62 Europe: Population Geography II

Negative Population Change

In the fifth stage of the Demographic Transition – wait the fifth stage! Yes, remember that some scholars add a fifth stage to the Demographic Transition while others consider negative population change to be an especially matured portion of the fourth stage or post-industrial stage of the Demographic Transition.  Probably the crux of this distinction between late fourth stage and new fifth stage rests on the permanence or length of time that countries spend with naturally declining birth rates.  Note that natural increase refers to differences between birth rates and death rates, but does not include migration.  When including migration, it is possible for a country with more deaths than births to increase in overall population, as long as in-migration sufficiently exceeds out-migration.

How does a country reach this point of negative population change? Throughout history there have been numerous occasions where a country or a kingdom or a duchy or a principality or a tribal land (whatever the territory) suffered short term losses.  A hard-fought war with the deaths of many soldiers and even civilians may tally so many deaths that these losses outnumber the births in the society.  When over twenty million people died on the Soviet side of World War II, the population of the USSR dropped from 196 million in 1941 to 170 million in 1946. During war time, births may be artificially suppressed as well.  Do you recall the young American woman’s famous response to the question, “Why did births increase after World War II?”  She simply said, “The men came home.”


Grave medical circumstances may be sufficient to cause deaths to exceed births, though like war these conditions generally are short term.  The Black Death in Europe definitely caused kingdoms and cities and everywhere to decline in population, overall in Europe by about 50% in 1347-1351.  These countries and regions of Europe recovered, eventually regaining this population by adding more births than subtracting deaths.  In Sub-Saharan Africa, AIDS has killed millions of people, where in some countries 25% of adults were HIV+.  Even so, in these African countries, births outnumbered deaths.

Short term economic or political crises may jam a country’s population. In the 1990s after the breakup of the USSR, socioeconomic chaos in Russia prompted couples to defer births while at the same time death rates rose.  This produced negative population change in Russia.

While these factors may intervene in a country’s natural demographic progress, eventually it is the population’s structure – age and gender/sex – that develop the conditions that produce fewer births than deaths.  Specifically, the age structure of the population has direct effects on births and deaths.

With the decline in death rates in Stage 2 of the Demographic Transition, we begin to keep people alive longer.  As advancements in medicine and agriculture continue, sometimes at starling rates, life expectancy increase throughout Stage 3 and 4 and in Stage 5 of the Demographic Transition.  With the decline of birth rates in Stage 3 of the Demographic Transition, modern, urban, industrial societies prompt lower and lower birth rates in Stages 4 and 5.

Thus, we find that countries currently in the fifth stage of the Demographic Transition have population structures holding numerous older people and relative fewer young people.  This pattern is revealed in the inverted population pyramid that is standard for this stage.  Women in their retirement years no longer are physically able to conceive and bear children. Old men can sire children, but must have considerably younger female partners to do so.  Older populations are likely to have particularly lower birth rates.

While medicine and food supply are sufficient, even plentiful, in Stage 5 counties, the elderly populations eventually do die.  Although these deaths do not challenge the high numbers of war or plague, the deaths do outnumber births in these settings.

Advanced, modern, urban, industrial countries that long have worked through the normal development of countries – where are these places?  Having been first to the Industrial Revolution, Europe has most of the countries in Stage 5 of the Demographic Transition.  As the chart below indicates, of the countries in the world (not counting microstates nor territories) that have negative natural population change, all but Japan are in Europe or the Russian Domain.1,2

Negative Population Change

Country Natural Population Change
Bulgaria -6.00%
Lithuania -5.00%
Latvia -4.90%
Serbia -4.70%
Ukraine -4.20%
Hungary -3.90%
Croatia -3.60%
Romania -3.30%
Germany -3.20%
Belarus -3.20%
Greece -3.10%
Estonia -2.80%
Russia -2.70%
Japan -2.40%
Portugal -2.40%
Italy -2.00%
Bosnia and Herzegovina -1.40%
Moldova -1.40%
Czech Republic -1.30%
Poland -1.20%
Slovenia -0.70%
Slovakia -0.30%
Austria -0.20%
Spain -0.20%


Will it last? This is a key question for Stage 5 of the Demographic Transition. Perhaps this simply is a variation of Stage 4 that someday will return to the more normal situation of births outnumbering deaths.  Population scholars do anticipate that the world’s overall population will slow and likely hit a plateau near the end of the 21st century.  Total fertility rates have been declining.  How low will these rates go? A fascinating study in the British medical journal The Lancet projects population totals to the end of this century.  It suggests that total world population will peak in the year 2064 at 9.732 billion people. It asserts that a number of countries already have met their population apex for the century and perhaps forever.  Here are European examples.


Country Apex Year Population that year (in millions) Population in 2100
Estonia 2017 1.31 0.82
Poland 2017 38.39 15.42
Greece 2017 10.4 5.48
Spain 2019 46.39 22.91


Again, population structure may intervene.  Countries that long have had low birth rates, with or without higher death rates, have small numbers of women now in their main childbearing ages. Low birth rates twenty-five years ago mean small numbers of men and women now twenty-five years old. Even if these women showed higher than expected total fertility, the raw numbers of births might be insufficient to offset the deaths of the older population. Consider the math. One million women having 2.1 births a piece makes 2.1 million births replaces that generation and may offset a low death rate, indeed 2.1 million deaths. Three hundred thousand women having 4.0 births a piece makes 1,200,000 births, but fails to offset the same 2.1 million deaths. The less numerous cohort will be replaced, but in the meantime, the much older population dies and the overall population declines.


Did You Know?

On a joint television broadcast between Boston and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1986, Lyudmila Ivanova replied to a question about sex by saying, “There is no sex in the USSR … .” The rest of her sentence was cut off by laughter.  Perhaps she said “on television” or “only love,” but the moment was unforgettable.  In the Soviet Union on television, there was no sex depicted or even inferred.  Society was artificially straitlaced. When the Soviet Union dissolved, there was an explosion of sexual content in media and society.


Cited and additional bibliography:

1 “Birth Rate – Country Comparison.” 2019. Www.Indexmundi.Com. January 1, 2019. https://indexmundi.com/g/r.aspx?t=0&v=25&I=en.

2 “Death Rate – Country Comparison.” 2019. Www.Indexmundi.Com. January 1, 2019. https://indexmundi.com/g/r.aspx?t=0&v=26&I=en.

Rosenberg, Matt. 2019. “Why Is Negative Population Growth Important?” ThoughtCo. July 3, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/negative-population-growth-1435471.

Vollset, Stein Emil, Emily Goren, Chun-Wei Yuan, Jackie Cao, Amanda E. Smith, Thomas Hsiao, Catherine Bisignano, et al. 2020. “Fertility, Mortality, Migration, and Population Scenarios for 195 Countries and Territories from 2017 to 2100: A Forecasting Analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study.” The Lancet0 (0). https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30677-2.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The Western World: Daily Readings on Geography by Joel Quam and Scott Campbell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book