dizzying reversal in recorded history, which will result in newborn birthday parties being much rarer than funerals and eyesore empty houses everywhere.

Italy is closing some maternity wards. Ghost towns are starting to appear in northeast China. South Korea’s universities are under-enrolled, and hundreds of thousands of properties are being razed and land converted to parks in Germany.

This avalanche-like demographic trend – more deaths than births – is expanding and intensifying. There are countries with growing populations, especially in Africa, though birth rates are almost everywhere else on the decline. Demographers predict that by the time the century enters its second 50 years or sooner, the global population will enter a sustained decline for the first time.

A declining population could ease pressure on the planet’s resources, mitigate the devastating impact of climate change and ease the burden of housework on women. But the census results released this month in China and the United States show the slowest population growth in decades in both countries, with some unimaginable adjustments mentioned.

Longer life spans and low fertility rates could lead to fewer workers and more retirees, potentially upending the way society is organized – with the central notion that a surplus of young people can drive the economy and cover the costs of the elderly. There is also a need to reimagine the concept of family and nation. Imagine a region where everyone is over the age of 70. Imagine a government that offers high incentives to immigrants and mothers who have multiple children. Imagine large numbers of grandparents participating in the odd-job economy and ads on the Super Bowl encouraging childbearing.

“There is a need for a paradigm shift,” says Frank Swiaczny, a German demographer and former head of population trends and analysis at the United Nations who left his post last year. “Countries need to learn to accept and adapt to this decline.”

Derivative effects and responses are already beginning to emerge, especially in East Asia and Europe. From Hungary to China, from Sweden to Japan, governments struggle to find a balance between the needs of an expanding aging population and the needs of young people, for whom the extremely personal decision to have offspring depends on a number of positive (more jobs for women) and negative (persistent gender inequality and high cost of living) factors.

The 20th century presented a very different challenge. With increased longevity and declining infant mortality, the global population experienced its most dramatic increase in history, from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000. These growth drivers are still in play in some countries that account for about one-third of the world’s population. By the end of the century, Nigeria’s population could surpass that of China; in sub-Saharan Africa, a family still has four to five children.

But elsewhere, the era of high fertility is largely winding down. As women gain more education and access to contraception, and as anxiety related to childbearing continues to grow, more parents are delaying pregnancy and fewer babies are being born. Even in countries long associated with rapid population growth, such as India and Mexico, birth rates are declining or are already below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per family.

This change may take decades, but once it begins, the decline (like growth) accelerates exponentially. As the number of births decreases, fewer girls grow up to have children, and if their families are smaller than their parents – which is happening in dozens of countries – the downward trend can be like throwing a rock off a cliff.

“It becomes a circular mechanism,” said Stuart Gietel Basten, a professor of social sciences and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and an expert on Asian population issues. “It’s the momentum of population development.”

Countries such as the United States, Australia and Canada, where birth rates hover between 1.5 and 2, have diluted the impact with immigration. But in Eastern Europe, the population exodus has exacerbated the decline, and in much of Asia, the “demographic time bomb” that first became a topic of debate decades ago has finally detonated.

In 2019, South Korea’s fertility rate fell to a record low of 0.92, with fewer than one child per woman, the lowest rate in the developed world. In the country, the total number of babies born each month for the past 59 months has fallen to an all-time low.

The declining birth rate, combined with rapid industrialization pushing people from the countryside to the big cities, has created a situation that looks like a two-tier society. Big cities like Seoul continue to grow, putting enormous pressure on infrastructure and housing, while at the same time local towns can easily find closed and abandoned schools, not enough children enrolled, and playgrounds overgrown with weeds.

Pregnant women in many areas can no longer find obstetricians or post-natal care centers. Universities that are not among the elite, especially outside Seoul, are having increasing difficulty enrolling students – the number of 18-year-old students in Korea has fallen from 900,000 in 1992 to 500,000 today. To attract students, some schools offer scholarships and even iPhones.

To boost the birth rate, the government has given out baby bonuses. The government has also increased child allowances, as well as medical subsidies for fertility treatments and pregnancies. Health officials give gifts of beef, baby clothes and toys to newborns. The government is also building hundreds of kindergartens and daycare centers. In Seoul, every bus and subway has pink seats reserved for pregnant women.

The government has spent more than $178 billion over the past 15 years to encourage women to have more children, but this month, Deputy Prime Minister Hong Nam-ki acknowledged that progress has not been enough. In many families, the shift feels cultural and permanent.

“My grandparents had six children and my parents had five because their generation thought there should be several children,” said Kim Mi-kyung (ph), a 38-year-old full-time mother. “I only have one child. For me and the younger generation, all things considered, it’s not cost effective to have many children.”

Thousands of miles away in Italy, people feel similarly, just in a different context.

Pope Francis, speaking at a conference on Italy’s birth rate crisis last Friday, said the “demographic winter” remains “cold and dark.

In more countries, more people may soon be looking for their own metaphors for population. Birth projections tend to change depending on the response of governments and families, but by 2100, 183 of 195 countries and territories will have below-replacement fertility, according to an international team of scientists who published their projections in The Lancet last year.

Their model shows a particularly large population decline in China, where the population is expected to fall from 1.41 billion today to about 730 million by 2100. If this happens, the population pyramid will flip. China would no longer support fewer retirees based on younger workers, and there would be as many 85-year-olds as 18-year-olds.

Census data released May 11 show that in the “rust belt” of northeastern China, the population has declined by 1.2 percent over the past decade, and in 2016, Heilongjiang province became the first province in the country to see its pension system run out of money. Hegang is one of the province’s “ghost cities” that has lost nearly 10% of its population since 2010. The price of housing there is so low that people are calling it cabbage.

Many countries are beginning to embrace the need to adapt to trends, not just resist them. South Korea is pushing for university mergers. In Japan, adult diapers are now outselling baby diapers; municipal zoning is being consolidated as towns age and shrink. In Sweden, some municipalities have shifted resources from schools to elder care. Almost everywhere, older people are being asked to continue working. Germany, which previously raised the retirement age to 67, is now considering raising it to 69.

Germany has gone further than many other countries and has also implemented an urban contraction program: some 330,000 housing units have been removed from the stock since 2002.

If the goal is revival, then some signs of it can indeed be found. After expanding coverage of affordable child care and paid parental leave, Germany’s fertility rate rose from 1.3 in 2006 to a recent 1.54. Leipzig, once a shrinking city, is now growing again in population after reducing its housing stock and making itself more attractive on a smaller scale.

“Growth is a challenge, and so is decline,” says Sviadzny, now a senior researcher at the Federal Institute for Population research (Germany).

Demographers warn not to see population decline as just one reason to ring the alarm bell. Many women are having fewer children because that’s what they want. Fewer people can lead to higher wages, a more equal society and lower carbon emissions, as well as a higher quality of life from having fewer children.

But, Professor Gittel-Basten quotes Casanova, who says, “There is no such thing as destiny. We shape our own lives.”

The challenge ahead remains a dead end – with the exception of the small increase achieved in Germany, no country with severely slowing population growth has managed to raise fertility. There are few signs of wage growth in countries with shrinking economies, and there is no guarantee that a declining population will mean less environmental stress.

Many demographers believe that the current moment may appear to future historians as a transitional or gestation period that will determine whether humanity can figure out how to make the world friendlier enough for people to start the families they want.

Surveys in many countries show that young people want more children, but face too many obstacles.

Anna Parolini tells a common story. She left her hometown in northern Italy in search of better job opportunities. Now 37, she lives in Milan with her boyfriend and has temporarily put her desire to have children on hold.

She worried that her salary of less than 2,000 euros a month would not be enough to support her family, while her parents still live in her hometown.

“There’s no one here who can help me,” she says. “Now when I think about having children, I take a deep breath.”