Demography is Destiny

“Population collapse” is humanity’s greatest crisis, claims Elon Musk at the start of Stephen J Shaw’s film, Birthgap

The demographer screened the film at our recent Carry the Fire event. Featuring alarming data and moving stories of childless regret, it finds no easy policy fix to arrest declining birth rates. 

MALTHUSIAN VIEWS LINGER 

Audiences at Shaw’s screenings are surprised to hear this is a bad thing. Back in 1798, the English economist Thomas Malthus warned about unsustainable population growth. He believed the subsequent competition for limited resources would lower standards of living. And for the last 200 years, Malthusian ideas dominated social and political sciences. 

Academics and policymakers approved of China’s eminently sensible one child policy. Climate concerns, surfacing in the second half of the 20th century, added gusto to the argument. The world was clearly not built to host so many humans. This outdated consensus still influences views today. 

But Malthus was wrong. He vastly underestimated human resourcefulness. The world has gotten richer as it has gotten bigger. As its population increases so does life expectancy, education and the wealth of each subsequent generation.

APPROACHING A PEAK 

That increase is slowing. The UN estimates the world’s population will peak in 2084 at 10.4 billion people. After that, numbers will start declining. How precipitous is that curve? 

In some countries, very. Masako Mori, an aide to PM Fumio Kishida, recently warned Japan will cease to exist if it cannot arrest slumping birth rates. At current birth rates, its population will disappear by 2500.  

North Asian neighbour South Korea is similarly concerned. Its birth rate is already the world’s lowest and pro-natalist government schemes are failing to change that. The country recorded more deaths than births for the first time in 2020 and that trend continues. Officials fear its overall population will soon plummet to 1970s levels

WHY? 

Quite simply, women are having fewer children. In part, that’s a trend we expect as the world gets richer. Niger (6.73), Angola (5.76) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (5.56) have the world’s highest fertility rates. They are some of the poorest nations. Big families are rarely chosen but a consequence of higher infant mortality and an economic bet on extra providers of household income. 

But developed nations are now falling far below replacement level fertility. At 2.1 children per woman, this is the rate required for a population to exactly replace itself from one generation to the next. 

The only wealthy nation to exceed this rate is Israel. Its anomalous nature can be attributed to a unique sense of an existential battle for existence and the religious zeal of its orthodox community. Otherwise, the trend indicates that more countries will drop below replacement levels as GDP rises.  

DOES IT MATTER? 

Failing to replace generations makes societies lopsided. There are more elderly people around. This not good for the demographic dividend, defined by the UN as: 

The economic growth potential that can result from shifts in a population’s age structure, mainly when the share of the working-age population (15-64) is larger than the non-working-age share of the population (14 and younger, and 65 and older). 

To put it crudely, the working-age population funds the state and the non-working population is a cost. Those costs are rising as funds dry up. And, in an already indebted Western world, how will governments meet these commitments? 

For geopolitical analysts like Peter Zeihan, this is the core driving factor behind the remaking of the modern world: 

Demographics moves really slowly until it doesn’t… I can see this coming, I can see it getting closer, I can see everyone pretending it’s just going to be more of the same. But now it’s here and I can see echoes of the demographic collapse in almost everything that’s going on right now. At its core, it’s a shortage of workers, a shortage of consumers and very soon, a shortage of capital. 

ONE TIME EVENT? 

Less vexed demographers talk about all this as a plateau rather than a collapse. Yes, it will be a nasty short-term shock as states deal with these overrepresented elderly populations. But as that segment dies out, the replacement rate will lower. Smaller populations will not be an issue once proportionality returns. 

Shaw disputes this. Speaking recently on The News Agents, he described it as “perpetual decline”. 

In the next generation, there will be at some point in time fewer older people but because there are fewer parents, you’ll have even fewer children and this spiral never ends.

No country or society has been known to recover from this phenomenon. Shaw doesn’t believe it means we’re all about to go extinct but it necessitates change. 

Pro-natalist policies are increasingly advocated in conservative movements globally. But Shaw is wary of making this a political issue. Rather than fueling the culture wars, he asks how we can restructure modern societies to alleviate the parenting burden on women and make it easier for people to have the children they want.   

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