Lottery of birth
Lottery of birth

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Lottery of birth

3 What choices do individuals have?

Everyday, millions of individual decisions about reproduction, are made by women and men around the world.

They make decisions about whether or not to have children, whether to have another child, whether to delay having children, whether to use contraception or abortion, or more specifically whether to abort a girl child. These choices are shaped by many social, cultural, political and economic forces that may be present nationally and internationally at a particular time, but they are experienced by individuals who need to make decisions in their lives.

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Figure 7 A health worker in Odisha, India gives advice on contraception to mother-of-two, Tuni, so she can plan the size of her family.

Intentions with regard to having children or how many children, will often be developed, and expressed, in relation to perceived societal norms and familial expectations. Over time, these intentions change according to changes in circumstances.

Haskey (2013) believes that there may be a deeper, more powerful explanation as to why people make the choices they do. For example, a desire for achievement might be linked to the higher social and economic status and higher education achievements of what some prefer to call ‘childfree’ women. Likewise, in more competitive and individualistic societies, there seems to be greater approval, for both men and women, of goals such as higher status employment or financial success , and the bearing and raising children can drift down personal agendas.

Clearly, to some extent, individual choices are also affected by external factors such as whether the country a women is living in makes it easy or easier to combine employment and family life.

In Figure 8, you can see some of the choices made by women, and men, in different countries about whether to have children and how many children to have.

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Figure 8 Percentage of women aged 40–44 who are childless or with three or more children, latest point available, low-fertility countries.

As the graph shows, almost all countries are at different stages of demographic transition.

‘Demographic transition’ is a model that describes changes in population structure as a result of the fall in birth and death rates that is observable right around the world. The video below helps to explain.

Download this video clip.Video player: ou_futurelearn_birth_vid_1029.mp4
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Demographic transition is a model that changes in a country's population. It states that the population will eventually stop growing when the country transitions from high birth rates and high death rates to low birth rates and death rates, stabilising the population. This stabilisation often occurs in industrialised countries, because less developed countries tend to rely on and follow the more developed countries for their advancements.
Right now, most countries have a positive growth rate, which means their population keeps getting bigger. First, let's pin down what the growth rate is. Growth rate measures how much the population of a country grows or shrinks over some time period. So for example, let's take a look at this country. I'm going to call it Zed.
Zed here had 1 million people at the beginning of the year. If we want to know the growth rate of the population of Zed for the year, we count how many people were added to the population and how many people were removed. The number of people added includes the number of births and the number of people who immigrated into the country during that year.
Let's say 20,000 babies were born this year and 50,000 people moved to Zed from other countries. Then you have to subtract from this number how many people were removed from the population, so the number of deaths and the number of people who emigrated from the country during that year.
Let's say during the year, 15,000 people died and 5,000 people moved out of Zed. From here, it's pretty easy to figure out the population of Zed at the end of the year. Start off with 1 million, add 20,000 births and 50,000 immigrants, and subtract 15,000 deaths and 5,000 emigrants, which gives us 1,050,000 people at the end of the year.
If we want the growth rate over this year, all you need to do is take that total current population-- so track the total number of people in the country at the beginning of the year-- and then divide by that number again. Multiply it by a 100 and you turn it into a percentage. Now, you have your growth rate.
So now you can see why when we say there's a positive growth rate that means that the population is now bigger than the population in the past. But why do most countries currently have a positive growth rate? There are economic benefits, because children can work to help support the family. And sometimes the government even provides incentives to families for each child, like in Japan where birth rates are very low.
Religion also influences population growth, because it often promotes large families, which increase the number of people in their faith and encourage a stronger community. Some religions will even forbid the use of contraceptives by their followers, pretty much ensuring large families. And there are cultural influences that promote large families too. Having children means that a person is passing down their own family's traits and values. And there's a kind of prestige that goes along with having children.
Now let's dive into the demographic transition model. There are five stages to the demographic transition model. In stage one, a country has high birth rates, often due to limited birth control and the economic benefit of having more people to work. And they also have high death rates due to poor nutrition or high rates of disease.
It is believed that most countries were at stage one until the 18th century when death rates in Western Europe began to fall. You can see this type of population modelled by a high stationary population pyramid with a high birth rate. This pyramid shows the number of people alive in a population depending on age and gender.
As you can see, the stage one stationary population has many births, creating a large young population as well as many deaths, creating a small older population and keeping the overall population fairly stable. The second stage is seen in the beginnings of a developing country. The population begins to rise as death rates drop, because of improvements in health and sanitation and the availability of food.
This trend can be seen in Western Europe in the 19th century after the industrial revolution. The birth rates are about the same as they were in stage one though. So the overall population begins to grow. This is an early expanding population pyramid. You have high birth rates still - see, lots of young people - but the death rate is declining. So you have more older people, making this nice pyramid shape.
In stage three, the death rates continue to drop. But at the same time, birth rates also begin to fall because of access to contraception and a changing social trend towards smaller families. The society has better health care and is becoming more industrialised by this point, meaning there are fewer childhood deaths. And also the kids don't need to work or are not allowed to work by law anymore. Having lots of children isn't economically beneficial anymore as the kids are sent to school rather than working to support the family.
Many countries in South America and the middle east have such declining birth rates. This population is still expanding, but on a slower rate. You can see in this late expanding population pyramid that as birth rates decline, there are fewer young people. And with the already declining death rates, people are living longer lives. The population finally stabilises in stage four of the demographic transition model where both birth rates and death rates are low and balance each other out.
By this point, the population is rather large, because it had been growing up until this point. The low birth rates are due to a combination of improvements in contraception as well as the high percentage of women in the workforce and the fact that many couples choose to focus on careers over having children. Countries like the United States or Australia are in stage four right now. The population can be modelled by a low stationary pyramid with low birth rates and low death rates as well as a longer life expectancy.
The fifth and final stage is only a speculation. There are a few theories as to what happens next. Some believe that the world population will be forced to stabilise. As the Malthusian theorem suggests, perhaps we will run out of resources and there will be a global food shortage.
Already, of the more than 7 billion people on our planet, there are about 1 billion worldwide who suffer from hunger and malnutrition. The world's population continues to increase, but perhaps we won't be able to maintain the natural resources at the rate we're going for how many people live on this planet, which Malthusians believe will lead to a major public health disaster and force the population to remain stable.
Or perhaps the population will begin to decrease after it stabilises, continuing the trend of decreasing birth rates until it drops below the death rate. With more people dying than being born, there would be a negative growth rate. This results in a constructive population pyramid where there are fewer young people than old.
Perhaps this will be because of a rise in individualism, or perhaps, as the anti-Malthusian theorem states, this will be because couples only want to have one child or they have children later in life. Some evidence shows that a better standard of living promotes smaller families as children become an economic burden rather than a source of financial support.
Industrialised nations often have better education and access to health care, which contribute to more reproductive choices. Some governments, like in China, are even adopting policies that encourage small families to slow their population growth and save resources. Or on the other hand, perhaps the population will begin to grow again after the stabilisation of the fourth stage.
Some evidence shows that high standards of living actually promote fertility and higher birth rate. There's only one real way for us to find out what will happen next. And that's to wait it out and see where the world is in a century or two. So I'll see you there, right?
To sum it up, demographic transition is a shift from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates as a country becomes industrialised. But what will happen after that is impossible to tell. Will the population stabilise? Will it decrease? Will it increase? Will we move off planet and colonise a world around a distant star? We can only guess for now.
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Demographic transition begins with mortality rates – including child mortality rates – falling. Improvements to sanitation and agriculture as well as medical care and education drive down rates of human mortality. Then women, and men, make the choice to raise a smaller number of children whose health and education needs can more easily be met. And as more girls survive and become educated, they too acquire choices other than early marriage and endless childbearing.

The differences between countries at different points on the demographic transition path can be illustrated by looking at two countries with similar population sizes. The table in Figure 9 below contrasts Germany and Ethiopia. They have very similar population sizes but drastically different birth and death rates:

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Figure 9 Key demographic indicators for Germany and Ethiopia, 2010 and projected for 2050.

As you can see, there are some striking differences in the demographic projections of these two countries. May (2011) draws out some of the profoundly difficult decisions facing both of these countries.

A comparison of Germany and Ethiopia provides a stunning example of the current global demographic divide (see table above). On the one hand, persistently low fertility rates in many developed countries jeopardize the health and financial security of the elderly, as illustrated in the case of Germany. On the other, less developed countries and LDCs [Less developed countries] continue to experience rapid population growth, which exacerbate poverty and threaten the environment, as shown by the example of Ethiopia (Kent and Haub 2005). Although roughly similar with respect to their population size, Germany and Ethiopia have very different demographic regimes. More significantly still, the demographic outlook of the two countries will continue to diverge over the next decades. Germany will likely see its total population shrink by about 10m during the next 40 years, while Ethiopia’s population will more than double over the same period, increasing from 85m to 174m. Age structures of the two countries are […] strikingly different. Germany has three times less young people (i.e. below age 15) than Ethiopia. By 2050, Germany’s elderly support ratio will drop to two persons for every German aged 65+. Conversely, Ethiopia has a huge ‘youth burden’ since almost half of its 2010 population is below age 15.

Other demographic indicators continue to highlight the different stages of demographic transition that Germany and Ethiopia have reached. Ethiopia still has high fertility at five children per woman on average, which fuels its rapid population growth. Germany’s fertility, on the contrary, no longer ensures the replacement of generations, which will lead to depopulation. There are more deaths than births in Germany, leaving immigration as the only possibility to counter balance negative population growth. Finally, mortality conditions in Ethiopia are likely to improve: the gap in life expectancy at birth between the two countries is a whopping 25 years and there are more than 100 times more infant deaths in Ethiopia than in Germany.

The global demographic divide does challenge the convergence theory of demographic trends across the globe, which had been proposed by some demographers in the second half of the twentieth century, they based their analysis on the convergence that was observed over the past 50 years in health, wealth, and fertility and mortality trends, probably due to widespread economic and social development.

In fact, two major demographic trends have been observed in most recent decades. The first is the still ongoing decline of mortality, which may increase the natural rate of demographic growth, since more people survive. Nevertheless, mortality conditions have started to diverge, as some developed countries have experienced a worsening of their life expectancy at birth. The example of Russia comes to mind, where alcoholism disease and accidents explain past increases of adult mortality rates. The second trend is the slower than anticipated decline in fertility, particularly in the LDCs, but also in many other developing countries (Bremner, et al., 2010:2–3). Some countries, like Kenya have also experienced stalling fertility transitions (Bougaarts, 2006:3). Indeed fertility decline had been considerably uneven across the world, because fertility could have been less consistently linked to development than have other variables (Dorlet, 2004:534).

(May, 2012)

Millions of decisions made by individual women and men are contributing to these fundamental population shifts and the social and political changes being discussed in this course. For example, the unprecedented low fertility rate (fertility rate refers to the number of children that would be born to a woman if she were to live to the end of her childbearing years and bear children in accordance with current age specific fertility rates) and longer life expectancy in some places, such as some parts of Europe and some parts of Asia, the still high but falling fertility rates in other places, such as some parts of Asia and Africa, continuing high infant mortality in some places such as parts of Africa and low birth rates (birth rate refers to number of live births per 1000 population per year), with a return to high mortality in others such as Russia.


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