What Happens When Half The World Stops Making Babies
By Mike SeccombeMarch 12, 2013
We are now in the middle of perhaps the greatest demographic change in recorded history.
On October 31, 2011, the United Nations held an unaccountably cheery media event at its New York headquarters, to mark the occasion of the world’s population passing seven billion.
It was a statistically questionable exercise, for it acknowledged that no one could be sure of the planet’s exact population on any given day. The UN called it “symbolic”.
The question is why, if they were going to celebrate any major demographic development with such faux-certainty, did the powers that be at the UN not make it the really important one, the one which gives some hope for this overcrowded planet.
I mean this one: half the population of the world now lives in countries where those of childbearing age are having fewer than two children on average.
That’s a development so significant that it’s worth saying again, in a different way. The fertility rate of half the world is below replacement level.
We can’t be sure exactly when the world reached this tipping point, any more than we can be sure exactly what the total population is, but the UN stats indicate it came a little after we reached the seven billion. If we wanted to be “symbolic” we could say it happened today.
The precise date is unimportant. What is important is that we are now exactly in the middle of perhaps the greatest demographic change in recorded history. Human numbers have grown almost uninterrupted — other than during for a couple of brief downturns occasioned by disasters such as the black plague — for thousands of years.
Biology and the scriptures urged us to be fruitful and to multiply. Now, quite suddenly in relative terms, half the people of the world have decided not to multiply.
This is not to say population has peaked. Half the world is still reproducing at more than replacement rate, and there is a lag of about 30 years, or one generation, between the time that fertility falls and the time population does.
What has peaked is the rate of population growth. It took just 12.5 years for the world’s population to grow from four to five billion, 11.8 years for it to grow from five to six, but it has taken almost 13 years to grow to seven billion.
And birth rates across most of the world are falling far more quickly than predicted even a few years ago.
The way things are going, it’s entirely possible that in little more than a generation world population will stop growing, and that our children will live to see a planet with many millions, maybe a billion, fewer people on it than there are now.
They could see a world where labour moves as freely as capital, as was the case until the 20th century. They could also see new social tensions, fostered by politicians exploiting racist attitudes. They could see mass unemployment, if our economic system fails to adapt to a low-growth world. Or they could see a world in which fewer people all get a bigger share.
What our children will experience depends on how we handle an unprecedented demographic shift that is literally changing the complexion of the world, darkening its features as the relative numbers of Europeans and east Asians decline and the numbers of south Asians and Africans increase.
Changing ethnicity is the least of it really, as you’ll shortly see.
First, though, let’s look at what has already happened, and how.
In order for a society to keep its population stable, each woman needs to produce an average of 2.1 children. Demographers call this statistic – the average number of births per woman – the Total Fertility Rate. The population of any society which has a TFR of below 2.1 for any length of time will begin to shrink (assuming, of course, that the numbers are not made up through migration). It will also get older on average.
Much of the western world has had fertility rates below the magic 2.1 level for more than a generation and, as a result, it has begun to shrink and/or age.
Take Italy, for example.
When the next Pope moves into the Vatican, he will move to the epicentre of the failure of his church’s authority. Despite Catholicism’s opposition to fertility control, Italians have taken to it in a big way, and there just aren’t a lot of little Catholic babies being born anymore in Italy, which is now one of the least fertile nations in Europe.
Italy’s total fertility rate falls way short of that 2.1 replacement level. Over the five years to 2010 it was just 1.38. As a result, Italy now is also among the oldest nations on Earth, with a median age of 43.2. This places it among a handful of countries which have only three working-age people for each older, retired person.
But Italy is by no means unique among nations, or even an extreme example of an ageing population. Europe as a whole has been reproducing below replacement rate since the mid-1970s. Between 2005 and 2010, according to UN figures, the continent’s fertility rate was just 1.53.
As a result, the only thing preventing Europe from shrinking is immigration. The same applies to Australia and almost all the rest of the developed world. Unless these countries can find a way to get their citizens to make more babies again — which, as the Pope and policy-makers know, is very hard to do — the only solution is to import people from the less developed world.
The xenophobes might not like it, but without it, the future is Japan.
Like Europe, Japan’s fertility rate has been below replacement level since the mid-1970s. But unlike Europe, Japan has almost no immigration.
Given that there is a lag of about 30 years, one generation, between the time a country’s reproductive rate falls below replacement level and the time it begins to decline, Japan’s population now is falling. And the rate of decline is increasing sharply.
By the turn of the century, according to the UN’s Population Division projections, Japan’s population will most likely fall by a quarter. And this projection may well be understating things. The current rate of reproduction would see Japan’s population more than halve, from around 125 million in 2010 to about 55 million in 2100.
And as we know, as birth rates decline in a country, the average age of its citizens increases. In 2010, the median age of the Japanese was 44.7. If it maintains its current low fertility rate, the median age will be 56 by 2050, and 60.4 by 2100.
If you want to understand why Japan’s economy has remained flat despite repeated efforts at economic stimulus over the past 20 years, and also predict the likely outcome of the latest huge effort at stimulus, taking a quick look at the country’s demographic profile is a good way to start.
Again, Japan is far from being the starkest example of low fertility. Eighteen other countries have lower rates of reproduction. The most extreme is Singapore, which is now one of the most crowded places on Earth, but which could be much emptier soon, unless its people lift their fertility rate from its current 0.78.
At that rate, without immigration, by 2100, three generations from now, Singapore’s population would be down more than 90 per cent, from the current 5.2 million to well under half a million, mostly geriatric, citizens.
Singapore is not Japan, however; it is importing people at a phenomenal rate. Forty per cent of its total population are non-citizens. The “non-resident” population grew 7.2 per cent in 2012 alone.
This is creating a backlash: “Singapore for the Singaporeans” is the slogan of protest. Community pressure recently forced the government to reduce the intake of foreigners. Even the official glossy government “population brief” says: “We recognise that new immigrants take time to integrate into our society, and taking in too many too quickly could weaken social cohesion.”
These words eerily echo former Australian prime minister John Howard, when he was warning about Asian immigration in 1988. Ironic that an Asian government now should be saying the same thing.
But before we go further into the consequences of declining population, let’s get back to the big global picture.
It should be noted that the UN still thinks it most likely that the world’s population will keep growing until about 2100, topping out at about 10 billion.
But that assumes a recovery in the fertility rate of many of the low-fertility countries, which to date has shown little sign of occurring. In fact, across much of Europe and in America the recession has sent birth rates plunging again. And many demographers believe it is likely the UN is also over-estimating the fertility of China.
Several well-respected forecasters think the population peak will come lower and sooner than this. The UN itself produces an alternative “low growth” model, which foresees global population peaking only about 30 years from now, at a little over eight billion, then declining fast to be about six billion by 2100.
An interesting recent exercise in number crunching, conducted by US economist David Merkel, using fertility data from the CIA World Factbook, concluded world population would peak even sooner, just 17 years from now, at 8.5 billion.
The reason there are many differing estimates is that there are so many variables involved in predicting population — not just birth rates but death rates, life expectancy and migration, and small variations in the assumptions used in the various models compound into large differences over time.
But the trend evidence is the same everywhere; fertility rates are coming down, and falling much faster than generally predicted only a few years ago.
This might seem a comforting development to those of us who grew up fearing the Malthusian nightmare presented in Paul Elrlich’s 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb, with its predictions of exponential population growth, environmental catastrophe and mass starvation.
However, the likely repercussions of this shift are more complex. For a start, environmental impact is not a function of population alone, but of population combined with consumption and technology.
And instead of one population problem, we now have two. In some parts of the world — the poorer parts, by and large — population continues to grow apace, while in others — Europe, East Asia, the Americas — there has been what many see as an over-correction. At one extreme is Niger, where the fertility rate is 7.16. At the other extreme, as we mentioned earlier, is Singapore, at 0.78, whose citizens appear intent on extinction.
No doubt the world’s population has to decline to be sustainable in the long term, says Peter McDonald, professor of demography at the Australian National University and president of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population. But it has to decline in an orderly way.
“Countries need to have a birth rate not too far from replacement level, somewhere in the 1.7 to 2.0 area. Once you drop below that, you cause too much damage to your age structure,” he says.
In other words, you have too many old people for the young people to support.
“If you have a birth rate of one,” he says, “that means your population falls by half in one generation, which is about 30 years. After three generations you’re down to one-eighth of your starting population. And one-sixteenth after four.
“If the Japanese keep their birthrate where it is they’ll quickly become extinct.”
“Equally, if you’re much above two and you’re a big country, you’re growing way too much.”
Let’s deal with overpopulation first, because the places in which it is concentrated, Africa and south Asia, will be as important to our future — maybe more important — than the declining nations of Europe and east Asia. Already Indians make up the biggest part of Australia’s skilled migration, for example.
Africa is going to be where the biggest action is in coming decades, because it is the place on Earth with the greatest untapped resources, both natural and human. It will have the greatest population growth into the future. It is what China was a generation ago, and could become what China is today — the economic powerhouse of the world.
Exaggeration? Consider this: in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund, economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa was estimated at 6 per cent. Export growth was more than 30 per cent.
This was while Europe was mired in recession, the United States was staggering along and even China was slowing.
And guess which country is the biggest investor in Africa, and its largest trading partner? China. As in so many areas, from high-speed transport to renewable energy, China is proving more far-sighted — if not necessarily more benign — than western nations.
But Africa and south Asia have a big problem to overcome: too many people.
For most of human history, people had many children, because many children died. Agrarian or basic industrial economies also needed lots of labour. In addition, where there was no prospect of saving for retirement or getting a pension, your offspring were your safety net in old age. A big family is still seen as an advantage in societies characterised by high infant and maternal mortality, economic underdevelopment, inadequate infrastructure and poor education.
In more advanced economies, though, that advantage disappears. It goes instead to those who have fewer offspring and who put more resources into the education of those offspring — to those who do brain work and who save for their futures.
The keys to lowering fertility rates are pretty well agreed, too. The best things you can do are empower and educate women, provide access to family planning and foster secular institutions, stable government and economies.
Some places, notably China and India, have also employed coercive measures such as sterilisation campaigns and denial of benefits to those who have too many children. Apart from the unacceptability of such measures on human rights grounds, though, they have been of mixed success. China’s population has stopped growing (and is about to begin to shrink quickly), in part due to 32 years of the one-child policy, and in part due to the changing demographic realities of a developing economy.
India’s population still is growing quickly, but its fertility rate has declined sharply.
Ready access to birth control has changed the developing world, mostly for the economic better, although there have been some problems along the way. In some countries, a preference for male offspring has led to selective termination of pregnancies, which brings its own problems. In some Indian cities, for example, there are only 800 women for every 1000 men, an imbalance seen as a contributing factor to general social instability, violence and sex crimes.
Overall, though, policies directed at lowering fertility have wrought an astonishing change. Even most of south Asia is moving rapidly towards stabilising its fertility. Bangladesh is just above replacement rate now, and India is about 2.7, down from 3.3 a decade ago. Pakistan is more problematic, but it too has come down sharply over the past 10 years, from about 5 to a bit over 3. Of course, the 30-odd-year lag between the reduction in fertility and the reduction in population means the numbers of people born in these countries will continue to grow for decades yet.
By mid-century, India will be by far the world’s most populous country.
Africa is more difficult. Its fertility rate is falling, but more slowly, and still is above 4.5.
There are several likely reasons for this: the continent’s troubled economies, political instability and lack of education among them.
Yet over the past couple of decades, the resources going to family planning in sub-Saharan Africa have declined, says Jose Miguel Guzman, chief of the population and development branch of the United Nations Population Fund.
Again, this change is due to several factors: the political influence of the anti-birth-control religious right in America, the developed world’s economic crisis of the past five years, and the diversion of aid to other concerns, notably addressing Africa’s HIV epidemic.
“I’ve seen a very illuminating graph that shows global assistance for HIV/AIDS and family planning. They are inverse curves,” Peter McDonald says.
Over the past couple of years, though, there have been increased efforts to again develop family planning programs in Africa.
“The Gates Foundation is now involved and providing substantial support,” McDonald says.
“It’s not just aid of course, but you need to have stable governments capable of running family-planning programs.”
The hope, he says, is that increased investment in Africa and consequent economic growth will do for Africa what it did for Asia: bring greater stability and cause the birth rate to fall sharply.
We might add that western authorities, even the political conservatives in the United States, are beginning to recognise their self-interest in a more stable, lower-fertility south Asia and Africa. It’s not just a matter of resources. They are waking up to what is sometimes called the demographics of terrorism.
Countries with large numbers of young, poor men breed extremism. Just look at the 10 countries with the highest fertility rates. The list includes Niger, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda, the Republic of the Congo, and one non-African nation, Afghanistan.
Not far behind, in fertility terms, we have Angola, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen, Gaza, and Nigeria, among others.
The political right in the developed world is apt to blame Islam for terrorism. But the real roots of the problem are youth, masculinity, poverty and the lack of education, opportunity, and good governance.
And those things all relate, directly or indirectly, to demography.
Consider three big Islamic countries in which Islamic terrorism does not flourish: Bangladesh, Indonesia and Turkey, which are not only democratic and developing, but whose respective fertility rates of 2.38, 2.19 and 2.15, put them very close to replacement rate.
And consider this also: as the populations of the developed world decline and age, working-age people, from whatever source, will be in great demand. The asylum seekers so often scorned today — those Afghans, Sri Lankans, and Africans — are likely to be the immigrants we value tomorrow.
Bottom line: there are lots of reasons to care about the future of the high-fertility countries, beyond altruism.
The problems of low-fertility, of declining populations, are a whole lot more difficult to solve, for they challenge the foundation of the social and economic structures of the the developed world, and therefore of the whole world as we know it.