How to Write About the Birth Rate

by Carl Haub, senior demographer, Population Reference Bureau

No demographic subject captures writers’ imaginations like a country’s birth rate, be it baby “booms” or “busts,” or record highs or lows. But what measure should you use when you’re writing about the birth rate? Yes, there’s more than one—there are three: the crude birth rate, the general fertility rate, and the total fertility rate. In this blog post, I want to clear up the confusion.

First, we’ll take the crude birth rate (CBR), which is simply the number of births in a year per 1,000 population. Rates have a numerator (in this case, births) and a denominator (the country’s total population). The fact that the denominator is the total population of all ages is the reason why the CBR is labeled “crude.” In 2011, the CBR in the United States was 12.7 births per 1,000 population. But the CBR can be significantly affected by age structure, so that a population with a high proportion of elderly will tend to have a lower rate than one with a younger population. Why bother to report it? Because the CBR is one of three essential parts of the national population growth rate, since populations grow or decline based on the number of births, deaths, and net immigration—the balance of people moving in and out.

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Writing About Population Projections: Beware

by Carl Haub, senior demographer, Population Reference Bureau

It’s quite common to see reports such as “The United Nations projects that world population will be 9.3 billion in 2050,” a perfectly true statement. Many readers will most likely take that at face value and move on. But they should be asking questions! There are over 200 countries in the world with birth rates from 1.1 children per woman (in Taiwan) to 7.6 (in Niger). In most of those countries, it is the future course of the birth rate that will largely determine population size. The projection of 9.3 billion is just the sum of all the country-level population projections. What should those readers ask? For starters: What does the United Nations assume will happen to all those birth rates over the next few decades?

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