The Demographic Slowdown in France and the United States

Birth rates are low in both countries, with immigration the only solution for avoiding a drop in the French and American populations.
© Boris Séméniako

Remember that two or three decades ago (days ago, in the grand scheme of things), pundits were astonished by the dizzying rise in the world’s population. Terms such as “explosion” and “demographic bomb” were used. We grew from 1.5 billion inhabitants in 1900 to 2.5 billion in 1950, and more than 6 billion in 2000. A string of scenarios, each more catastrophic than the last, were heralded. Some estimates put global numbers as high as 15 billion by 2100.

But in a typical historical twist, we are now looking for superlatives emphatic enough to describe the ageing of this same population. And many are alarmed at the decreasing numbers of inhabitants across the world.

Other than in Africa, where fertility rates (the number of children per each woman of childbearing age) remain above 4, birth rates have collapsed everywhere. In 2050, according to recent estimates, more than 150 of the world’s 195 countries will be in a state of demographic decline. Perhaps Covid-19 is to blame? Not according to the experts. While the pandemic led to a spike in the number of deaths (less than 10% in highly affected countries such as France), it only had a small impact on the overall trend that began several
decades ago.

Increasingly Fewer Children

In the context of this backsliding phenomenon, which is affecting the most developed regions, a small number of nations are doing better than others: the Scandinavian countries, the British Isles, France, and the United States. In these places, fertility rates are steadily around 2.1, a figure that demographers consider to be the limit for replacing each generation.

However, even this status quo is faltering; these countries have also seen a drop in births in recent years. The United States, which previously stood out through its demographic vigor, has experienced the greatest shift. Fertility rates of 2.1 in 2007 have now tumbled to 1.64. Meanwhile, the number of deaths has risen sharply from 2.8 million in 2018 to 3.4 million in 2020. As a result, the 2021 rate of natural increase – the difference between births and deaths – fell to 150,000, one of the lowest figures in recent American history.

Immigration is largely to thank for the fact that the U.S. population traditionally enjoys major growth. However, migratory flows have been slowing over the last few years. This is for two reasons: the anti-immigration policies of former president Donald Trump, and the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been particularly devastating in the United States. In total, the country had recorded almost one million deaths by mid-April 2022, encouraging many immigrants to return to their native countries.

© Boris Séméniako

France’s Dwindling Population

Fertility rates have also been faltering in France in recent years, reaching 1.83 in 2021. Nevertheless, the population (estimated at 67,813,000 inhabitants on January 1, 2022) is continuing to increase. This growth is certainly modest (an additional 187,000 inhabitants in 2021), but is a positive development given the extent to which many European countries – particularly in Eastern Europe – are already depopulating.

Two thirds of this small demographic increase are explained by the net migration rate, which measures the difference between those entering and leaving France (140,000 in 2019). However, the rate of natural increase, recorded at 81,000 in 2021, has started to rise again following the drop caused by Covid-19 in 2020.

A Rush to Texas and Florida

While demographic changes in France are relatively consistent across the country, the U.S. tells a different story. Some states are gaining inhabitants, while others are losing them. The first category includes Florida and Texas, and the latter saw its population increase by 1.1% in 2020, mainly thanks to an influx (170,000 people) of people from other states.

However, the population is declining in the northeast. From July 2020 to July 2021, New York State lost some 350,000 inhabitants, or 1.6% of its population, bringing it below the 20-million mark. In Washington D.C., the federal capital, this decrease was as high as 2.9% over the same period.

We know the reason for these fluctuations: Many middle-class Americans want to settle in quieter, less-tentacular cities to increase their quality of life and purchasing power.

More in America, Older in France

Another difference between the two countries is the shift in life expectancy at birth. It is still slowly rising in France, and is currently at 85.4 years for women (a record high in the European Union) and 79.3 years for men. However, it dropped in the United States to 79.9 years for women and 74.2 years for men in 2020. The disparity – around five years – is not insignificant, and says a lot about the state of healthcare in both countries.

What will happen in the decades to come? In all probability, immigration in the United States will soon be restored to its usual levels. Given that families with non-American origins, particularly those from Latin America, tend to have more children, the U.S. population could increase by around 30% by 2100, reaching more than 430 million inhabitants (compared to 335 million today).

And while a neighboring country such as Italy may see its population halved, France is predicted to more or less maintain its current figures. However, it will only represent 0.6% of the global population by the end of the century. What’s more, a third of its inhabitants will be over the age of 65, compared to 20% currently, lending an additional meaning to the expression “the Old Continent.”


Article published in the May 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.