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The End of Population Growth Depends on Lower Ideal Family Size

March 5, 2020 • Rights of Women & Girls, Population

Girl and Boy in Dominican Republic Looking into Camera

Population Media Center (PMC) works on many issues related to the rights of women and girls, population size and growth, and environmental sustainability.

In the population category, we have strong mission-driven interests in affecting ideal and realized family sizes — especially, though not exclusively, in countries with above replacement fertility rates. After all, stabilizing global population at a level at which people can live sustainably with the world’s renewable resources is impossible if the global total fertility rate remains above the replacement level of 2.1 (the global rate is currently about 2.4).

In fact, because of population momentum, even global attainment of replacement level fertility will not immediately cause population growth to cease. Therefore, many ecologically oriented long-term thinkers see great promise in a temporary era of global sub-replacement fertility scenarios. There are already real world examples of this dynamic on a national level. Japan (TFR – 1.37), Italy (TFR – 1.30), Portugal (TFR – 1.35), and Poland (TFR – 1.47) are all currently experiencing natural population decreases. Similarly, global sub-replacement fertility would quicken the descent of global population from its eventual peak to more sustainable levels. Of course, mathematicians will cogently warn that such an epoch would need to be time-bound and delimited – less humanity, far into the future, fall into a low fertility trap.

Assuming that low fertility nations will remain as such throughout 21st century, the only plausible path to global sub-replacement fertility is through meaningful decreases in high-fertility nations. As of right now, according to UN estimates, there are 104 countries with fertility above 2.1. These range from Libya’s 2.11 to Niger’s 6.51. Of these 104 countries, the UN expects 71 of them to remain above replacement level fertility in 2040.


To be clear, the integral relationship between realized total fertility rates and ideal family size are well documented. Ultimately, fertility declines occur as a consequence of smaller ideal family sizes — but there is long-standing debate on how exactly smaller ideal family sizes become normative. Traditionally, rising levels of urbanization and education, growing economies, and declining infant mortality have been positioned as key factors. In fact, these notions constitute the classic “demographic transition theory.”

However, fertility change can also be influenced by ideational change and the diffusion of ideas. Catalyzing these modalities of fertility change are a central part of Population Media Center’s ongoing work. It is possible to intervene directly, measurably, and effectively on ideal family size using PMC’s Theory of Change.

While each community is unique, and social norms around ideal fertility may be shaped by a variety of influences, we believe the following four factors are especially crucial:

  1. Improving the overall social status of women.
  2. Decreasing the tenacity of large family size traditions within a community.
  3. Increasing the degree to which married couples effectively communicate on family size and family planning.
  4. Improving the degree to which members of the society understand the safety and efficacy of modern contraception. (This includes countering myths and misinformation).

For example, Impano n'Impamba (“A Gift for Today That Will Last a Long Time”) was a 104-episode radio serial drama, which aired in Rwanda from October 2014 through November 2015. PMC worked with its local team of administrators, writers, and producers to produce and broadcast the serial drama in the Kinyarwanda language. Broadcast on Radio Rwanda and on Radio Salus, the entertaining drama reached an estimated 564,629 people, at a cost of $1.80 (USD) per listener.

By the end of the radio serial drama, listeners were 1.5 times more likely than non-listeners to say that their ideal family size was between zero and three children — as opposed to four children or more. Unsurprisingly, this was observed in tandem with improved gender equity attitudes, improved knowledge of reproductive health options, improved spousal communications around family planning, and a change in perceived norms on the use of contraception.

  • Listeners were 3.2 times more likely than non-listeners to disagree with the statement that “it is a waste of time and money to have girls study to a high level.”
  • Listeners were 2.1 times more likely than non-listeners to know of a place where they could obtain family planning.
  • Listeners were 4.2 times more likely than non-listeners to report discussing family planning with their spouse/partner three or more times in the past three months.
  • Listeners were 1.5 times more likely than non-listeners to think that married couples in their community use contraception.

Population Media Center affects attitudes about ideal family size and related social issues with our Theory of Change. Please read our case study document on Impano n'Impamba for more details.


It is worth pointing out that the transitional character in this story was a fictional Rwandan man – not a woman. In Rwanda, 64% of men have an ideal family size of three or more children - and 1 in 5 would like 4 or more children. Moreover, over 16% of married women in Rwanda do not make decisions about their own health care – rather the husband does. So, addressing male attitudes is critically important to making progress on the interconnected issues of the full rights of women and girls, population, and the environment.

Picture of Joe Bish

Written by Joe Bish

Joe is the Director of Issue Advocacy at Population Media Center. He holds a Master of Science in Environmental Advocacy and Organizing from Antioch University New England.