Exploring the ‘True Value’ of Replacement Rate Fertility


The concept of ‘replacement rate fertility’ [RRF] is widely known and referred to regularly in the popular, policy and academic literature. Sometimes presented as a ‘target’ or an ‘ideal’ fertility rate, it is usually specified as being a period total fertility rate [TFR] of ‘around 2.1’. This paper has two goals—firstly to explore the extent to which global contemporary RRF is, indeed, ‘around 2.1’; and secondly to evaluate this status a ‘target’ for national and international policymakers. We find that, in the first instance, global RRF is not 2.1; but the UN projection model suggests it will converge to this in the future. Skewed sex ratios at birth and high levels of maternal and adult mortality mean that RRF was significantly greater than 2.1 in the past, and is still the case for many countries today. We suggest that the real value of understanding and determining the value of TFR in any given territory is an indicator of human development. Rather than the popular notion of a ‘target’ TFR of ‘around 2.1’ as being an arbitrary (and ill-defined) aim for territorial population replacement, governments should aim to achieve a RRF of around 2.1, which indicated negligible mortality and a biologically normal sex ratio at birth.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1

Source Authors calculations

Fig. 2

Source Authors calculations

Fig. 3

Source Authors calculations


  1. Basten, S., Sobotka, T., & Zeman, K. (2014). Future fertility in low fertility countries. In W. Lutz, W. P. Butz, & K. C. Samir (Eds.), World population and human capital in the 21st century (pp. 39–146). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Bowles, N. (2019). ‘Replacement theory,’ a racist, sexist doctrine, spreads in far-right circles. The New York Times. Retrieved March 18, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/18/technology/replacement-theory.html.

  3. Craig, J. (1994). Replacement level fertility and future population growth. Population Trends, 78(Winter), 20–22.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Dorling, D., & Gietel-Basten, S. (2017). Why demography matters. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Espenshade, T. J., Guzman, J. C., & Westoff, C. F. (2004). The surprising global variation in replacement fertility. Population Research and Policy Review, 22(5–6), 575–583.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Frejka, T. (2017). Half the world’s population reaching below replacement fertility / La moitié de la population mondiale atteint un niveau de fécondité sous le seuil de remplacement. nIUSSP. Retrieved November 4, 2019, from http://www.niussp.org/article/half-the-worlds-population-reaching-below-replacement-fertility/.

  7. Gietel-Basten, S. (2017). Family planning and fertility transition in China. In X. Zang & L. X. Zhao (Eds.), Handbook on the family and marriage in China (pp. 187–203). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Gietel-Basten, S. (2019). The “population problem” in Pacific Asia. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Guilmoto, C. Z. (2009). The sex ratio transition in Asia. Population and Development Review, 35(3), 519–549.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Guilmoto, C. Z. (2012). Son preference, sex selection, and kinship in Vietnam. Population and Development Review, 38(1), 31–54.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Lee, R., Mason, A., & Members of the NTA Network. (2014). Is low fertility really a problem? Population aging, dependency, and consumption. Science, 346(6206), 229–234.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Lutz, W., Basten, S., & Striessnig, E. (2012). The future of fertility: Future trends in family size and low fertility populations. In E. Kaufman & W. Bradford Wilcox (Eds.), Whither the child? Causes and consequences of low fertility. Paradigm: Boulder, CO.

    Google Scholar 

  13. MPIDR, & VID. (2019). Human fertility database. Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (Germany) and Vienna Institute of Demography (Austria).  Retrieved from https://www.humanfertility.org/.

  14. Murray, C. J. L., Callender, C. S. K. H., Kulikoff, X. R., Srinivasan, V., Abate, D., Abate, K. H., et al. (2018). Population and fertility by age and sex for 195 countries and territories, 1950–2017: A systematic analysis for the global burden of disease study 2017. The Lancet, 392(10159), 1995–2051.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Pison, G., & Wilson, C. (2004). More than half of the global population lives where fertility is below replacement level. Population and Societies, 405(October), 1–4.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Smallwood, S., & Chamberlain, J. (2005). Replacement fertility, what has it been and what does it mean? Population Trends, 119(January), 16–27.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Sobotka, T. (2016). How low can optimal fertility be? Estimates accounting for migration. Paper presented at Wittgenstein Centre Conference 2016, Vienna. Retrieved December 2016, from http://www.eurrep.org/wp-content/uploads/Sobotka_Optimal-fertility_VID-WL-conference-Dec-2016.pdf. Last accessed July 19, 2019.

  18. Striessnig, E. (2014). What is the optimal fertility rate? IIASA Nexus. Retrieved February 27, 2014, from https://blog.iiasa.ac.at/2014/02/27/what-is-the-optimal-fertility-rate/.

  19. The Week UK. (2018). Why global fertility is in decline. The Week UK. Retrieved November 9, 2018, from https://www.theweek.co.uk/96241/why-global-fertility-is-in-decline.

  20. UNPD. (2017). World population prospects: The 2017 revision. New York, NY: United Nations Population Division.

    Google Scholar 

  21. World Health Organization. (2017). Total fertility rate. Health situation and trend assessment. World Health Organization, South-East Asia Regional Office. Retrieved July 13, 2017, from http://www.searo.who.int/entity/health_situation_trends/data/chi/TFR/en/.

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Stuart Gietel-Basten.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 31 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Gietel-Basten, S., Scherbov, S. Exploring the ‘True Value’ of Replacement Rate Fertility. Popul Res Policy Rev 39, 763–772 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11113-019-09561-y

Download citation


  • Replacement rate
  • Fertility
  • Mortality
  • Inequality
  • Sex ratio
  • Human development
  • Population growth