When Deaths Exceed Births: Natural Decrease in Europe and the United States

Natural decrease occurs when deaths in an area exceed births. If such natural decrease is prolonged, there is a substantial risk of population loss. Seventeen European nations had more people dying than being born between 2000 and 2009, including several of Europe’s most populous countries. The United States, in contrast, has always seen births exceed deaths by a substantial margin. Our research focuses on the prevalence and dynamics of natural decrease in subareas of Europe and the United States in the first decade of the twenty-first century. We found that 58 percent of the 1,391 counties of Europe (NUTS3 units) had more deaths than births during that period compared to just 28 percent of the 3,137 U.S. counties. (See Figure 1)


Natural decrease tends to be sporadic at first and become more persistent over time. In Europe, 41 percent of the counties had more deaths than births in every year we studied; 30 percent had it in some years; and in 29 percent births always exceeded deaths. Natural decrease was far less prevalent in the United States, where 11 percent of the counties had natural decrease in every year; 35 percent in some years; and in the majority of counties (53 percent) saw births always exceeding deaths. See Figure 2.


Though natural decrease is more prevalent in Europe than in the United States, the demographic factors that cause it are remarkably similar. In both regions, the likelihood of natural decrease is greatest in counties with a large concentration of older adults, a small proportion of adults of child-bearing age, and low fertility. European counties were in a more precarious state on each of the three.

Fertility rates in Europe are significantly lower than in the United States. There were only 261 young children per 1,000 women of child-bearing age in the average county of Europe compared to 371 young children in U.S. counties. Deaths are also more likely to exceed births if there is a larger older population at higher risk of mortality, and some 19 percent of the population is 65 or over in a typical European county, compared to 15.8 percent in the United States. Natural decrease is also more likely when there are fewer women of childbearing age to have children. Here the difference between the counties of the United States and Europe is modest. Roughly 38 percent of European women in a county are of child-bearing age compared to 40 percent in an average U.S. county.

Natural decrease is spatially widespread in Europe (Figure 3). Deaths exceed births in most counties of Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic, as well as in Sweden and the Baltic states. Further south, natural decrease is also occurring in the majority of the counties of Greece, Portugal, and Italy. Although natural decrease is common in much of Europe, it is far from universal. Births exceed deaths in Ireland, Cyprus, Iceland, Lichtenstein, and Luxembourg. It is also evident in broad regions of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Norway.


There is also considerable spatial variation in the incidence of natural decrease in the United States (Figure 4). Natural decrease is largely absent from broad areas of the West, Southeast, and along most of the Atlantic and Gulf Coast. In contrast, natural decrease is prevalent in the Great Plains in a north–south band from the Dakotas to central Texas, as well as further east in Iowa and Illinois. This reflects the historical linkages between agriculture, young adult out-migration, and natural decrease. The widespread natural decrease in the retirement areas of Florida, Arizona, and Texas is a result of a substantial inflow of older adults. Natural decrease is also evident in forestry and mining dependent areas of the Upper Great Lakes, the Northeast, and the Appalachians. Natural decrease in both the United States and Europe is more pervasive in rural areas.


What might the future portend for Europe and for the United States with regard to natural decrease? It certainly will persist. Once natural decrease occurs in an area, reoccurrences are likely. However, natural decrease is not inevitable.  In some U.S. counties with a history of natural decrease, Hispanic migration has recently diminished the likelihood of natural decrease by increasing births. Hispanic migration streams include many young adults of child-bearing age with higher fertility rates. Nevertheless, significant Hispanic in-migration is limited to a modest number of counties. Overall, the U.S. population is aging and fertility rates are diminishing, so natural decrease is likely to become more prevalent.

Natural decrease looms larger in Europe’s future. There are relatively few young women to produce the next generation of European infants. In a typical European county, only 15 percent of the female population is younger than 15, compared to 20 percent in the United States. In addition, though European fertility has risen recently, it is expected to remain well below U.S. levels. With a diminishing population of women in their child-bearing years, low fertility, and a growing older population at high risk of mortality more widespread natural decrease in Europe is almost inevitable.

Minimal immigration to most of Europe over the past several decades further increases the likelihood of natural decrease. In this regard, Ireland’s willingness to accept immigrants makes it an important exception to overall European trends. It also underscores the potential role of immigration to the European future. No Irish county experienced natural decrease during the period we studied, and immigration to Ireland has been substantial. Many of these immigrants are in their child-bearing years and have relatively high fertility rates. This certainly helped Ireland fend off natural decrease. In essence, these Irish immigrants are an analog to the young Hispanic immigrants to the United States that diminished the incidence of natural decrease in many U.S. counties.

Natural decrease is the ultimate demographic consequence of the population aging and low fertility rates that now characterize much of Europe and a growing part of the United States. Natural decrease is likely to become more prevalent in both regions. In fact, it is already on the rise. Preliminary estimates from the post-2010 period suggest that deaths now exceed births in 62 percent of the European counties and in 35 percent of the counties of the United States.

Natural decrease is a major policy concern because of its pronounced spatial clustering and its capacity to drain the demographic resilience from an area. In Europe, worries are already widely expressed in both media and public policy circles about maintaining the region’s economic viability and competitiveness in the face of the low birth rates and aging populations that characterize its natural decrease areas. The implications of the recent European immigrant surge for natural decrease are uncertain, but our analysis suggests that natural decrease is likely to remain widespread in Europe for the foreseeable future.

This post has been jointly written by Kenneth M. Johnson, Professor of Sociology and Senior Demographer at Carsey School of Public Policy, University of New Hampshire, Layton M. Fields, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Mount St. Mary’s University, and Dudley L. Poston, Jr., Professor of Sociology and the George T. and Gladys H. Abell Professor of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University.


For a more comprehensive analysis of these trends, see: Kenneth M. Johnson, Layton M. Fields, and Dudley L. Poston, Jr. 2015, “More Deaths than Births: Subnational Natural Decrease in Europe and the United States,” Population and Development Review 41(4): 651–680. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1728-4457.2015.00089.x/abstract

This entry was posted in Fertility, Health, Mortality by Kenneth M. Johnson. Bookmark the permalink.
Kenneth M. Johnson

About Kenneth M. Johnson

Kenneth M. Johnson is senior demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy (formerly the Carsey Institute) and professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. He is a nationally recognized expert on U.S. demographic trends. His research at Carsey examines national and regional population redistribution trends, rural and urban demographic change, the growing racial diversity of the U.S. population, and the relationship between demographic and environmental change.

One thought on “When Deaths Exceed Births: Natural Decrease in Europe and the United States

  1. Thank you Kenneth, great maps – your team’s county analysis is illuminating – it shows natural decrease is more widespread in Europe than I imagined. Given that most of Europe’s nations (except Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Latvia) have overshot their biocapacity – map at http://www.footprintnetwork.org/ecological_footprint_nations/ – your findings are good news. Low birthrates can make a small but helpful contribution to the European target for a 40% decrease in emissions by 2030 http://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/strategies/2030/index_en.htm – Thanks again, I’m inspired to go read your full article in Population and Development Review.

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