Population decline

A population decline (or depopulation) in humans is a reduction in a human population caused by events such as long-term demographic trends, as in sub-replacement fertility, urban decay, white flight, or rural flight, or due to violence, disease, or other catastrophes.[1] Depopulation in humans can be largely beneficial for a region, allocating more resources with less or no competition for the new population. In addition to exempting the disadvantages of overpopulation, such as increased traffic, pollution, real estate prices, environmental destruction, etc. Per-capita wealth may increase in depopulation scenarios,[2][3][4] in addition to improvement of environmental quality-of-life indicators[5] such as improved air and water quality, reforestation, return of native species, reduction of carbon emissions, etc. The accompanying benefits of depopulation have been termed shrink and prosper,[6] with benefits being similar to the post-Civil War Gilded Age, post-World War I economic boom, and the post-World War II economic boom.


A reduction over time in a region's population can be caused by several factors including 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. Before the 20th century, population decline was mostly due to disease, starvation,epidemic 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 all caused sizable population declines. In modern times, the AIDS epidemic 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 declined because of wide-scale executions by the Khmer Rouge.


Sometimes the term underpopulation is applied to a specific economic system. It does not refer 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.

Positive effects of a population decline

A long-term decline in birth rates has a positive effect on the labour market due a decreasing number of job applicants. A phenomena of a declining youth unemployment was observed in Germany in 2010 and 2011.[7][8] From population decline the competition for resources within the population is reduced. Population decline also can rise the income per capita.[9][10][11] Additionally, the life quality increases due to lower motorised traffic, less environmental destruction, reduced carbon emissions, reduced agricultural demand, reforestation and better air and water quality due to industries operating for fewer hours.[12]

The human carrying capacity of the Earth is estimated to 500 million according to the National Strategy for a Sustainable America, other authors estimate 1 to 12 billion. According to these studies, the human carrying capacity is already exceeded or would be exceeded by 2100,[13] therefore a global population decline would counteract the negative effects of human overpopulation.

Since the dire predictions of coming population overshoot in the 1960s and '70s, and many other social changes, more couples in many countries have tended to choose to have fewer children. Today, emigration, sub-replacement fertility and high death rates in the former Soviet Union and its former allies are the principal reasons for that region's population decline. However, governments can influence the speed of the decline, including measures to halt, slow or suspend decline. Such measures include pro-birth policies and subsidies, media influence, immigration, bolstering healthcare and laws aimed at reducing death rates. Some of these have been applied in Russia, Armenia, and many Western European nations which have used immigration and other policies to suspend or slow population decline. Therefore, although the long-term trend may be for greater population decline, short term trends may slow the decline or even reverse it, creating seemingly conflicting statistical data. A great example of changing trends occurring over a century is Ireland.

Interpretation of statistical data

Statistical data, especially those comparing only two sets of figures, can be misleading and may require careful interpretation. For instance a nation's population could have been increasing, but a one-off event could have resulted in a short-term decline; or vice versa. Nations can acquire territory or lose territory, and groups of people can acquire or lose citizenship, e.g. stateless persons, indigenous people, and illegal immigrants or long-stay foreign residents. Political instability can make it difficult to conduct a census in certain regions. Further, a country's population could rise in summer and decline in winter as deaths increase in winter in cold regions; a long census interval could show a rise in population when the population has already tipped into decline.

White nationalists use evidence of a declining birth rate in support of their extremist views and calls to violence.[14] Lower fertility rates are generally associated with dramatic increases in population health and longevity.[15] Increasing populations are not necessary to maintain economic growth and social vitality because of advances in automation and workers living healthy lives much longer into old age. Declining populations require fewer scarce resources and pollute less.[16] Fewer dependents mean that families, regions, and societies can achieve more productive uses of available resources and increase their quality of life.[17] While there were in the past advantages to high fertility rates, that "demographic dividend" has now largely disappeared.[18]

Contemporary decline by country

The table below shows that a number of countries are declining in population, in particular Puerto Rico, Latvia, Lithuania and Venezuela.

Below are some examples of countries that are experiencing population decline. The term population used here is based on the de facto definition of population, which counts all residents regardless of legal status or citizenship, except for refugees not permanently settled in the country of asylum, who are generally considered part of the population of the country of origin. This means that population growth in this table includes net changes from immigration and emigration. For a table of natural population changes, see list of countries by natural increase.

Population decline by country
Country Population estimate
(1 July 2020)
Avg annual rate of population change



Albania 2,877,797 −0.09 low birth rate, emigration
Belarus 9,449,323 +0.02 low birth rate, emigration, population increased in 2014 due to positive net migration rate following war in Ukraine due to refugee flow
Bosnia and Herzegovina 3,280,819 −0.89 low birth rate, emigration, Bosnian War
Bulgaria 6,948,445 −0.71 low birth rate, high death rate, high rate of abortions, population is old, emigration, a relatively high level of emigration of young people and a low level of immigration and lack of good policies encouraging parents[20]
Croatia 4,105,267 −0.61 low birth rate, population is old, emigration, War in Croatia, difference in statistical methods[21]
Estonia 1,326,535 +0.17 low birth rate, emigration
Germany 83,783,942 +0.48 low birth rate, population is old, population increased since 2013 due to positive net migration rate following civil war in Syria due to refugee flow
Georgia 3,989,167 −0.18 (figure includes Abkhazia and South Ossetia) high death rate, declining births, high rate of abortions, emigration and a low level of immigration
Greece 10,423,054 −0.45 low birth rate, economic crisis, emigration, population is old
Hungary 9,660,351 −0.24 low birth rate, emigration
Italy 60,461,826 −0.04 low birth rate, economic crisis, population is old, population increased in 2012, 2013, and 2014 due to positive net migration rate
Japan 126,476,461 −0.24 low birth rate, population is old and a low level of immigration
Latvia 1,886,198 −1.15 low birth rate, emigration
Lithuania 2,722,289 −1.48 high death rate, low birth rate, emigration
Moldova 4,033,963 −0.18 (includes the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic) low birth rate, emigration
Poland 37,846,611 −0.10 low birth rate, emigration
Portugal 10,196,709 −0.33 low birth rate, population is old, economic crisis, emigration
Puerto Rico 2,860,853 −3.34 low birth rate, population is old, economic crisis, emigration to the U.S. mainland, effects of Hurricane Maria
Romania 19,237,691 −0.70 low birth rate, high death rate, high rate of abortion, emigration, population is old
Russia 145,934,462 +0.13 high death rate, low birth rate, high rate of abortions, emigration and a low level of immigration until recently[22] Population increased slightly since 2014 due to positive natural change and positive net migration rate
Serbia 6,963,764 −0.32 low birth rate, emigration
Spain 46,754,778 +0.04 low birth rate, population is old, economic crisis
Syria 17,500,658 −0.56 Syrian Civil War prompting mass emigration from the country
Ukraine 43,733,762 −0.54 high death rate, declining births, high rate of abortions, population is old, war in Donbass, emigration and a low level of immigration
Venezuela 28,435,940 −1.13 emigration due to profound socio economic and political crisis, deterioration of healthcare system leading to rapidly increasing infant mortality rate, declining births

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.[23] A long-term decline is accompanied by population aging and creates an increase in the ratio of retirees to workers and children.[23] When a sub-replacement fertility rate remains constant, population decline accelerates over the long term;[23] however, short-term baby booms, healthcare improvements, among other factors created can cause flip-flops of trends. Population decline trends have seen long term reversals in places such as Russia, Germany, Ireland, and the UK, the latter two seeing declines as early as the 1970s, yet the UK now is growing more rapidly than any year since it first tipped into declines.[24] In spite of more recent declines, it is very uncommon for population to dip under the levels shortly after World War II. Bulgaria and Latvia are the only nations with a net population decline since 1950, and half of all nations worldwide have more than quadrupled their populations.[25] UAE's current population is over 120 times that of 1950, and Qatar's population has grown over 80 times the 1950s level.[25]

United States

Despite ever increasing population in the United States, some American municipalities have shrunk due to urban decay in large cities and rural flight in smaller towns. Detroit is the most notable of a number of cities with population smaller than in 1950 and whose population shrinkage has been the most dramatic; Detroit's population was almost 1.85 million as of the 1950 census but has plummeted to 677,000 as of 2015, with the most rapid decline occurring between 2000 and 2010.

Other American cities whose populations have shrunk substantially since the 1950s—although some have begun to grow again—include New Orleans; St. Louis; Buffalo; Philadelphia; Baltimore; Chicago; Cleveland; Pittsburgh; and Wilmington (Delaware).


Though Japan's population has been predicted to decline 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,[26] than the 2005 census. Factors implicated in the higher figures were more Japanese returnees than expected as well as changes to the methodology of data collection. The official count put the population as of October 1, 2015, at 127.1 million, down by 947,000 or 0.7% from the previous census in 2010.[27][28] The gender ratio is increasingly skewed; some 106 women per 100 men live in Japan. The total population is still 52% above 1950 levels.[29] In 2013, Japan's population fell by a record-breaking 244,000.[30] The Tōhoku region in Japan now has fewer people than in 1950.

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 are in those ex-Soviet states that have a Muslim majority (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Azerbaijan), where 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 21 million km2 (8 million sq mi) 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.


Albania's population in 1989 recorded 3,182,417 people, the largest for any census. Since then, its population declined to an estimated 2,893,005 in January 2015.[31] This represents a decrease of 10% in total population since the peak census figure.


Armenia's population peaked at 3,604,000 in 1991[32] and declined to 3,010,600 in the January 2015 state statistical estimate.[33] This represents a 19.7% decrease in total population since the peak census figure.


Belarus's population peaked at 10,151,806 in 1989 Census, and declined to 9,480,868 as of 2015 as estimated by the state statistical service.[34] This represents a 7.1% decline since the peak census figure.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina's population is thought to have peaked at 4,377,033 in 1991 Census, shortly before splitting from Yugoslavia before the ensuing war. The latest census of 2013 reported 3,791,622 people.[35] This represents a 15.4% decline since the peak census figure.


Bulgaria's population 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,[36] further down to 7,245,000. This represents a 24.3% decrease in total population since the peak, and a -0.82% annual rate in the last 10 years.


Croatia's population declined from 4,784,265 in 1991[37] to 4,456,096[38] (by old statistical method) of which 4,284,889[39] are permanent residents (by new statistical method), in 2011, a decline of 8% (11.5% by the new definition of permanent residency in 2011 census). The main reasons for the decline since 1991 are: low birth rates, emigration and war in Croatia. From 2001 and 2011 main reason for the drop in population is due to a difference in definition of permanent residency used in censuses till 2001 (censuses of 1948, 1953, 1961, 1971, 1981, 1991 and 2001) and the one used in 2011.[21]


In the last Soviet census of 1989, it had a population of 1,565,662, which was close to its peak population.[40] The state statistics reported an estimate of 1,314,370 for 2016.[40] This represents a 19.2% decline since the peak census figure.


In the last Soviet census of 1989, it had a population of 5,400,841, which was close to its peak population.[41] The state statistics reported an estimate of 4,010,000 for 2014 Census, which includes estimated numbers for quasi-independent Abkhazia and South Ossetia.[41] This represents a 25.7% decline since the peak census figure, but nevertheless somewhat higher than the 1950 population.


When Latvia split from the Soviet Union, it had a population of 2,666,567, which was very close to its peak population.[42] The latest census recorded a population of 2,067,887 in 2011, while the state statistics reported an estimate of 1,986,086 for 2015.[42] This represents a 25.5% decline since the peak census figure, only one of two nations worldwide falling below 1950 levels. The decline is caused by both a negative natural population growth (more deaths than births) and a negative net migration rate.


When Lithuania split from the Soviet Union, it had a population of 3.7 million, which was close to its peak population.[43] The latest census recorded a population of 3.05 million in 2011, down from 3.4 million in 2001,[43] further falling to 2,988,000 in September 1, 2012.[44] This represents a 23.8% decline since the peak census figure, and some 13.7% since 2001.


Ukraine census in 1989 resulted in 51,452,034 people.[45] Ukraine's own estimates show a peak of 52,244,000 people in 1993;[46] however, this number has plummeted to 45,439,822 as of December 1, 2013.[47] Having lost Crimean territory and experienced war, the population has plunged to 42,981,850 as of August 2014.[48] This represents a 19.7% decrease in total population since the peak figure, but 16.8% above the 1950 population even without Crimea.[29] Its absolute total decline (9,263,000) since its peak population is the highest of all nations; this includes loss of territory and heavy net emigration. Eastern Ukraine may yet lose many Russian-speaking citizens due to new Russian citizenship law.[49]


Hungary's population peaked in 1980, at 10,709,000,[50] and has continued its decline to under 10 million as of August 2010.[51] This represents a decline of 7.1% since its peak; however, compared to neighbors situated to the East, Hungary peaked almost a decade earlier yet the rate has been far more modest, averaging -0.23% a year over the period.


Romania's 1991 census showed 23,185,084 people, and the October 2011 census recorded 20,121,641 people, while the state statistical estimate for 2014 is 19,947,311.[52] This represents a decrease of 16.2% since the historical peak in 1991.


Serbia recorded a peak census population of 7,576,837 in 1991, falling to 7,186,862 in the 2011 census.[53] That represents a decline of 5.1% since its peak census figure.

Halted declines


The decline in Russia's total population is among the largest in numbers, but not in percentage. After having peaked at 148,689,000 in 1991, the population then decreased, falling to 142,737,196 by 2008.[54] This represents a 4.0% decrease in total population since the peak census figure. However, since then the Russian population has risen to 146,870,000 in 2018. This recent trend can be attributed to a lower death rate, higher birth rate, the annexation of Crimea and continued immigration, mostly from Ukraine and Armenia. It is some 40% above the 1950 population.[29][55]


In Germany a decades-long tendency to population decline has been offset by waves of immigration. The 2011 national census recorded a population of 80.2 million people.[56] At the end of 2012 it had risen to 82 million according to federal estimates.[57] This represents about 14% increase over 1950.[58]


In the current area of the Republic of Ireland, the population has fluctuated dramatically. The population of Ireland was 8 million in 1841, but it dropped due to the Irish famine and later emigration. The population of the Republic of Ireland hit bottom at 2.8 million in the 1961 census, but it then rose and in 2011 it was 4.58 million.

Declines within race or ethnicity

Such is the case in California, where the segment of the population considered Non-Hispanic Whites declined from 15.8 million to 14.95 million,[59] while the total population increased from 33 million to over 37 million between 2000 and 2010 mostly thanks to immigration from Mexico and Asian countries. Singapore has one of the world's lowest birthrates. The ratio of native Singaporeans (whatever their ethnicity) towards immigrants and migrants continues to erode, with natives decreasing in absolute figures, despite the country planning to increase the population by over 20% in coming years.

Economic consequences

The effects of a declining population can be adverse or beneficial for an economy. Possible negative consequences are:

  1. Permanent recession
  2. A rise in the dependency ratio
  3. A crisis in end of life care for the elderly[60]
  4. Difficulties in funding entitlement programs[61]
  5. A decline in military strength[62]
  6. A decline in innovation[61]
  7. A strain on mental health[63]
  8. Deflation[64]

Possible benefits include:

  • Higher wages due to more demand for fewer workers.
  • More labor-saving technologies to make up for the shortfall in workers
  • More money available for investment in human capital
  • Lower rents and commodity prices, which benefits lower-class consumers

Conversely, the effects of a declining population can be positive. The single best gauge of economic success is the growth of GDP per person, not total GDP. GDP per person is a rough proxy for average living standards. A country can both increase its average living standard and grow total GDP even though its population growth is low or even negative. The economies of both Japan and Germany went into recovery around the time their populations 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 had been shrinking since 1992–93.[65] 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.

More recently (2009–2017) Japan has experienced a higher growth per capita than the United States, even though its population declined over that period.[66] In the United States, the relationship between population growth and growth per capita has been found to be empirically insignificant.[67] All of this is further proof that individual prosperity can grow during periods of population decline.

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 recent meta-study found no relationship between population growth and economic growth.[68]

In an attempt to better understand the economic impact of these pluses and minuses, Lee et al. analyzed data from 40 countries. They found that fertility well above replacement and population growth would typically be most beneficial for government budgets. However, fertility near replacement and population stability would be most beneficial for standards of living when the analysis includes the effects of age structure on families as well as governments. And fertility moderately below replacement and population decline would maximize standards of living when the cost of providing capital for a growing labor force is taken into account.[69]

A smaller national population can also have geo-strategic effects, but the correlation between population and power is a tenuous one. Technology and resources often play more significant roles.

National efforts to reverse declining populations

Many European countries, including France, Italy, Germany and Poland, have offered some combination of bonuses and monthly payments to families.

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 extensive parental leave where parents are entitled to share 16 months' paid leave per child, the cost divided between both employer and State.

Many nations that are currently witnessing depopulation with fertility rates below sub-placement (like the west) are recommending quantitative easing to combat deflation, while other economists, such as Paul Krugman, believe governments should prioritize fiscal policy, such as bringing back Keynesian policies.

Alternative concept relative to skills

Sometimes the concept of population decline is applied where there has been considerable emigration 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.

See also


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