The benefits of declining populations

By Jenna Dodson | 23 August 2019
The Overpopulation Project

(Image by Philippsaal from Pixabay)

A new international billboard campaign encourages the public and policymakers to “Celebrate Low Birthrates!” and “Shrink Towards Abundance!” The goals of the campaign are to draw attention to the benefits of declining populations and encourage politicians to rethink and reorganize the current economic system to take advantage of depopulation dividends. The environmental benefits of declining populations are generally accepted, but how can we reorganize our economies to accommodate declining populations? Here we examine how natural population decline provides an opportunity to transition to a system that values sustainable and equitable human well-being.

“Celebrate Low Birthrates!” or “Shrink Towards Abundance!” These are the phrases you may see on billboards if you find yourself in Portugal, Singapore or the Netherlands. A new international billboard campaign, The Great Decrease, provides a refreshing look at low birth rates and population decline from a much needed perspective. The campaign is funded by Ultra Ultra, a Dutch artistic design and campaign agency that aims to increase awareness of social issues.

One aim of the campaign is to raise awareness to population issues and encourage experts and policymakers to embrace low birth rates. A tough but necessary task, especially with some governments putting up billboards to encourage people to have more children. So far, the media response has focused more on confirming the billboards legality and identifying their funders, rather than initiating a useful conversation. However, voluntary population decrease is likely to become the ‘new norm’ in European countries (including European Russia). Europe’s population is on track to decline by 37.2 million by mid-century, from the current 747.6 million to 710.4 million by 2050, due to persistent below-replacement fertility rates.

This is great news that should indeed be celebrated, as fertility declines are the natural outcome of achieving some of our societies’ fundamental goals, including healthy children and gender equality[1]. However, many are apprehensive of this trend, since population decline tends to cause problems within the current growth-focused economy. It is clear that adjustments must be made. That is one outcome The Great Decrease campaign hopes to achieve, in part by encouraging policymakers to reorganize pension systems and other economic institutions to accommodate ageing and smaller populations. Natural population decline should be embraced as a hard-earned opportunity to transition to a truly sustainable economy that recognizes limits to growth.

So, how can we achieve this? Firstly, we need to address common depopulation concerns, such as potential labor shortages and pension shortfalls, so the general public is more willing to listen. There are other solutions to these issues besides increasing retirement ages; for example, increasing labor force participation. A shrinking labor pool can tighten labor markets and increase labor force participation by unemployed and underrepresented groups such as women, young people who require training, and older people who choose to work longer. A recent European study showed that an increase in average labor force participation rates by an additional one to two percentage points can substitute for a one-year increase in the normal pension age[2].

Additionally, in part due to technological innovations, people are staying in better health for longer. Technological innovations will continue to help societies support older dependents and adjust to the transitory phenomenon of ageing[3]. In Europe’s knowledge economy, a smaller number of highly educated people will compensate for the end of population growth, as automation will likely take over many tasks.

We must also reexamine how we measure economic success. With a shrinking labor force, economies will inevitably slow and at times contract. Just like declining populations, this will become the ‘new norm.’ As such, we should shift our measures of economic health to measures that better capture satisfaction and actual well-being. Confirming many people’s intuitions, studies suggest that economic growth does not increase well-being in wealthy developed countries[4]. A better measure of economic success could be per capita income growth, since in countries with shrinking populations, per capita incomes can continue to grow so long as the economy is shrinking less rapidly than the population.

A gradual downsizing of populations and economies in high-income countries would help facilitate the transition to a different kind of macroeconomic system. That begs the larger question: what kind of economic model do we want? Whether it’s a steady state economy or the more recently proposed doughnut economy, we need an economic system that values human and ecological prosperity. Instead of economies that grow whether or not they help us thrive, we need economies that help us thrive, whether or not they grow.

So, what can you do? Spread the word. Most people have not considered the concept of a non-growing economy except as something to fear. Talk to your fellow citizens. Demand that politicians start enacting policies that work towards the true objective: ecologically sustainable and equitable human well-being. The best news? We can start by celebrating low birth rates.


  1. Götmark F, Cafaro P, O’Sullivan J. Aging Human Populations: Good for Us, Good for the Earth. Trends Ecol Evol. 2018;33(11):851-862. doi:10.1016/J.TREE.2018.08.015
  2. Scherbov S, Sanderson WC, Mamolo M. Quantifying policy trade-offs to support aging populations. Demogr Res. 2014;30(1):579-608. doi:10.4054/DemRes.2014.30.20
  3. Sanderson WC, Scherbov S, Gerland P. The end of population aging in high-income countries. In: Vienna Yearbook of Population Research. Vol 16. ; 2018:163-175. doi:10.1553/populationyearbook2018s163
  4. Juknys R, Liobikienė G, Dagiliūtė R. Deceleration of economic growth – the main course seeking sustainability in developed countries. J Clean Prod. 2018. doi:10.1016/j.ppees.2016.11.003

Reprinted with permission by Frank Götmark – Project leader of The Overpopulation Project (TORP); Professor, Animal ecology and Conservation Biology, University of Gothenburg.

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