The paranoia of population decline


For two centuries, overpopulation has haunted the imagination of the modern world. According to Thomas Malthus, writing in 1798, human population growth would always surpass agricultural production, meaning “gigantic inevitable famine” would “with one mighty blow level the population with the food of the world.”
Later, eugenicists like Margaret Sanger in the 1920s fretted over the wrong people reproducing too much, creating what she called “human weeds,” a “dead weight of human waste” to inherit the earth. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich predicted that in the 1970s, “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death” because of the “population bomb.” These days, environmentalists worry that too many people will overload the natural world’s resources and destroy the planet with excessive consumption and pollution, leading to catastrophic global warming.
A strain of anti-humanism has always run through population paranoia, a notion that human beings are a problem rather than a resource. This is exactly what the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi argued. Regarding this, if my memory is serving correctly, once he said that the newly born are coming in to the world not only with the mouth to eat, but also with two hands to work.
But as Jonathan Last, a senior writer for the Weekly Standard documents in his new book entitled “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting”, it is not overpopulation that threatens the well-being of the human race, it is under-population. As he writes, throughout recorded human history, declining populations have always been followed by very bad things. Particularly for our modern, high-tech, capitalist world of consumers who buy, entrepreneurs who create wealth and jobs, and workers whose taxes fund social welfare entitlements, people are an even more critical resource.
Jonathan Last in his book provides a reader-friendly but thorough analysis of the demographic crisis afflicting the West and the very bad things that will follow population decline. The facts of population decline are dramatic. Women must average a Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of 2.1 children apiece for populations to remain stable. But across the developed world, and increasingly everywhere else, except few countries including Ethiopia, fertility is quickly declining below this number. All developed countries are already below the 2.1 line and the rates of decline among developing countries are, in most cases, even steeper than in the developed ones.
Japan and Italy, for example, have a 1.4 TFR, a mathematical tipping point at which the population will decline by 50 percent in 45 years. As for the rest of Europe, by 2050 only three countries in the EU, which today has an average rate of 1.5 TFR, will not be experiencing population declines. Those countries are France, Luxembourg, and Ireland.
Immigration from developing countries will not provide a long-term solution, as fertility rates are declining there as well. The average fertility rate for Latin America was six children per woman in the 1960s; by 2005, it had dropped to 2.5. At that rate of decline, within a few decades, Latin American countries will likely have a fertility rate lower than that of the United States.
According to Jonathan Last, the most general cause of population decline is modernity itself. Birth-rates started declining in the nineteenth century when industrialization and technological advances began to accelerate. Better nutrition, sanitation, and health care, for example, have reduced infant mortality in America from about 300 babies dying out of 1,000 live births in 1850, to about six today. More babies surviving lessened the need for multiple pregnancies, which in turn reduced family size.
During the Industrial Revolution, migration to cities made children less useful than they were on farms and more expensive. Easier divorce, reliable birth control, cohabitation replacing marriage, and women entering the workforce in greater numbers since 1990, about 70 percent of women have been working at any given time, have all contributed to the decline in marriage and the diminishing centrality of children in people’s lives. These forces have created disincentives to reproduction, not the least being the USD 1.1 million price tag for rearing and educating a child today.
Two larger cultural trends have reinforced the effects of technological developments and industrialization. As Last points out, fertility rates among the educated classes began falling in the middle of the eighteenth century, which was about the same time as the rise of capitalism. The pursuit of individual initiative and self-interest contributed to the erosion of community and family. Economic advancement requires mobility and fewer obligations. Constraints hamper self-improvement and risk-taking, after all. Having children, perhaps the greatest constraint of all, became less and less a factor in people’s calculations of their self-interests. Something else would be required to get people to procreate.
That imperative to reproduce used to be grounded in religion, but during the eighteenth century, secularization began to loosen the hold that religious practice, actually going to church rather than just self-identifying by sect, used to have on people’s behaviour. The effect of religious practice on fertility is obvious from statistics. Indeed, the effects of religion on fertility can be so powerful that even if people are not the churchgoing type themselves, they will be affected if their parents are.
The dire economic and social effect of plummeting birth-rates reminds that marriage and childbirth are not just private lifestyle choices. A country with fewer children becomes, on average, increasingly older. Cities and towns begin to empty, while the cost of caring for retirees and elderly sick people skyrockets. Old people spend less and invest less, shrinking capital pools for the new businesses that create new jobs. Entrepreneurs do not come from among the aged. Countries with a higher median age have a lower percentage of entrepreneurs.
Most important, a shrinking labour force means fewer workers contributing the payroll taxes that finance old-age care. According to the latest ILO data, the Social Security program is already beginning to be impacted by the decline in the worker-to-retiree ratio.
Finally, foreign policy will increasingly be impacted by the global decline in fertility. Those who fear China as a future superpower threat to their interests should remember that by 2050, China’s population will be declining by 20 million every five years, and one out of four people will be over the age of 65. China’s public pension system covers only 365 million people and is unfunded by 150 percent of GDP. Jonathan Last in his book argues that what we need to prepare for is not a shooting war with an expansionist China, but a declining superpower with a rapidly contracting economic base and an unstable political structure. It’s not clear which scenario is more worrisome.
Solving such a complex problem as declining fertility is not going to be easy. As with many social problems, government intervention isn’t very successful. Bonus payments to expectant mothers, paid paternity leave, public holidays, “Motherhood Medals,” and tax incentives and subsidies have barely moved the needle in Russia, Japan, and Singapore. People cannot be bribed into making babies.
The best governments can do is help people have the children they do want. A college degree doesn’t prepare people for specific jobs, but rather gives employers an idea of their intelligence and work habits, something that can be done more cheaply and efficiently. Making child-friendly housing more affordable, letting workers telecommute to lessen the career-costs of having children, welcoming more fecund immigrants, and ending the hostility to religion and the faithful, “if for no other reason than they’re the ones who create most of the future taxpayers,” are some of Jonathan Last’s solutions. Unfortunately, they are as unlikely as they are sensible.