EconomicsFood ShortagesPopulationSociety

Education Leads to Lower Fertility and Increased Prosperity

by Brigid Fitzgerald Reading, Earth Policy Institute

Photo © Craig Mackintosh

As the world continues to add close to 80 million people each year, high population growth is running up against the limits of our finite planet, threatening global economic and political stability. To stay within the bounds of the earth’s natural resources, the world’s population will have to stabilize.

The United Nations’ recently revised "medium" projection shows world population exceeding 9 billion by 2045. In the "high" projection, which assumes high levels of fertility, world population would top 10 billion by the same year. But spreading hunger and poverty, along with the conflict and disease that come with them, could forcibly curtail growth before we reach 9 billion. Alternatively, the "low" projection suggests it is possible for world population to peak at just over 8 billion around 2045 if we voluntarily make rapid reductions in family size.

Fertility rates tend to be highest in the world’s least developed countries. When mortality rates decline quickly but fertility rates fail to follow, countries can find it harder to reduce poverty. Poverty, in turn, increases the likelihood of having many children, trapping families and countries in a vicious cycle. Conversely, countries that quickly slow population growth can receive a "demographic bonus": the economic and social rewards that come from a smaller number of young dependents relative to the number of working adults.

For longer term population stability the goal is to reach replacement-level fertility, which is close to 2 children per woman in places where mortality rates are low. Industrial countries as a group have moved below this level. Some developing countries have made progress in reducing fertility, but fertility rates in the least developed countries as a group remain above 4 children per woman.

One of the most effective ways to lower population growth and reduce poverty is to provide adequate education for both girls and boys. Countries in which more children are enrolled in school—even at the primary level—tend to have strikingly lower fertility rates.

Primary School Enrollment and Total Fertility Rates for Selected Countries, Latest Year
Rank Country Primary School Enrollment Total Fertility Rate
Percent Number of children
per woman
1 Japan 100.0 1.3
2 Spain 99.8 1.5
3 Iran 99.7 1.8
4 Georgia 99.6 1.6
5 United Kingdom 99.6 1.9
181 Equitorial Guinea 53.5 5.3
182 Guinea-Bissau 52.1 5.7
183 Djibouti 40.1 3.9
184 Sudan 39.2 4.2
185 Eritrea 35.7 4.6

Note: Rankings are based on a list of 185 countries for which primary enrollment
data are available. See full table (Excel).

Source: EPI from UNESCO

Female education is especially important. Research consistently shows that women who are empowered through education tend to have fewer children and have them later. If and when they do become mothers, they tend to be healthier and raise healthier children, who then also stay in school longer. They earn more money with which to support their families, and contribute more to their communities’ economic growth. Indeed, educating girls can transform whole communities.

School meal programs help improve all children’s attendance in low-income countries, but for girls the benefit is profound. Girls are more likely to be expected to contribute to their families by working at home, so sending each additional girl to school may cost her family not only tuition but labor as well. Providing free meals at school helps to offset these costs, particularly when programs include take-home rations. As a result, girls are both more likely to go to school and to keep coming back year after year.

This is significant because girls who reach secondary school are especially likely to have fewer children.

Worldwide, 69 million elementary-school-aged children were not in school in 2008, 37 million fewer than in 1999. By 2005, almost two thirds of developing countries had achieved gender parity in elementary school enrollment. Still, a majority of children not in school are female, and early marriage and motherhood keep many of the world’s poorest girls from completing secondary school.

Extending educational opportunities to all the world’s children can clearly reap vast rewards in lower population growth—which in turn brings greater stability, prosperity, and environmental sustainability.


  1. The obvious point I’d make here is that for education to truly translate to ‘prosperity’ (and any ‘prosperity’ that is unsustainable is not prosperity at all, of course…), and not just population reduction, the kind of education is key. Most educational systems at present are tailored to the needs of big business and their shareholders. Indeed, even education itself has turned into a big business. (I’ve met people who are spending a good third of their expected adult life repaying debts for an education that gained them qualifications they’re not using anyway.)

    I think the education aspect needs serious attention worldwide, but that it must be done with a bid to ensure an holistic understanding of our place in history, and what is needed to adapt to it and to begin to integrate ourselves, our lifestyles, our cultures and our economics more harmoniously into the natural world that frames all our activities and that makes them possible.

  2. – Empathic Education: The Transformation of Learning in an Interconnected World:

    Pattern 18, Network of Learning:

    “In a society which emphasizes teaching, children and students – and adults – become passive and unable to think or act for themselves. Creative, active individuals can only grow up in a society which emphasizes learning instead of teaching.


    Instead of the lock-step of compulsory schooling in a fixed place, work in piecemeal ways to decentralize the process of learning and enrich it through contact with many places and people all over the city: workshops, teachers at home or walking through the city, professionals willing to take on the young as helpers, older children teaching younger children, museums, youth groups traveling, scholarly seminars, industrial workshops, old people, and so on. Conceive of all these situations as forming the backbone of the learning process; survey all these situations, describe them, and publish them as the city’s “curriculum”; then let students, children, their families and neighborhoods weave together for themselves the situations that comprise their “school” paying as they go with standard vouchers, raised by community tax. Build new educational facilities in a way which extends and enriches this network.”


  3. I think this article demeans and makes generalisations about women who choose to have children younger and stay at home with them as opposed to contributing to their communities ‘economy’ (ie, working / childcare).. no matter whether they live in ‘undeveloped’ countries I have trouble believing the statement that older women have healthier children. We should be supporting women to have children younger and to put the work in to a couple of children as opposed to assuming that younger women will keep breeding.. PLEASE don’t devalue the very important task of bringing up children!
    Don’t get me wrong, I think educating girls is equally important but let’s not put the emphasis on ‘economic growth’ as a positive here…
    This is a ‘dressed up’ version of the missionary style of ‘educating’ ‘barbaric’ people.
    Let’s all stay home and teach our children permaculture!

  4. This article is borderline racist propaganda. It relies on a number of assumptions which are at best laughable (ie ‘education equals empowerment’ or ‘older mothers are healthier’) or at worst dangerous (‘educated people are of more value to economic growth’). It begs the question, do we really need more economic growth? Isn’t that really the problem?
    Maybe the pointy-headed bureaucrat that wrote this should go back to their dubiously funded think-tank and try again? And while they are at it perhaps change all those impressive looking graphs into bell-curves?

  5. I agree this article is a bunch of propaganda and is only true in certain scenerios. The education these children are being exposed to is full of falicy. This is probably why they are not wanting children until they get older and having fewer. They are being lied to by their education system. Children are blessings. The biggest problem we face globally is not population, it is over consumption. We have become a very greedy and selfish society. We no longer care about leaving our children anything, including a healthy planet.

  6. The definition of wealth is the real issue that answers all these questions and naturally lowers fertility – it is called the “biological effect”.

    We need to define wealth as permaculture and then there will be no population problem because the biological effect will kick in.

  7. Yes this article is the classic capitalistic viewpoint where in the ‘poor’ (independent from corporations and GDP capital flow) need to be ‘educated’ (propagandized to destroy their culture, traditions, and families) so they can be made ‘rich’ (employed as wage slaves using every penny just to survive).

    Or maybe the so called rich are actually the poor ones who don’t have kids because they have neither the time nor the money necessary to raise them to 1st world standards. And maybe the poor are healthy, happy, independents and enjoying life in local familial community while feeding themselves from the land.

    This may not fit every case but it will a lot more than is admitted.

  8. Thanks for the article. However, one must wonder whether a Western-style education régime is desirable to those living in “Third World” countries. To insist that said education régime be adopted by said countries is like saying that wheat must grow in Amazonia. Different cultures have different languages, and have different educational régimes.

    Also, perpetual economic growth is not possible; naturally (money-based) economies grow and shrink (boom and bust). The important thing is to ensure that the booms and the busts occur as gradually as possible so as to ensure economic stability. Neither will increased economic growth rectify the problem of poverty in the Third World. Of course the pie grows in size, but who gets how much? Human greed is a powerful force!

    Mr. Lawton, by “biological effect”, does one mean that an increase in the availability of food, water, and shelter will result in a decreased birthrate, at least in the long run? (I haven’t heard of biological effect before, so I’m stumped.) One reason why agrarian societies have often tended to promote high birthrates is the field labor provided by extra children. Perhaps with a permaculture-based farming system less labor will be necessary and thus the urge to have large numbers of children can be lessened.

    Finally, the reductionist approach typical of Western science and education must be phased out. The world works through relationships and woe be unto us if we dare to ignore that fact. Nothing wrong with studying things on an individual basis, but the yarn is not as important as the tapestry, nor the paint as important as the painting.

  9. The basic assumption is that high fertility is bad and low fertility is good. This is based in perceiving the plant’s resources as finite and that they are unable to sustain a growing number of people. I would like to challenge those assumptions.

    First of all, the current resources in the planet might seem incapable of supporting a growing population only because we are forcing lifestyles that are not sustainable. If we return back to permaculture such fallacy will be exposed and the current resources in the planet would be able to support many fold the current population. The second assumption that the resources are finite is another fallacy. The sun provides us with loads of new energy every day which is used by plants to grow and ‘manufacture’ nutrients and resources. Meteors fall from the sky and volcanoes erupt and provide us with loads of additional resources. The surface area of land on earth can handle many folds the current population, but again if we live in a natural permaculture way and not in the current crazy lifestyle.

    Fertility is never something negative, on the contrary, fertility in plans, animals and in humans is a good thing, but again only if we are living a natural permaculture lifestyle.

  10. “One reason why agrarian societies have often tended to promote high birthrates is the field labor provided by extra children.”

    I challenge this assumption. When you are living an agrarian life you know how much food you have. You raise those children and are feeding them. Because you provide for most of your own needs you are able to care for and raise the children. This is not true in a city where you have to work for money to buy what you need to raise children. You have neither the time nor the resources to raise as big a family. The economic system is arranged such that is destroys families, culture, and traditions.

    What is prosperity? Increased GDP? Increased consumption of boughten goods? Our forefathers who lived the agrarian life lived happier.

  11. Book: Deschooling Society. Illich 1970
    Book: False Promises of Constructivism. Bowers 2005
    Film: Children of Men

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Check Also

Back to top button