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Baby bust: will infertility shape Australia's future?

Editor's introduction: At the 2021 Morningstar Investor Conference in Sydney last week, GMO's Jeremy Grantham said that during lockdowns, he had been reading more and thinking about the future. He highlighted the impact of toxic chemicals on the natural world and birth rates as a major change facing us all. Grantham said:

“We have a bee in our bonnet about toxicity, I think pesticides and plastics are doing a job on health and the health of the insect world and the health of the whole natural world, and sperm count has dropped, in my opinion looking at the data, to a third of what it was the day I was born. And that's a hell of a drop. The first 80% of that drops didn't matter as we were over-engineered like a good Victorian bridge. But finally, it's whittling us down to a level where in the last 10 or 15 years it's begun to matter. And we've gone from almost nobody having trouble (conceiving) to about 15%. One in eight young couples having trouble, and it's progressing almost 2% a year. Which is a sinister number because that's about the rate that the insect population is disappearing, and it's showing no sign of slowing down. And that makes me feel that the plastics industry, the chemical industry, pesticide industry are all under potential threats from toxic lawsuits.”

In this article, Emma Davidson uses a 1% drop in sperm counts and a 1% rise in miscarriages which would equate roughly to a 2% increase in couples having trouble conceiving, which is Jeremy Grantham's number.


Let's talk about the 1%. No, not that 1%. Not 'the top 1%' wealthiest people, a phrase popularised by the Occupy Wall Street Movement. I mean a different 1%.

The world is heading for a baby bust, and it has a lot to do with the 1% - the 1% drop in the global total fertility rate (TFR) that's occurred annually between 1960 and 2018.

It's a figure that's likely to have a huge socio-economic impact on Australia in the future, and it's just one of many troubling '1%' fertility stats.

According to Count Down, a new book by award-winning reproductive epidemiologist Shanna Swan, there has been a "1% effect" across a whole spectrum of fertility issues in Western countries.

Each year, we're seeing a 1 percentage point:

  • Drop in sperm counts;
  • Decrease in testosterone levels;
  • Increase in testicular cancers; and
  • Rise in miscarriages.

All these trends are seriously affecting our ability to reproduce, and the most worrying thing is that some show no signs of levelling off. For example, sperm counts have dropped 50% over the last 40 years, and the rate of decline isn't slowing down.

It's not just men with fertility struggles; aspiring mothers face their own struggles. One Danish study found that the average twentysomething woman in the country today will find it harder to fall pregnant than her grandmother did in her mid-30s.

An infertile world?

Swan says if the situation doesn't change, we're on course for a largely infertile world by 2045, with most couples needing to use IVF and other assisted reproduction techniques to have children.

As we can see from the graph below, the TFR is predicted to continue dropping across multiple regions over the coming decades.

From World Fertility and Family Planning 2020 by UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, ©2020 United Nations.
Reprinted with the permission of the United Nations.

This isn't a problem that's far off in the distance. I'm a mother to two young children, and they'll still be in their 20s when the world becomes largely infertile - assuming Swan's timelines are accurate.

That's a terrifying thought for me and, I'm sure, for many other parents and grandparents. Not least because infertility can have severe mental health repercussions for both men and women.

What's causing these infertility issues? Well, we don't exactly know. Birth rates are obviously affected by social trends, such as people choosing to have kids later in life - or not at all. But this is unlikely to be causing lower sperm counts or falling testosterone levels!

Swan believes endocrine disruption is the main culprit. Essentially, environmental toxins are wreaking havoc on our body's hormonal systems (and reproductive capabilities). Chemicals in plastics, pesticides, cosmetics and even food have been shown to cause endocrine disruption.

Now, Swan recently admitted it’s "speculative to extrapolate" on current infertility trends, but the research is persuasive. And Australia hasn't escaped the fertility crisis.

In 1961, Australian women had 3.5 children on average. By 2018, this figure stood at just 1.7.

Along with many other countries, Australia has fallen below the replacement fertility rate of 2.1. In other words, not enough babies are being born to replace the number of people who are dying, leading to a declining population.

This is already happening. Australia's population shrunk for the first time since World War 1 in the third quarter of 2020.

It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that's entirely because of fertility issues, of course. Border closures due to Covid-19 have significantly restricted immigration levels, a major driver of Australia's population growth.

On the other hand, perhaps this merely emphasises how immigration figures have been concealing the country's steadily declining birth rate, until now.

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Why does this matter?

Last year, Stanford University Economics Professor Charles Jones modelled some of the possible outcomes of population decline in his ominously titled 'The End of Economic Growth?' paper.

The upshot? He predicts that vanishing populations will lead to less innovation, minimal economic growth and a stagnation in living standards at a global scale. This paints a pretty bleak picture.

Admittedly, the true economic impact of declining populations is difficult to forecast accurately. One aspect of this seems to be clear, however, there will be a dramatic shift in national demographics over the coming decades if current trends continue. Put simply, there will be a far greater number of retirees than working-age people.

Covid-19 has accelerated these demographic trends, with the Australian economy estimated to be 5% smaller - permanently - than pre-Covid forecasts due to a population slump of approximately 4%. That is the equivalent of 1 million Australians.

Demographer Bernard Salt recently wrote an article on the topic of Australia's baby bust, in which he explained how the transitioning of the baby boomer generation into retirement is coinciding with the fallout of the pandemic.

Salt predicts this may cause problems for politicians, business leaders and bureaucrats, as they will face a more vocal, energetic, and active population of retirees.

It will also be the first time in Australia (and other countries) that such a large group of older people will need to be supported by a far smaller cohort of workers.

Working together

That the trends Mr Salt identifies are occurring against a backdrop of plunging fertility rates should give us even more cause for alarm. According to Dr Swan, the current trend of declining sperm counts could leave half of the Western male population impotent by 2045. That prospect is terrifying on its own before we consider these additional structural headwinds.

Thus, like Mr Salt, I agree there are challenges ahead for Australia in a world where the ratio of workers to retirees will become heavily skewed in favour of the latter.

However, I also believe there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic.

First, we have excellent healthcare and superannuation systems, which should offset a lot of the pressure that most ageing nations face.

Second, I don't think more people holding off retirement is a bad thing. In fact, I think it is possibly a solution. We should actively be encouraging over-65s to remain in the workforce.

Retiring in your mid 60s may have made sense in decades past, when people weren't expected to live a long and healthy life post-employment, but this clearly isn't the case today. Men aged 65 between 2016-18 will live another 20 years on average, while women of the same age could expect to live another 22 years.

The skills, experience, and mentorship abilities this generation possesses is invaluable to businesses. After all, we are going to need every bit of expertise at our disposal to continue driving innovation forward in the future.

As for solving the fertility crisis, that is a bit beyond my expertise! However, it will likely require co-ordinated efforts at the national level. If chemicals are to blame, finding safer substitutes (and introducing new regulations) could be a part of the solution. If its obesity and diet, then that will need to be the focus.

And if you want to make personal changes that boost your reproductive health, Swan has some tips: eat a Mediterranean diet (certified organic if possible), keep active, reduce your stress levels, and lower the chemical footprint in your home.

That is probably good advice for everyone, not just prospective parents.


Emma Davidson is Head of Corporate Affairs at London-based Staude Capital, manager of the Global Value Fund (ASX:GVF). This article is the opinion of the writer and does not consider the circumstances of any individual.


June 13, 2021

However the world population has been increasing exponentially in recent decades resulting in the worldwide degradation of the environment etc.
Reduced world population should reduce such as pollution, may lessen global warming, etc etc
Western countries are experiencing much lower birth rates but also absorbing from those countries that forever continue to export their populations. Also many religions and some cultures are not helping with their unscientific beliefs

Emma Davidson
June 13, 2021

Thanks for the comment John. If you follow Hans Rosling’s work, you will know that the world population is going to continue growing from where it is today to 9bln so still have a few more humans to accommodate. This 9bln is already baked in and done. It’s after that that I’m looking at with this article.

You are right though, there are likely to be benefits to a shrinking population in the long run, just as there will be negatives.

Miles Staude
June 11, 2021

Whatever the reasons for this, and, really, whatever the outcome might end up being, that an average twentysomething woman today will find it harder to fall pregnant than her grandmother did in her mid-30s is a terrifying course to be on

Emma Davidson
June 12, 2021

Couldn’t agree more Miles. Thanks for the comment.

June 11, 2021

Congestion is a world problem but I don’t think infertility should be the solution !! Losing the choice to have children is probably one of the toughest losses people can experience.

Emma Davidson
June 12, 2021

Hi Jane, thanks for the comment. Infertility is indeed a very sad prospect.

June 11, 2021

Great article - really interesting, and a topic I'd never thought much about but clearly should be focused on! Thank you for highlighting it.

Emma Davidson
June 11, 2021

Thanks Mark! I appreciate the feedback and comment.

June 11, 2021

Hi Emma, thanks for sharing this article. The statistic that sits with me is that the population will be largely infertile by 2045. That's something we should be discussing at length. Thanks again!

Emma Davidson
June 11, 2021

Thanks Kate, I appreciate the comment and yeah that was a disheartening statistic.

That said, it is a projection at this point time. I do believe we can do a lot to try and reverse the trend. Let's hope.

June 11, 2021

It’s a very interesting article on a very serious topic!
One of my friends (a mum of 4 in SYD) only buys organics food to feed her family, but I always thought the so called “organic” products are just another way for the merchants to make more $$$ till I read your article.
The environment we’re in today is totally different and in my opinion there’s no going back, but as you replied to another reader’s comment there, let’s hope, and actually do something so that, humanity can make some change together. Being a mum myself, I'm willing to contribute and put in efforts if we can leave the younger generations a brighter future.

Emma Davidson
June 11, 2021

Oh wow, thanks Michelle, that means a lot.

And yes, the whole food organics movement really does stem from this place of wanting to avoid pesticides and chemicals. Some countries are much better at tackling the issue than others. In the US, for example, just 11 substances are banned from cosmetics and food products, while the EU prohibits more than a thousand. This is largely because of the 'Kehoe rule' that is widely used in the US, which assumes chemicals are safe until proven otherwise. For what it's worth, I believe the 'innocent until proven guilty' principle is essential for our criminal justice system, but I'm not sure it's entirely suitable for potentially dangerous chemicals.

A film I might recommend on the topic of food and chemicals if you would indulge me is Kiss the Ground, its truly uplifting and one you can watch with your little one(s)

June 11, 2021

KISS: Ban contraceptives !

Emma Davidson
June 11, 2021

Very funny asdf :-)

Andrew Smith
June 10, 2021

Australia has been held back by arguments round 'population growth' from 'immigration' then the latter being blamed for traffic congestion, rising house prices, unemployment and environmental degradation; no evidence for any of these factors apart from inferences or guesses made by 'headline' data. For example, traffic congestion needs to be analysed according to vehicle usage etc., not by guessing from headline numbers.... not analysis.

Background, ZPG Zero Population Growth, with Paul 'Population Bomb' Ehrlich and (now deceased) white national nationalist John 'passive eugenics' Tanton, supported by fossil fuels and related foundations, started in the early '70s when fertility rates were declining yet 'population growth' became a negative catch all. In Australia like thee UK the (UNPD defined) NOM net overseas migration spiked after 2006 expansion to sweep up more temporary churn over of net financial contributors and increasing estimated population significantly.

However, although there is no evidence of the supposed negatives, backgrounded by recent demographic research showing global population to peak then decline mid century, the same policies have allowed Australia to delay carbon emissions, environmental regulation etc. to preserve sunset industries like fossil fuels, and preclude innovation.

With borders largely closed many of the negative proxies presented in Australian media and comments here due to 'population growth', can now be tested and the supposed correlations are not valid. Good reason why it's because the 'population growth' is more about old Calvinist Christian beliefs, eugenics and the economic order according to Malthus, Galton and Smith. However, the world goes on..... and even a Brexit or a Trump cannot stop change......

Related, our permanent population excluding temporary churn over will hit a demographic wall in five years with most of the baby boomers retired then downsizing etc., followed by generations with lower fertility rates then one wonders how will house and asset prices remain high (although real value may not reflect this)?

Emma Davidson
June 11, 2021

Thanks for your comment Andrew, lots to think about.

Emma Davidson
June 10, 2021

Hi Jennifer and thanks for the comment. Sydney is indeed a very congested city and has become uncomfortable. All I can add is my own personal feedback here which is from a Londoner who married a Sydneysider and who for the last couple of years has convinced said Sydneysider that we cannot move back to Sydney for this very reason. There will no doubt be more people who feel like I do which will eventually ease the burden on the city and return some sort of equilibrium. That and what appears to be a baby bust in our global population will all add to the easing on cities.

Jan H
June 10, 2021

The burgeoning human population is the cause of all the environmental destruction on the planet, and, of course, global heating, Pandemics are only one effect.. Apart from the fact that rising infertility is no doubt due to all the toxins we are ingesting, perhaps Nature is telling us something: when animal populations become too large, inevitably there is a rebalance. Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel describes how all the past great civilisations, eventually collapsed due to environmental destruction. Only this time, it is not just one civilisation at a time, the collapse is on a global scale.

Emma Davidson
June 10, 2021

Thanks for the comment Jan and great reference to Gun, Germs and Steel. I agree with you completely, nature is telling us something and has been doing so for a long while. I guess I am hoping that humanity will be able to turn this one around...? Not so we can grow in population size and grow financial markets but so we can learn to co-exist with nature and adapt to a shrinking population. (Note: I believe in Hans Rosling's work (see link below) that points to the human population peaking at 9bln over the next 50 years and then tailing) It is a big hope that 'it will be different this time' but to me, it's the only way to keep going.

Jan H
June 13, 2021

Emma: Thanks for the link to Rosling. We know what needs to be done, but our governments don't have the political will. Sadly. We could have made small, incremental changes back in the 80s but instead, our govts in thrall to the fossil fuel polluters, have sat on their hands. We are at the brink. It is almost too late to retreat. But it can be done, if only.....

June 10, 2021

Yesterday in Sydney, a tow truck broke down in the harbour tunnel and sent mornings peak hour traffic into chaos. One truck. Even with new roads such as the M4, the approaches across the Anzac Bridge are chockers. What was the point of building a motorway if it takes 20 minutes to reach the entrance? How many more people does Sydney need, with implications for traffic, schools, hospitals, and a never-ending growth of apartment blocks.


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