Contemporary Trends of World Fertility

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  • 0:00 World Fertility
  • 0:33 More Food
  • 2:13 Healthcare
  • 3:20 Education and Women's Rights
  • 4:10 State and Economic Motivation
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The world's population is growing faster than ever, yet some countries are slowing down their own population growth. How is that possible? This lesson looks at the paradoxes of worldwide population growth, especially through health, education, food, and other motivations.

World Fertility

Over the past several decades, the world's population has grown at a very rapid rate. However, you may be familiar with the fact that such growth is uneven - in short, poor countries tend to have much higher growth rates than richer countries. However, many of the same factors have influenced such different rates. In this lesson, we'll look at how food supplies, healthcare, education, women's rights, and external motivations have continued to cause the world's population to grow, even as some countries' populations have begun to shrink.

More Food

Imagine a farmer from 100 years ago. Chances are you are thinking of someone with a mule and a plow. Now, go back only 50 years, and you get a mental image of someone on a tractor pulling a plow. Today, farmers use satellite-guided tractors to precisely deliver exact amounts of seed to land. In short, the rate at which technology has changed over the past 100 years has been mind-blowing.

With a mule, a farmer would be doing extremely well if he could cultivate more than 100 acres in a given year. With tractors doing the plowing, a farmer was able to get close to 1,000. Today, farmers can manage tens of thousands of acres through such advanced technology. But it's not just how they farm, but what. Advances in seed production have meant that new varieties of wheat and rice have been able to quadruple farm production. Seeds that used to grow one stalk of corn per plant now grow four. That has meant a very large amount of food for the rest of the world.

For the developing world, that meant that it was possible to have much larger families, since food was so cheap. Given that few other major changes discussed in this lesson have taken hold in such regions, rapid growth in food supply has not been slowed by other factors.

In the developed world, that has meant that more varieties of crops could be grown easily. Our grandparents may have never heard of quinoa or couscous, but due to the dropping prices of food, they have now. Also, it means that people in rich countries tend to eat more, ironically resulting in its set of own health issues.


Still, healthcare has come far in those same 100 years. In the past, a doctor may only be consulted in dire circumstances. Now, you can talk to a doctor for free on a smartphone app. Again, such advance has not been universally even. People are living longer than ever in much of the developed world, in no small part thanks to such advances. In Japan, people live to be 80, on average. However, in areas without access to such healthcare, the life expectancy is much lower. Men in some parts of Africa are lucky to reach age 50.

However, this has had an interesting effect on birth rates. In the West, people slow down, choosing only to have one or two kids, knowing that they will live long enough to see grandkids and knowing that they have to have the financial resources to remain independent for years. In other, less-developed parts of the world, the need to have children to provide for economic livelihood remains, as well as cultural institutions that encourage having more children.

Education and Women's Rights

One of the major reasons for that slowdown in birth rates in rich countries has been that women simply choose to wait to have kids. Given an abundance of opportunity now available in education and careers, women are finding that the idea of waiting to start families is very attractive. Additionally, widespread use of contraceptives, or methods to prevent pregnancy, has also meant that women could have even more control over when to start a family.

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