50 years ago the average woman had five children; since then the number has halved

In the past the average woman had five children. In the past fifty years, this number has halved as a result of women empowerment, declining child mortality and the rising cost of bringing up children.

In the past people had many more children than today. The number fluctuated over time, and there were some differences between countries, but for much of our history, the average woman had at least five children, and often more. Two centuries ago, this was true for the US, the UK, Russia, India, China, and many other countries for which we have data.

The metric demographers use to measure offspring per parent is the Total Fertility Rate. The TFR is defined as the average number of children that would be born to a woman over her lifetime if the woman were to experience the current age-specific fertility rates throughout her lifetime.1 It is a metric that captures the fertility rate in one particular year rather than over the life course of a generation of women – it is a period, not a cohort metric.

From 1950 onwards, we have very good data from the UN Population Division. The chart here shows the average across the world: the global Total Fertility Rate. Up to 1965 the average woman in the world had more than 5 children. Since then, we have seen an unprecedented change. The number has halved. Globally, the average per woman is now below 2.5 children.

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Why has the global fertility rate fallen so rapidly?

We discuss in detail the reasons for this change on our page on the fertility rate. In brief, the three major reasons are the empowerment of women (increasing access to education and increasing labor market participation), declining child mortality, and a rising cost of bringing up children (to which the decline of child labor contributed).

What does declining global fertility mean for the population?

As a consequence of the declining global fertility rate, the global population growth rate has declined from a peak of 2.3% per year in 1963 to less than 1% today.

In our discussion on the global population rate, we explain that we are, therefore, in the transition to a new balance where rapid population change will come to an end: “The big global demographic transition that the world entered more than two centuries ago is then coming to an end: This new equilibrium is different from the one in the past when it was the very high mortality that kept population growth in check. In the new balance, it will be low fertility that keeps population changes small.”


  1. The second aspect considered in the measurement of the TFR is that the representative woman were to survive from birth through the end of her reproductive life.

    The TFR is a period indicator and in this way similar to period life expectancy. For period life expectancy demographers rely on the age-specific mortality rates at one point in time (i.e., one year) and then ask: How long would the average person live if the current age-specific mortality rates would remain constant – we explain the measurement of life expectancy in more detail here.

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Max Roser (2019) - “50 years ago the average woman had five children; since then the number has halved” Published online at Retrieved from: '' [Online Resource]

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    author = {Max Roser},
    title = {50 years ago the average woman had five children; since then the number has halved},
    journal = {Our World in Data},
    year = {2019},
    note = {}
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