U.S. Population Growth Has Nearly Flatlined. Is That So Bad?

Well worth reading, a useful and needed counterpoint to all the fretting about demographic decline and an aging population. Canadian policy makers and others need to think more about how to manage an aging population that mainly advocating for increased immigration to slow the trend:

A Demographic Crisis.” “A Blinking Light Ahead.” “The Death of Hope.” Those are some of the dire headlines that have been written in recent years about the sluggish pace of U.S. population growth, which in 2021 fell to its lowest rate ever — just 0.1 percent.

While the pandemic played a major role in driving last year’s decline, the country’s population growth has been slowing for much of the last decade, depressed by declining fertility rates, a surge in “deaths of despair” and lower levels of legal immigration.

But is a population slowdown as much of a crisis as some have made it out to be, or could it actually bring welcome changes? Here’s a look at a longstanding demographic debate.

For a population to replenish itself in the absence of immigration, demographers estimate that there must be, on average, about 2.1 births per woman. In the United States, the fertility rate has been consistently below that level since 2007. And it’s not alone: While some countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, are still growing rapidly, the global average fertility rate has been falling for decades, and even China’s population, the world’s largest, may very soon reach its peak.

As a result, the United Nations now predicts that the human population will start declining by the end of the century. (Other demographers have projected an even earlier peak.) Some countries — notably Japan and South Korea, whose fertility rates are among the lowest in the world — are already shrinking.

Why are fertility rates falling? The trend is typically attributed to a combination of economic prosperity, which leads to lower infant mortality, and greater gender equality. “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,” Damien Cave, Emma Bubola and Choe Sang-Hun reported for The Times last year. Because many of those babies then go on to have smaller families than their parents did, they added, “the drop starts to look like a rock thrown off a cliff.”

It’s a stark reversal of the demographic trends of the 1900s, during which the coincidence of high fertility rates and lengthening life spans caused the global population to nearly quadruple in size, from 1.6 billion to six billion. And for much of the 20th century, it was the specter of overpopulation, not stagnation or decline, that animated dystopian visions of the future.

Which raises a question: How much stock should we really be placing in population forecasts? As David Adam explained in Nature last year, medium-term projections are usually quite accurate, as most people who will be alive in 20 to 30 years have already been born.

But over the longer term, projections diverge and become less reliable, in part because technological and environmental shocks that could cause demographic swings are impossible to predict, as Vox’s Kelsey Piper has written: “If, for example, climate change drives currently developed countries back into poverty and drives their birthrates back up, the estimates are poorly equipped to account for that. On the other hand, if more reliable contraceptives are developed and virtually end unintended pregnancies the world over, birthrates could fall much faster than predicted.”

For many futurists, the primary challenge posed by declining population growth is economic: When people live longer and have fewer babies, the population ages, leaving fewer working-age adults to support a country’s swelling number of retirees.

“Older people are more prone to illness, and many rely on publicly funded pensions and eventually require caregiving,” Stephanie H. Murray wrote in The Atlantic in February. “Many countries, including the U.S., are already struggling to meet the needs of the rapidly growing elderly population.”

This can create a kind of national languishing, as the Times columnist Ross Douthat argued last year: “If you assume that dynamism and growth are desirable things (not everyone does, but that’s a separate debate), then for the developed world to be something more than just a rich museum, at some point it needs to stop growing ever-older, with a dwindling younger generation struggling in the shadow of societal old age.”

Aging may take a particularly heavy toll on middle-income countries. Historically, as industrialized countries have become richer, their labor force grew more rapidly than their nonworking population, providing a “demographic dividend.” But in some developing countries, including Brazil and China, fertility rates have fallen to around or below replacement level much more quickly than they did for their higher-income counterparts, and their populations now face the risk of getting old before getting rich.

A population slowdown can be a symptom of other national problems. For example, as Derek Thompson has noted in The Atlantic, while declining fertility is often a sign of female empowerment, it can also be a sign of its opposite, as suggested by the growing gap between how many children Americans say they want and how many they have. “There are many potential explanations for this gap,” Thompson wrote, “but one is that the U.S. has made caring for multiple children too expensive and cumbersome for even wealthy parents, due to a shortage of housing, the rising cost of child care, and the paucity of long-term federal support for children.”

To see how population stagnation or even decline need not spell disaster, you can look at countries where it’s already occurring, as Daniel Moss, a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies, did last year. Take Japan: “Despite the caricature of the country as an economic failure in the grip of terminal decline, life goes on,” he wrote. “True, growth in overall G.D.P. has been fairly anemic in past few decades, but G.D.P. per capita has held up well.” What’s more, he added, Japan’s unemployment rate is very low and has remained so throughout the pandemic (it was 2.6 percent in July).

Japan’s example lends some credence to the view of Kim Stanley Robinson, a widely acclaimed science-fiction writer, who believes that an aging population with a smaller work force could actually lead to economic prosperity. “It sounds like full employment to me,” he argued in The Washington Post last year. “The precarity and immiseration of the unemployed would disappear as everyone had access to work that gave them an income and dignity and meaning.”

The challenges of an aging population could push countries to pursue policies that improve quality of life:

  • One 2019 analysis estimated that if the European Union eliminated inequities in educational attainment and in women’s and immigrants’ labor force participation, it could cancel out more than half of the labor force decline it might otherwise experience by 2060.
  • Another way governments have responded to labor shortages caused by population aging is by investing more in the automation of work, an M.I.T. study found last year. As The Times’s John Yoon reported last month, “The prospect of a shrinking work force has put South Korea at the forefront of developing robots and artificial intelligence for the workplace.”
  • In the view of the Times columnist Paul Krugman, the biggest economic problem of an aging population isn’t increased strain on the social safety net, but rather weak investment from businesses anticipating reduced consumer demand. If that scenario comes to pass, though, “why not put the money to work for the public good?” he wrote last year. “Why not borrow cheaply and use the funds to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, invest in the health and education of our children, and more? This would be good for our society, good for the future, and would also provide a cushion against future recessions.”

Fertility rate declines may also be making climate change easier to combat, albeit not in the way many think: As Sarah Kaplan of The Washington Post has explained, fossil fuel consumption is driven primarily by increases in affluence, not the number of people on the planet per se. So while population growth in poor countries hasn’t led to large increases in planet-warming emissions, a sudden baby boom in high-income countries like the United States almost certainly would.

For some demographers, the prospect of population stagnation or decline isn’t any more a cause for alarm than population growth was; it’s simply a change that governments will need to manage. “Rather than panicking or trying to forestall this for ourselves,” Leslie Root, a demographer and a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Colorado, Boulder, wrote in The Washington Post last year, “we should be thinking about what that transition will mean globally — both for rich countries and for poor ones that will be far more burdened by aging populations than we will.”

Source: U.S. Population Growth Has Nearly Flatlined. Is That So Bad?

ICYMI: Yakabuski: Can Canada handle its coming population boom?

Valid question. Alternative question: Is the coming population boom good for Canada and Canadians?

The latest projections from Statistics Canada show that Canada’s population is poised to grow much faster over the next two decades than the federal agency forecast just three years ago, suggesting any downturn in the country’s housing market is likely to be short-lived.

Indeed, the revised Statscan figures released last week underscore the need for policy makers to clear the way for more housing and infrastructure projects now to accommodate a fast-growing national population that is projected to increase by around 10 million people by 2043.

Statscan normally updates its population projections every five years. But the agency undertook a “necessary” revision of its 2019 projections this year “to reflect recent developments in Canadian demographics,” including the pandemic and Ottawa’s move to increase immigration targets. While the longer-term impact of the pandemic on population growth is expected to be “rather imperceptible,” the opposite is true for the higher immigration levels.

In February, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government announced plans to boost immigration levels “to help the Canadian economy recover and to fuel post-pandemic growth,” following a sharp drop in the number of newcomers arriving in Canada in 2020. Immigration rebounded in 2021, with a record 405,332 new permanent residents arriving here. And Canada is set to welcome about 432,000 new permanent residents this year, 447,000 in 2023 and 451,000 in 2024.

National Bank of Canada economists Matthieu Arseneau and Alexandra Ducharme noted that Canada’s population will increase by one million more people by 2032 than Statscan previously projected. Almost all of that extra growth will occur among those aged between 25 and 54 years old – an age cohort that is “crucial to the resilience of consumption and real estate.”

Royal Bank of Canada economists Robert Hogue and Carrie Freestone came to a similar conclusion even before the release of Statscan’s updated population projections. In a mid-August report, they projected that Canada will count 730,000 more households by 2024 than it had in 2021, as the country welcomes more than 1.3 million new immigrants.

“This surge, combined with shrinking household sizes, will strengthen demand for housing (whether owned or rented) and act as a powerful counter to sliding sales and prices – eventually putting a floor under the correction,” they wrote.

The updated Statscan projections highlight the urgency for policy makers to plan for what is expected to be the highest population growth among the Group of Seven countries over the next two decades and beyond. Based on the federal agency’s medium-growth scenario, Canada’s population is projected to grow to 47.8 million in 2043 from 38.2 million in 2021.

Ontario is expected to add more than four million new residents over the next 20 years, with its population rising to 19 million from 14.8 million. Canada’s most populous province will see its share of the national population increase to 39.8 per cent from 38.8 per cent.

Even so, Ontario’s 28-per-cent population growth over the next two decades is expected to pale compared with a 46-per-cent surge in Alberta, which will see its population grow to 6.5 million by 2043 from 4.4 million. Albertans will account for about 13.5 per cent of Canada’s population in 2043, up from 11.6 per cent in 2021.

However, Quebec’s share of the Canada’s population is set to fall below 20 per cent for the first time, as the province (which chooses its own economic immigrants) accepts proportionally fewer newcomers than the rest of the country. From 22.5 per cent of Canada’s population in 2021, Quebec will see its share decline to 19.8 per cent by 2043. Quebec’s overall population will grow by less than 10 per cent over the same period, to 9.4 million.

The Atlantic provinces will benefit from interprovincial migration levels that will be higher than those forecast before the pandemic, but not enough to reverse a decline in the region’s share of the national population. Newfoundland and Labrador’s population will shrink outright.

Ottawa’s higher immigration targets will on their own not be enough to ease the country’s labour shortage, as more and more Canadians retire in coming years. Even more aggressive immigration levels would be needed to reverse the aging trend that will see the share of the population over 65 increase steadily over the next two decades to 23.1 per cent in 2043 from 18.5 per cent in 2021.

The average age of Canadians, which increased from 27.3 years in 1921 to 41.7 years in 2021, will rise further to 44.1 years by 2043. And while about 871,000 were over 85 in 2021, their ranks will swell to more than 2.2 million by 2043.

Still, Canada’s population projections tell a rather enviable story compared with many European countries, where population aging is occurring at a much faster rate amid lower immigration levels. The question is whether policy makers here can move fast enough to prepare the country for its coming population boom.

Source: Can Canada handle its coming population boom?

Where two years without immigration puts New Zealand

Largely the opposite approach of Canada:

New Zealand’s population has had a growth spurt over the past decade, when compared with the rest of the OECD.

In 2016, unprecedented growth was seen at 2.2 percent a year – levels not seen since the early 1960s.

According to the Productivity Commission, a Crown entity tasked with lifting New Zealand’s productivity, the reasons for this relatively rapid growth were high resident numbers and largely uncapped temporary migration programmes.

Newspaper headlines about the ‘brain drain’ and skilled labour shortages being filled in by recent migrants were common occurrences through the 2010s – and along came a virus.

Overnight, the flow of migrants was cut down to a trickle, calling for fast-tracked changes across almost every economic sector.

Now as the border slowly returns to a more permeable state after two years of stasis, the Productivity Commission is evaluating what this means for New Zealand’s immigration policy and whether the country’s reliance on migrant labour could be labelled an objective over-reliance.

After months of research and public consultation, the commission is preparing a report on the impact of differing levels of migration to be presented to ministers in the Government on April 30.

The preliminary report highlighted the significant role immigration has played in supporting New Zealand’s population growth.

Along with this came a heavy reliance on temporary migrant workers, a potential source of volatility and economic uncertainty in the case of borders being closed.

Before March 2020, New Zealand had an annual population growth of just over 2 percent, around two-thirds of that from immigration.

Since then, it has dropped to a growth rate of 0.6 percent. That means this country went from having some of the highest annual growth rates in the OECD to being bang on average.

Massey University sociology professor Paul Spoonley specialises in how social change and demographics affect political decisions.

He said the issue of immigration is a difficult equation for New Zealand to balance, with benefits and consequences on either side.

“There are two sides to the issue because as we’ve seen, lots of the labour market in New Zealand rely on either temporary or permanent migrants,” he said. “So to actually build houses or infrastructure like roads, we’ve become very reliant on migrant labour.”

On the other hand, he noted that rapid growth also requires a matched pace in infrastructure development, especially in quickly growing cities like Auckland or Tauranga – two cities Spoonley said have “an historic deficit in terms of infrastructure”.

If infrastructure already isn’t fit for purpose, he said rapid population growth can enact enormous pressure.

So there’s a delicate balance to strike if New Zealand moves back to its prior reliance on migration. Other factors to consider include benefiting from other countries’ investment in human resources.

“What we get in terms of our skilled migrant category, where the majority of our permanent migrants were approved, is somebody whose life up to this point, including their skills, training and experience has been paid for by another country,” he said. “If we’re getting the surgeon from South Africa or the roading engineer from India, we didn’t make the investment but we are going to be the beneficiary of their skills.”

New Zealand’s immigration profile has changed in recent years, shifting from a focus on permanent migration to more migrant workers being here on work, student or visitor visas. Temporary work visas in particular have grown to represent a much larger chunk of all arrivals since around 2010.

The commission pointed to this increase in the temporary visa load as a result of policy choices made by governments in response to demands from employers for workers, an increase in international students and the points system for New Zealand residency privileging those who have already had work or study experience within the country.

But as the dust of these initial Covid years settle, many countries share the same gaps in the labour market that they are now likely to try to fill.

Spoonley says it will be a competitive market as migration resumes over the next two or three years.

“The labour crunch which Covid has accelerated is common to other countries, so what we are then doing is competing for migrants with Australia, the UK, the USA or Canada,” he said. “At the same time, they will also try to recruit out of New Zealand, in particular skilled New Zealanders.”

Could this mean a return to the ‘brain drain’ days of 2012, when a group the size of a packed-out Eden Park left for Australia?

Spoonley’s best guess is the number of Kiwis packing their bags for environs further afield will be somewhere between those seen in 2012 and now.

“I don’t know to be honest, but will we see our new graduates and some of our skilled workforce leaving to another country? Absolutely,” he said. The outflow will be seen particularly to countries that can put a premium on attracting people – whether with higher incomes or lower cost of living, pull factors that have long had Kiwis set their sites overseas.

“Australia can pay a third more,” Spoonley said. “So will we see a net outflow of New Zealanders? Almost certainly. I’m just not clear on the size of that. What I am clear about is that many of them will be highly skilled and we can’t afford to lose them.”

He said it’s a looming retention issue for the New Zealand economy, where the biggest reasons for people to stay put will be family or friends.

“Other countries will be outbidding us in terms of pay and conditions.”

Source: Where two years without immigration puts New Zealand

After years of US population growth, it’s time for a pause | TheHill

Rare questioning of the conventional wisdom of growth strategies and raising of related issues:

In the long run, no substantial benefits will result from the further growth of America’s population. The gradual stabilization of the U.S. population through voluntary means would contribute significantly to America’s ability to solve its problems.

That statement from a half-century ago was the unequivocal central finding of the groundbreaking report by the U.S. Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, submitted to the president and Congress on March 27, 1972.

However, rather than moving toward a gradual stabilization, as was clearly recommended, America’s population over the past 50 years has grown to 334 million, an increase of 123 million (about 60 percent) since 1972.

In addition, America’s population is projected to continue growing over the coming decades. According to its main projection series, the Census Bureau expects the nation’s population to be close to 400 million around mid-century.

Preceding the commission’s establishment by several years, former President Richard M. Nixon remarked that “One of the most serious challenges to human destiny in the last third of this century will be the growth of the population… Whether man’s response to that challenge will be a cause for pride or for despair in the year 2000 will depend very much on what we do today.”

Nixon’s observations are even more prescient today. Given climate change, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, pollution and congestion, population growth in America and the rest of the world remains among the serious challenges to human destiny in the 21st century.

Similarly and more recently, naturalist Sir David Attenborough remarked, “It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth, or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.”

Without a doubt, America’s population growth is a major factor affecting domestic demand for resources, including water, food and energy, and the worsening of the environment and climate change. There is hardly any major problem facing America with a solution that would be easier if the nation’s population were larger. On the contrary, population stabilization would help to resolve several.

Stabilizing the population would reduce pressures on the environment, climate and the depletion of resources and gain time for America to find solutions to its pressing issues. If the United States intends to address climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, etc., it must consider how its population affects each issue.

In contrast to the commission’s central finding, some do not recognize the need to stabilize the population. Their reasons are largely based on profit, politics and power. They give little attention to the consequences of population growth on the nation’s future.

For instance, many economists contend that continued population growth is needed to fuel economic growth. Their “bigger-is-better” arguments simply ignore or dismiss the negative consequences for the country, which are threats to the wellbeing of today’s Americans as well as the long-term sustainability of the nation.

Others argue the nation would be “more happy” with more people. Slow population growth, they claim, hurts not only America’s economic growth but also the national mood. Concerns about climate change and the environment are omitted from their rhetoric.

Some advance nationalistic appeals for continued population growth, maintaining that the more patriotic one is the more one ought to believe in a large and growing America.

Another argument is the view that “America isn’t full” and can accommodate many more people, particularly more immigrants. Those advocates, however, rarely ever specify how large the population must become to be considered full nor do explain why America needs to be full.

Thousands of scientists worldwide take an opposing view. Among their major recommendations for governments to address the climate emergency is a call for the stabilization of the world population, or ideally, a gradually reduced population within a framework that ensures social integrity.

Gradually stabilizing America’s population will provide an exemplary model for other countries to emulate. Rather than racing to increase the size of their respective populations in a world with 8 billion humans and growing, nations would see America moving away from the unsustainable demographic strategy.

As American couples are having fewer children than in the past for a host of social, economic and personal reasons, the nation’s fertility rate is unlikely to return to the replacement level any time soon. And pro-growth calls for Congress or the administration to establish pro-natalist policies to raise fertility appear unlikely to be adopted.

Source: After years of US population growth, it’s time for a pause | TheHill