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July 27, 2015

Education is a valuable tool in curtailing global population growth

In a recent article posted on the World Economic Forum’s Agenda blog, Sarah Murray, in collaboration with GE LookAhead, explores the potential for education to stem excessive population growth.

With the world population currently estimated at 7.3 billion people—an increase of over three billion in just the last 40 years—there is increasing concern about the strain such uninhibited growth is having on the planet’s limited natural resources; not to mention additional anxieties related to global food security, the social implications of rising unemployment, and the acceleration of climate change.

Population growth is, however, uneven. As highlighted by Elizabeth Brainerd in her IZA World of Labor article on government policies and undesirable declines in fertility, since 1989 fertility and family formation have declined sharply in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where fertility rates are converging on—and sometimes falling below—rates in Western Europe, most of which are below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman.

Concerned about shrinking and aging populations and strains on pension systems, governments in the developed world are in fact using incentives to encourage people to have more children. Brainerd, however, indicates that such policies only modestly increase fertility rates and would be more effective if combined with openness to increased immigration.

Contrast this with Nigeria, where average birth rates are 5.5 to 6 children per woman. Murray reports that the United Nations is concerned that Nigeria’s population could surpass that of the US by 2050 and, if unchecked, could rival China by the end of the century.

Using legislation to limit the number of children born certainly does not appear to be the answer—as China’s one-child policy shows. Faced with an aging population and a shrinking pool of working-age people, China looks likely to adopt a new two-child policy in the near future.
Murray’s article highlights several more sustainable options for those countries with high birth rates, including: encouraging women to have fewer children and to have them later in life by increasing access to reproductive health care services; raising the legal age of marriage; and enabling women’s active participation in the workforce by, for example, increasing access to credit.

Our author Sher Verick agrees, stating that “policymakers should be concerned with whether women can access better jobs and take advantage of new labor market opportunities that arise as a country grows.” He says that policies should consider “access to better education and training programs and … to childcare, as well as other supportive institutions and legal measures to ease the burden of domestic duties, enhance women’s safety, and encourage private sector development in industries and regions that can increase job opportunities for women in developing countries.”

In his article, Verick also suggests that particular emphasis is needed on keeping young girls in school, beyond junior secondary level, and ensuring that they receive a good quality education and are able to take advantage of training opportunities, which, will increase their chances of overcoming other barriers to finding decent employment.

Sarah Murray’s article emphasizes the role of education in lowering birth rates and slowing population growth, making it easier for countries to develop. Our authors also tend to agree, as evidence suggests that having a better-educated workforce makes poverty eradication and economic growth easier to achieve.

The Agenda article can be read in full here.

Related IZA World of Labor articles:
Can government policies reverse undesirable declines in fertility?, by Elizabeth Brainerd
Female labor force participation in developing countries, by Sher Verick

The quantity–quality fertility–education trade-off, by Haoming Liu

More articles on the subject of education can be found here.