Long Slide Looms for World Population, With Sweeping Ramifications

One of the more significant articles I have seen recently, highlighting the need for countries and societies to adapt to declining populations. While traditional immigrant receiving countries like Canada, Australia and the USA can blunt the decline somewhat, they will also feel the effects on an aging population.

Just as in climate change where adaptation and reduction strategies are both needed, relying only on immigration, as Canada largely does, to mitigate (slow down) the decline, will not address successfully the longer-term trends.

Politicians, policy makers and stakeholders need to devote more attention to other policy responses beyond simply increased immigration. After all, declining populations in most of our source countries may make Canada relatively less attractive in economic terms:

All over the world, countries are confronting population stagnation and a fertility bust, a dizzying reversal unmatched in recorded history that will make first-birthday parties a rarer sight than funerals, and empty homes a common eyesore.

Maternity wards are already shutting down in Italy. Ghost cities are appearing in northeastern China. Universities in South Korea can’t find enough students, and in Germany, hundreds of thousands of properties have been razed, with the land turned into parks.

Like an avalanche, the demographic forces — pushing toward more deaths than births — seem to be expanding and accelerating. Though some countries continue to see their populations grow, especially in Africa, fertility rates are falling nearly everywhere else. Demographers now predict that by the latter half of the century or possibly earlier, the global population will enter a sustained decline for the first time.

A planet with fewer people could ease pressure on resources, slow the destructive impact of climate change and reduce household burdens for women. But the census announcements this month from China and the United States, which showed the slowest rates of population growth in decades for both countries, also point to hard-to-fathom adjustments.

The strain of longer lives and low fertility, leading to fewer workers and more retirees, threatens to upend how societies are organized — around the notion that a surplus of young people will drive economies and help pay for the old. It may also require a reconceptualization of family and nation. Imagine entire regions where everyone is 70 or older. Imagine governments laying out huge bonuses for immigrants and mothers with lots of children. Imagine a gig economy filled with grandparents and Super Bowl ads promoting procreation.

“A paradigm shift is necessary,” said Frank Swiaczny, a German demographer who was the chief of population trends and analysis for the United Nations until last year. “Countries need to learn to live with and adapt to decline.”

The ramifications and responses have already begun to appear, especially in East Asia and Europe. From Hungary to China, from Sweden to Japan, governments are struggling to balance the demands of a swelling older cohort with the needs of young people whose most intimate decisions about childbearing are being shaped by factors both positive (more work opportunities for women) and negative (persistent gender inequality and high living costs).

The 20th century presented a very different challenge. The global population saw its greatest increase in known history, from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000, as life spans lengthened and infant mortality declined. In some countries — representing about a third of the world’s people — those growth dynamics are still in play. By the end of the century, Nigeria could surpass China in population; across sub-Saharan Africa, families are still having four or five children.

But nearly everywhere else, the era of high fertility is ending. As women have gained more access to education and contraception, and as the anxieties associated with having children continue to intensify, more parents are delaying pregnancy and fewer babies are being born. Even in countries long associated with rapid growth, such as India and Mexico, birthrates are falling toward, or are already below, the replacement rate of 2.1 children per family.

The change may take decades, but once it starts, decline (just like growth) spirals exponentially. With fewer births, fewer girls grow up to have children, and if they have smaller families than their parents did — which is happening in dozens of countries — the drop starts to look like a rock thrown off a cliff.

“It becomes a cyclical mechanism,” said Stuart Gietel Basten, an expert on Asian demographics and a professor of social science and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “It’s demographic momentum.”

Some countries, like the United States, Australia and Canada, where birthrates hover between 1.5 and 2, have blunted the impact with immigrants. But in Eastern Europe, migration out of the region has compounded depopulation, and in large parts of Asia, the “demographic time bomb” that first became a subject of debate a few decades ago has finally gone off.

South Korea’s fertility rate dropped to a record low of 0.92 in 2019 — less than one child per woman, the lowest rate in the developed world. Every month for the past 59 months, the total number of babies born in the country has dropped to a record depth.

That declining birthrate, coupled with a rapid industrialization that has pushed people from rural towns to big cities, has created what can feel like a two-tiered society. While major metropolises like Seoul continue to grow, putting intense pressure on infrastructure and housing, in regional towns it’s easy to find schools shut and abandoned, their playgrounds overgrown with weeds, because there are not enough children.

Expectant mothers in many areas can no longer find obstetricians or postnatal care centers. Universities below the elite level, especially outside Seoul, find it increasingly hard to fill their ranks — the number of 18-year-olds in South Korea has fallen from about 900,000 in 1992 to 500,000 today. To attract students, some schools have offered scholarships and even iPhones.

To goose the birthrate, the government has handed out baby bonuses. It increased child allowances and medical subsidies for fertility treatments and pregnancy. Health officials have showered newborns with gifts of beef, baby clothes and toys. The government is also building kindergartens and day care centers by the hundreds. In Seoul, every bus and subway car has pink seats reserved for pregnant women.

But this month, Deputy Prime Minister Hong Nam-ki admitted that the government — which has spent more than $178 billion over the past 15 years encouraging women to have more babies — was not making enough progress. In many families, the shift feels cultural and permanent.

“My grandparents had six children, and my parents five, because their generations believed in having multiple children,” said Kim Mi-kyung, 38, a stay-at-home parent. “I have only one child. To my and younger generations, all things considered, it just doesn’t pay to have many children.”

Thousands of miles away, in Italy, the sentiment is similar, with a different backdrop.

In Capracotta, a small town in southern Italy, a sign in red letters on an 18th-century stone building looking on to the Apennine Mountains reads “Home of School Kindergarten” — but today, the building is a nursing home.

Residents eat their evening broth on waxed tablecloths in the old theater room.

“There were so many families, so many children,” said Concetta D’Andrea, 93, who was a student and a teacher at the school and is now a resident of the nursing home. “Now there is no one.”

The population in Capracotta has dramatically aged and contracted — from about 5,000 people to 800. The town’s carpentry shops have shut down. The organizers of a soccer tournament struggled to form even one team.

About a half-hour away, in the town of Agnone, the maternity ward closed a decade ago because it had fewer than 500 births a year, the national minimum to stay open. This year, six babies were born in Agnone.

“Once you could hear the babies in the nursery cry, and it was like music,” said Enrica Sciullo, a nurse who used to help with births there and now mostly takes care of older patients. “Now there is silence and a feeling of emptiness.”

In a speech last Friday during a conference on Italy’s birthrate crisis, Pope Francis said the “demographic winter” was still “cold and dark.”

More people in more countries may soon be searching for their own metaphors. Birth projections often shift based on how governments and families respond, but according to projections by an international team of scientists published last year in The Lancet, 183 countries and territories — out of 195 — will have fertility rates below replacement level by 2100.

Their model shows an especially sharp decline for China, with its population expected to fall from 1.41 billion now to about 730 million in 2100. If that happens, the population pyramid would essentially flip. Instead of a base of young workers supporting a narrower band of retirees, China would have as many 85-year-olds as 18-year-olds.

China’s rust belt, in the northeast, saw its population drop by 1.2 percent in the past decade, according to census figures released on Tuesday. In 2016, Heilongjiang Province became the first in the country to have its pension system run out of money. In Hegang, a “ghost city” in the province that has lost almost 10 percent of its population since 2010, homes cost so little that people compare them to cabbage.

Many countries are beginning to accept the need to adapt, not just resist. South Korea is pushing for universities to merge. In Japan, where adult diapers now outsell ones for babies, municipalities have been consolidated as towns age and shrink. In Sweden, some cities have shifted resources from schools to elder care. And almost everywhere, older people are being asked to keep working. Germany, which previously raised its retirement age to 67, is now considering a bump to 69.

Going further than many other nations, Germany has also worked through a program of urban contraction: Demolitions have removed around 330,000 units from the housing stock since 2002.

And if the goal is revival, a few green shoots can be found. After expanding access to affordable child care and paid parental leave, Germany’s fertility rate recently increased to 1.54, up from 1.3 in 2006. Leipzig, which once was shrinking, is now growing again after reducing its housing stock and making itself more attractive with its smaller scale.

“Growth is a challenge, as is decline,” said Mr. Swiaczny, who is now a senior research fellow at the Federal Institute for Population Research in Germany.

Demographers warn against seeing population decline as simply a cause for alarm. Many women are having fewer children because that’s what they want. Smaller populations could lead to higher wages, more equal societies, lower carbon emissions and a higher quality of life for the smaller numbers of children who are born.

But, said Professor Gietel Basten, quoting Casanova: “There is no such thing as destiny. We ourselves shape our lives.”

The challenges ahead are still a cul-de-sac — no country with a serious slowdown in population growth has managed to increase its fertility rate much beyond the minor uptick that Germany accomplished. There is little sign of wage growth in shrinking countries, and there is no guarantee that a smaller population means less stress on the environment.

Many demographers argue that the current moment may look to future historians like a period of transition or gestation, when humans either did or did not figure out how to make the world more hospitable — enough for people to build the families that they want.

Surveys in many countries show that young people would like to be having more children, but face too many obstacles.

Anna Parolini tells a common story. She left her small hometown in northern Italy to find better job opportunities. Now 37, she lives with her boyfriend in Milan and has put her desire to have children on hold.

She is afraid her salary of less than 2,000 euros a month would not be enough for a family, and her parents still live where she grew up.

“I don’t have anyone here who could help me,” she said. “Thinking of having a child now would make me gasp.”

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/22/world/global-population-shrinking.html?action=click&module=Spotlight&pgtype=Homepage

For more conventional thinking, see the Foreign Affairs article by , which is similar to the arguments of the Century Initiative, Irving Studin and others. Only at the end does the author acknowledge that “quality” (e.g., human capital, skills etc) matter as much if not more than numbers):

The United States’ global preeminence owes a great deal to demographics. After the collapse and fragmenting of the Soviet Union, the United States became the world’s third most populous country, behind the giants China and India. By comparison to other developed countries, the United States maintained unusually high levels of fertility and immigration—a phenomenon I termed “American demographic exceptionalism” in these pages in 2019. Since the end of the Cold War, the overall American population and its number of working-age people (between the ages of 20 and 64) have grown more rapidly than those of other developed countries—and faster, too, than those of rivals China and Russia. Growing working-age populations boost national productivity in economies run by governments that can successfully develop and tap human resources. For modern welfare states, the slower aging of the population forestalls some of the fiscal burdens built into current arrangements.  

To the extent that crude demographic trends matter in world affairs, they have been running to the United States’ advantage for some time. But big changes are underway. The initial returns from the U.S. 2020 census and the reports about last year’s birth totals offered sobering news: with the slowdown of population growth and steady declines in national fertility, the United States now seems to be charting a less optimistic demographic path, one leading to a grayer and less populous future.   

The United States may be losing its advantage and becoming less exceptional as Americans choose to have fewer children. To the degree that lower birthrates signal diminished popular confidence about the future, the drop-off in fertility warrants attention and perhaps concern. Slower population growth could also have troublesome longer-term implications for Washington’s pay-as-you-go entitlements for senior citizens and other social welfare programs. But a look under the hood of the latest population data and projections suggests that there is no immediate reason to be alarmed about the country’s prospective international standing. The United States will remain in a strong demographic position with respect to its competitors for decades to come.

DECELERATION AND DECLINE

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 “headline” numbers formally ratify something demographers already knew: the United States’ population growth has been decelerating steadily since 1990—and is now at the slowest recorded tempo in the country’s history, apart from the Great Depression era. Between 2010 and 2020, the U.S. population grew by an estimated 7.4 percent. That is a distinctly slower rate of growth than that of the previous decade, when the United States’ population grew by just under ten percent.

Interestingly—some would say surprisingly—immigration does not seem to have much to do with this slowdown: indirect indications suggest net immigration amounted to about a million people a year over the 2010s, roughly the same level as in the previous decade. Rather, changes in birth and death trends explain the shift. “Natural increase”—the total number of births minus deaths—averaged 1.7 million annually for the decade between 2000 and 2009 but just 1.2 million between 2010 and 2019. In 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, it fell below 900,000, the lowest annual sum on record since at least 1933, when the United States’ nationwide birth and death registration system was completed.

The falloff in U.S. natural increase in the 2010s was partly due to an increase in annual deaths—an entirely predictable result of the aging of the overall population. But the slump in births played a greater role. Birth totals in 2019 were down by over half a million from their all-time high of 4.3 million in 2007, just before the Great Recession.

Total fertility rates—a measure of births per woman per lifetime—tell the American childbearing story on a more human scale. For the two decades leading up to the Great Recession, the United States’ total fertility rate averaged just over two births per woman. Between 2007 and 2019, however, the U.S. rate dropped from over 2.1 (just above the level for long-term population replacement) to 1.7, below replacement level. That was the lowest rate ever recorded for the United States—until now. The provisional birth figures for 2020 indicate another four percent drop, to about 3.6 million,  implying a 2020 national total fertility rate of around 1.64—more than 20 percent below replacement level.

The available data document a substantial and remarkably widespread fertility reduction since the Great Recession. Demographers are wary of supplying definitive reasons for such changes. Economic concerns may play a part, with some blamingthe high costs of child-rearing for their reluctance to have more children or any children at all. Younger generations may also have different priorities and cultural attitudes from those of their predecessors; the rising cohort of millennials, who make up most of today’s population of childbearing ages, is decidedly less religious and also less sanguine about the future.

AN ENDURING ADVANTAGE

But the demographic future remains relatively bright for the United States. The 2020 census results seem far from harbingers of doom, especially when placed in a broader context. Take, for instance, some of the low-end projections of future U.S. population growth. The UN Population Division’s “low variant” models are instructive: these assign the United States a total fertility rate below 1.4 for the second half of the 2020s—a nationwide average lower, in other words, than that of any single U.S. state in 2019—and an even lower rate during the 2030s and 2040s. Even with this strikingly low fertility rate, the projected U.S. population would still rise for the next generation, peaking in 2047 at just under 350 million people, where it would roughly remain through 2050. The number of working-age people would likewise rise modestly during the next quarter century in this scenario—to a projected 2050 level about five percent higher than the corresponding total for 2020.

As that exercise demonstrates, the 2020 census results should not cause a “depopulationist” panic. Even with extreme and unrelenting sub-replacement fertility levels, the United States’ total population and working-age population are on course to keep growing. Continuing migration and the “population momentum” built into the United States’ current demographic structure (as rising cohorts move into age groups currently occupied by comparatively smaller cohorts) would push the overall U.S. population and working-age population to higher totals for at least another generation.

As a result, the United States will likely retain a demographic edge over other great powers. China, Japan, Russia, and the countries of the European Union have all had sub-replacement fertility rates for much longer than the United States. Their current fertility levels are all lower than that of the United States. And their populations are all older than the U.S. population today. (China has the most youthful population of those other powers, but its median age has already exceeded that of the United States.)

The United States’ most recent year of achieving replacement-level fertility was 2008. By contrast, Japan and the EU fell into sub-replacement fertility in the 1970s, China and Russia in the early 1990s. Although the United States’ surfeit of births over deaths has been steadily dwindling for over a decade, deaths have outnumbered births in the EU since about 2012, and Eurostat projects the combined population of the 27 EU member states will begin shrinking around 2025. Japan has had a surplus of deaths over births since 2007 and a continuously shrinking population since 2011. Russia has seen nearly 14 million more deaths than births since the fall of the Soviet Union.

As for China (as I noted in Foreign Affairs back in 2019 and again this year), the working-age population is already in decline; depopulation is set to commence within the coming decade—perhaps much sooner—and the country is on a path toward extremely rapid population aging, with all that implies for economic performance and domestic social need. The particulars of China’s future demographic course will become clearer when the details of China’s 2020 census are divulged—but Beijing’s unexplained month-long delay in announcing even summary findings from the count suggests official displeasure with those results. Among other unpleasant demographic surprises, the Chinese Communist Party has seen births plunge since the suspension of the regime’s harsh one-child policy in 2015. China’s still imperfect vital registration system tallied almost 18 million births in 2016, but the 2020 census reports only 12 million births in 2020. That extremely low reading may reflect the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic (a crisis the regime insists it has always had well under control)—but as demographers learn more, they may find that China’s demographic slide is progressing even more rapidly than they thought.

Of all the presumptive great powers, only India stands to see greater and more rapid total population and working-age population growth than the United States over the coming generation and to remain a more youthful society than the United States. As is well known, in just a few years India will displace China as the world’s most populous country and will surpass China in working-age population shortly after that. But India is now entering sub-replacement fertility, too: UN estimates suggest India’s under 20 population is already declining, and India’s working-age population could peak before 2050.

QUALITY, NOT JUST QUANTITY

The dip in fertility in the United States does suggest that clear-cut U.S. demographic exceptionalism may be over, at least for the time being. The United States will likely surrender its place as the third most populous country in the world to Nigeria at some point before 2050. But it will remain a fairly young and vital society, at least with respect to other developed countries and to competitors such as China and Russia.

Nevertheless, U.S. strategists and policymakers should not take too much comfort in this fact. Raw population numbers won’t on their own strengthen the United States in its competition with others. The United States must also maintain its edge over competitors in developing human capital—a lead that has been dwindling for decades. Revitalizing health, education, and other facets of the country’s human resource base is an urgent task in its own right—and will pay geopolitical dividends.

Source: https://link.foreignaffairs.com/click/23941018.88243/aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZm9yZWlnbmFmZmFpcnMuY29tL2FydGljbGVzL3VuaXRlZC1zdGF0ZXMvMjAyMS0wNS0yNC9hbWVyaWNhLWhhc250LWxvc3QtaXRzLWRlbW9ncmFwaGljLWFkdmFudGFnZT91dG1fbWVkaXVtPW5ld3NsZXR0ZXJzJnV0bV9zb3VyY2U9ZmF0b2RheSZ1dG1fY2FtcGFpZ249QW1lcmljYSUyMEhhc24lRTIlODAlOTl0JTIwTG9zdCUyMEl0cyUyMERlbW9ncmFwaGljJTIwQWR2YW50YWdlJnV0bV9jb250ZW50PTIwMjEwNTI0/5e19405c52ba1e34bd567ea3Cc9732586