Tuesday 15 November marks the day that the global population is projected to reach 8 billion, according to the United Nations – meaning the number of people in the world has more than tripled in the past 70 years. The impact of this is far-reaching, putting additional pressure on already stretched resources and challenging efforts to reduce poverty and inequality.
The average woman now gives birth to two children, down from five in 1950. We spoke to parents around the world who have welcomed a new child in recent months about their hopes and fears for their family.
Luisa Galanello is among the women who are somewhat bucking the trend in Italy, where the birthrate has been in steady decline for years. She gave birth to her first child, a boy, on 16 October, at the age of 40.
“I’ve always wanted to have a child and when you have a strong desire to do it, then you do it,” she says. “We had tried twice before but didn’t succeed.” Galanello works in a bank and lives in Siena with her partner, Pietro.
Italy’s birthrate fell for the 13th consecutive year last year, with 399,431 births in 2021 against 404,892 in 2020, according to official figures published in March. It is the lowest figure recorded since the unification of Italy in 1861. The trend is such that Italy’s population will shrink by 5 million over the next 30 years unless drastic measures are taken, Istat warned.
“There’s a sum of reasons why people in Italy aren’t having children as much as they did before,” says Galanello. “Society has completely changed. Maybe before, the woman didn’t work and so stayed home and maybe had a husband who worked. Now they are emancipated, and if they work and don’t have relatives nearby to help with babysitting, it is difficult to find a nursery, and even then it is costly.
“Before, women started having children from around the age of 20,” she says. “I’m 40, so maybe this is late, but people aren’t even really having babies at 30, so you have less time to have more than one.”
One thing that worries her about modern-day parenting is “this jungle of social media. You can manage it when children are small but what about when they grow up and have more freedom?”
In any case, Galanello says she hopes to be able to give her child the “adequate tools to face life. This is the biggest challenge, especially during this complex period, whether in Italy or globally. I want to be capable of guiding them towards their aspirations, and to face life in an intelligent way.” Angela Giuffrida
Like other pregnant women around the world, Nikita Nijhawan has been buying baby clothes and getting a room in her Delhi house ready. But she has also been sealing all the cracks and crevices in the windows and doorframes of her house.
She is trying to ensure that none of the city’s poisonous air – or as little as possible – creeps in.
Delhi has held the record of being the most polluted capital city in the world for several years and the pollution levels start rising around October. Few things can be more alarming for parents than thinking of their firstborn’s delicate new lungs inhaling toxic air, but Nijhawan and her husband, Jandeep Singh (both architects), are dealing with it calmly. They know that, with air purifiers all over the house and the need for them to check pollution levels before letting their child play outside, their baby will have a very different childhood from their own.
“My child’s going to have more time spent indoors in a ‘safe’ zone. But then, we have to learn to live with changing times,” says Nijhawan. “I am very practical. The pollution is a challenge and it must be met. Life can’t stop.”
Although India is set to exceed China as the world’s most populous country, many of Nijhawan’s friends have decided against having children. They feel that the climate crisis, pollution and diseases such as Covid have made the world a far too uncertain place to bring a child into.
But when she married, Nijhawan was clear that she wanted children. “I can’t give up on hope,” she says. “I needed to make a family to love. I can’t imagine making a home without children to continue our lives.”
Like most married couples in India, she lives with her husband’s parents, but since the birth of her baby, parenting has been a collaborative effort with her husband. “We have the help of our respective mothers as we both work, but my husband is as involved and as responsible for the baby as I am,” she said.
Her child-rearing will also be different from that of previous generations. “My child can do whatever inspires them. It’s not up to me. My child will have the freedom to explore their potential,” she says.
No matter the challenges of the future, Nijhawan refuses to let anything dismay or overwhelm her. “Look at Covid. Did anyone expect it? Yet we all managed,” she says. “Anything can hit us at any time and we have to manage.” Amrit Dhillon
With a baby, says Kate Lucas, with a laugh, “it’s hard to think past the next day sometimes. But you do think about their future, and my hope for him is that, growing up, he experiences more joys than sorrows and lives in a world that accepts him for who he is, whoever that is, and is a bit more tolerant maybe than it is now.”
Howie was born in August, a second child for Lucas and her husband, Maxim – they also have a four-year-old daughter, Bonnie. When Howie is Lucas’s age, 36, in 2058, the UK’s population – according to figures put together by the UN’s population division – is predicted to be about 71.8 million (having peaked three years earlier). This year, the UK’s population is approximately 67.4 million.
What does she think the world will be like when Howie is an adult? “Hopes and reality can be different, can’t they? I hope he lives in a more equal and sustainable place. When we were growing up, we weren’t having many conversations about the environment. We are more aware of environmental, political and social problems, and talking more about them, so I’m hopeful that positive things can happen for those born today.”
Lucas, an occupational therapist, says she is mostly an optimist, but has moments when it crumbles. “With everything that’s been going on recently, it’s natural to think that everything’s awful and nothing is going to work out. But when you have children, you hope for the best for them.”
There are some people who, facing the climate crisis, have decided not to have children. Does she have any sympathy with that stance? “It’s individual choice. I feel like we are aware of our own environmental impact as a family and try to limit it.” Eight billion seems an unimaginable figure, she says. “I suppose I have to concentrate on my children, and raise them to be happy, respectful and kind. You hope that other people do the same, and it has a bigger impact all together.” Emine Saner
John Alomain had mixed feelings about his wife’s pregnancy news. Their daughter, Christine Acham, was born in June 2022, but the 24-year-old and his 19-year-old wife, Esther Acuwe, from Ngero sub-county in Uganda’s Kumi district, were not financially prepared for the birth.
While Acham is Alomain’s third child, she is Acuwe’s second; the first was born when Acuwe was just 15 years old. In the Teso sub-region where the couple live, 31% of girls get pregnant before they turn 20, while the national average is 25%. As was the case for Acuwe, pregnancy usually results in marrying early and dropping out of school.
Alomain brings home about $11 (£9.35) every week from his work as a motorcycle taxi driver, placing the family among the 30% of Uganda’s population living on less than $1.77 daily. This figure dropped to 20.3% in 2018 after the war against the LRA ended, but rose after the country’s Covid lockdowns. He does not own his motorcycle and so must pay to rent it for 30,000 shillings ($8, or £6.80) a week.
Acuwe says the climate makes it impossible to rely on farming for subsistence. “Sometimes we only have one meal a day, but make sure the children have porridge too.”
Even if the climate improves, the couple have only one garden in which to grow crops, inherited from Alomain’s 50-year-old father – a man with several children (some younger than his five-month-old granddaughter) and no more land left to share. Yet in many communities children are regarded as a blessing, and a man with more children is respected; this feeds into Uganda’s 1.2 million annual population growth.
When asked how many children they would like to have, Acuwe and Alomain agree: “Maybe four.” They trust that, when Christine Acham is ready to start school, all will be well financially, firmly believing that God will provide, despite struggling to raise tuition funds for the older siblings of 60,000 shillings each.
Alomain hopes to buy a motorcycle and increase the family income so his children can escape poverty and further their education – yet how he plans to raise the funds is unclear. Caroline Ariba
“Children have gone out of fashion somewhat,” the Brazilian comedian Gregório Duvivier said in a recent episode of his satirical weekly news show. “It’s true,” says Kelly Dias Vieira, who watches the show. “I completely agree.”
Dias, 41, and her husband, André Rossi Coutinho, 42, had their first child, Cecília, in September. The couple, who live in Niterói, a city near Rio de Janeiro, are among a growing number of Brazilians who are choosing to have children later, or no children at all.
“The idea of motherhood was always there for me, but it wasn’t a priority,” says Dias. “When you stop and think about it calmly, it’s kind of crazy to bring a child into this world.” She cites the violence and deep inequality that plague Brazil, as well as climate-related concerns.
Rossi understands the choice to put off having children as an effect of increased individualism. “People are prioritising their careers, what they can do for themselves, for their personal development, and then they see if a child fits into that. And sometimes, it doesn’t.”
Brazil’s fertility rate has plummeted since 1950, when it stood at 6.1 births per woman. The number dropped below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman at the start of the millennium, and now stands at 1.6, according to the UN.
Dias’s family reflects this trend: she is the eldest of four siblings, and her mother is one of eight, but Dias does not plan on a second pregnancy. With the annual number of births falling steadily from 4 million in the 80s, Brazil will soon face a demographic shift. The country is the seventh most populous, behind China, India, the US, Indonesia, Pakistan and Nigeria – but its population is expected to peak at about 230 million in 2047. By the end of this century, Brazil is likely to have dropped off the list of the world’s 10 most populous countries.
“We’re in a situation of privilege, so why wouldn’t we have a child?” says Rossi, acknowledging that economic considerations weigh heavily on people’s decision to start a family in Brazil. He and Dias hope to provide their daughter with the financial stability neither of them had growing up. They plan to travel with Cecília, expose her to different cultures and languages, and give her an upbringing in close contact with nature.
But the pair of clinical psychologists are reluctant to pin expectations on their newborn. “I don’t want to idealise her,” says Rossi. “We know it might go wrong,” Dias laughs. “I want her to grow up a feminist, but I don’t know whether she will.” Constance Malleret
Having a child may be an increasingly unpopular choice among environmentalists, but for one New Zealand couple it is a way to safeguard the future.
“A lot of our friends are quite reluctant to bring children into the world,” says Ella Rose Shnapp, an Auckland-based ecologist and ceramicist of Israeli and Scottish descent. “But if all the people who think the world needs to change stop having kids, I’m terrified of what the world will become.”
Shnapp, 28, and her partner, Levi Brinsdon-Hall, 30 – an urban farmer and entrepreneur of Pākehā descent (New Zealand European) – had their first child in October. The pair are dedicated environmentalists: among their many roles, Brinsdon-Hall leads an inner-city garden project that feeds 45 families a week, and Shnapp is a keen forager and beekeeper.
Those who are having children, meanwhile, are waiting much later. In 2020, nearly half the number of births were to mothers over 30. Shnapp and Brinsdon-Hall are some of the first in their social group to have children.
“My little sister couldn’t believe she knew someone who had actually planned a baby,” Shnapp laughs.
Demographers cite worsening economic conditions, access to contraceptives and growing acceptance of child-free lifestyles as contributing factors to the declining birthrates, while a University of Auckland study suggests eco-anxiety is also putting people off.
Another major factor is thought to be home ownership rates, which have been falling dramatically for under-30s. Unusually for their age, the couple co-own a home with Brinsdon-Hall’s mother and, while they consider themselves very fortunate, they will still need to rely on housemates to cover their housing costs.
“There is a lot that needs to change in New Zealand, in terms of racism, inequalities for Māori and Pasifika, access to housing – we have really high rates of child poverty,” says Shnapp.
The couple feel that having their own child has acted as “a fire”, spurring them to work towards better economic, environmental and political systems.
“I’m super stoked to have the opportunity to bring someone up with our values,” says Brinsdon-Hall. “One person can contribute an awful lot to the world … there is a lot of power in bringing someone up right.”
“We want to raise a child that is able to do whatever they want,” Shnapp adds, “but to do it in a way that is creating a future that is better for everyone, rather than just themselves.” Eva Corlett
Mwasiti Bakari, 34, and her husband, Said Omar, 29, welcomed their second child, Morran, into the family in April. The Omar family, who live in Bububu, a fishing town on the island of Zanzibar, Tanzania, are ecstatic about being new parents, but are also unsure about having more.
“You can’t have many children nowadays,” says Omar. “Life is very tough now.” Omar, who sells clothes and is the family’s breadwinner, is especially keen for Morran to be their last. Bakari wants at least one more.
The Omars are one of Tanzania’s smaller families. On average, women in the country have four or five children, compared with a global average of two. The country’s population is growing rapidly. UN projections show that it is one of eight countries that will contribute to nearly half of the world’s population growth by 2050 (the others being the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Philippines).
Africa’s population is the fastest-growing of all the continents, and the most youthful. The potential impact of this growth divides observers: some see it as a boon, filled with promise of economic rewards if African countries harness this human capital, while others see the population expansion as unsustainable, likely to stretch the countries’ resources and worsen poverty.
Bakari and her husband say that they want their children to receive a good education and have better lives than their own, but public schools on the island are also stretched. A number of them are overrun with students, and don’t have enough resources to deliver quality education.
Zanzibar also has an unemployment rate of nearly 20%. “The next generation should not rush to give birth,” says Omar, who feels that competition for jobs on the island is unbearable. He adds that residents can barely afford to buy land – many Zanzibaris live in their parents’ homes. While multigenerational households are culturally accepted, the real estate market has also priced many locals out.
“If you have a very big family, you can find yourself without a place to stay,” he says. Caroline Kimeu
Yan Zi, a 35-year-old chemist from Zhejiang, is having her first child this month. Like many Chinese people of her generation, she decided to have children later in life. Between 2006 and 2016, the average age of a woman having her first child in China rose by more than two years, to nearly 27.
As the numbers rise worldwide, China – home to nearly a fifth of the global population – is expected to start shrinking. Population forecasts are complicated by issues of transparency and accountability with government data, but experts say the country is on the brink of a demographic crisis. The population, currently about 1.4 billion, may start to decline as soon as 2023. In 2021, growth fell to the lowest rate in six decades, with nearly as many deaths (10.4 million) as recorded births (10.6 million).
Many young people are delaying marriages and having children due to the country’s lack of social mobility, uneven gender roles and soaring costs of living. Yan’s main concerns are about the educational prospects for her child, and the pressures on young people in China.
“A large number of parents use their children to realise their own unfulfilled dreams,” she says. “My child might have many imperfections, but because I love them, I will also love their defects.”
She also worries about bullying in schools; China’s celebrity-obsessed society, which is eschewing traditional culture; and the country’s rigid “utilitarian” education environment, which doesn’t foster a child’s curiosity or sense of exploration.
Much of east Asia is facing a population fall, but the reasons for this in China are unique. A decades-long one-child policy was replaced by a two-child policy in 2016, which has since been upped to three. Meanwhile, the Communist party government has promised better access to childcare and maternity leave, and shut down the private tutoring industry, which fed off parental competitiveness. However, these measures have failed to counter the systemic issues discouraging people from starting families.
The Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences has forecast China’s population to more than halve by 2100, with an annual average decline of 1.1%, on current trends. Demographers and social commentators say government efforts are not enough to turn around China’s trajectory, with some dismissing the new policies as “Band-Aid solutions”.
But Yan is among those optimistic for the future and happy to be raising her child in her home country. “Although the pandemic, China-US competition and the energy crisis are all happening, it is still pretty good in China, compared with other countries in the world,” she says. Helen Davidson and Chi Hui Lin
The number of people living in the US increased last year, but barely. There was 0.1% year-on-year population growth according to official census figures, a slower rate than in any other year since the founding of the nation.
Times are tough for many families in the US: inflation is high, two-thirds of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and record numbers are having to work second or even third jobs just to make ends meet.
It’s against this backdrop that Stefanie Carotenuto gave birth to her first child last month. Carotenuto, who is in her early 30s, was born in New Jersey but lives with her husband in Colorado.
She is excited to be a mother but it has come at a difficult moment. Shortly before she found out she was expecting, she was let go from the high school where she taught social studies. She has been working in a bar since then, on her feet all night throughout her pregnancy.
Colorado, though, is becoming one of the most prosperous states in the country. “Where we live is not the way the rest of the country live. So maybe part of my decision is privilege. I live in the Rockies, close to water sources. Drought has been an issue here but it’s not like Arizona. And my son is going to be born in a very white area that is really made for someone like him, and that’s not necessarily good. I want to take him to other environments so he knows that Colorado is not the way the rest of the world live.”
This stagnation of the US population is partly because, as in other western nations, Americans are having fewer children. But a far bigger factors is Covid-19, which to date has killed 1.1 million Americans and continues to ravage parts of the country where vaccine uptake has been lowest. At the same time, Trump-era immigration policies, largely unreversed by the Biden administration, have made it harder for people to find legal passage to the US.
Carotenuto says it is scary to think about 8 billion people being on Earth, and her decision to add one more child is “tinged with guilt”. But, she says, it was teaching that gave her optimism about the future her baby could expect. “I worked in a very conservative area during the most contentious election of modern history. What I saw from Gen Z is that they’re looking at what’s going on around them and they don’t like it. They’re going to make a lot of changes based on what they’ve seen. Some of the issues that we’ve had to fight, like the existence of manmade climate change, are not debates for them, even on the right.” Sam Wolfson
This year, Lucy Terna, 28 – pregnant with her first child – and her husband fled their home in Yelewata, a rural community in Makurdi, Nigeria, after a series of attacks by Fulani herdsmen on their community. They sought refuge in a settlement elsewhere in Benue state where, in August, they welcomed their daughter.
But the experience was not an easy one. “I faced health complications during pregnancy and, even after childbirth, I still struggle,” says Terna.
By 2050, Nigeria – the country with the highest population in Africa – is projected to become the fourth most populous country in the world (up from sixth). Although experts have said that an increase in population will put pressure on the available resources and may lead to an increased poverty rate, many Nigerians remain unaware of the socioeconomic implications – including a further rise in the number of children not in education.
Even so, Terna remains hopeful for the future of her newborn. “I want my daughter to go to school and become a doctor,” she says.
Nigeria has the third highest number of internally displaced persons in Africa – more than 3.2 million. Many fled their homes seeking safety from terrorists, who have ravaged communities, and flooding, which is becoming more prevalent across the country.
Although Terna always loved the idea of motherhood, she wishes she had not yet had a child, because of the struggles of being a mother in a settlement, where she is often reliant on other occupants for food and resources.
“I don’t have enough money to feed myself so I can breastfeed my daughter properly. Neither can I afford to buy her clothes. I am worried she will fall ill and we would be unable to afford proper healthcare,” she says.
Many Nigerians believe children are a gift from God, and families are urged to have as many as they wish. Since Nigerian culture is deeply entrenched in patriarchy, women are also expected to produce sons to preserve the family lineage. While some are trying to change the narrative, others, like Terna, hold tightly to this tradition.
“Even if I remain in this settlement, I will not stop giving birth until I give birth to a male child,” she says, “because my mother never bore a male child and had six of us; all girls.” Olayide Oluwafunmilayo Soaga
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