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Population Decline Is Bad For Us
Weekly Standard: Innovation Would Suffer With Slackening Demand
Track key population milestones as the U.S. hits the 300 million mark.
.(Weekly Standard) This column was written by Jonathan V. Last
Fertility rates around the world are dropping for a variety of complex reasons. While population itself continues to increase — the United States, for instance, recently passed the 300 million mark — this is the product of waning demographic momentum. The rate of increase is slowing, and by 2080 world population will peak somewhere in the vicinity of nine billion before contracting.
Which leads us to the next question: Is population contraction a bad thing?
Some think not. There is a school of thought that argues that smaller populations are good. Population-control proponents claim variously that:
We do not have the food to sustain higher populations.
Our planet already suffers from overcrowding.
The environmental impact of increased populations will bring catastrophe either through pollution or consumption of finite natural resources.
Decreased population will lead to higher wages and a better quality of life as available supplies exceed reduced demands.
These arguments seem reasonable at first, but do not withstand scrutiny.
Let's start with food. The worry about mass starvation is a remnant of Paul Ehrlich's 1968 sensation "The Population Bomb." Ehrlich wrote that, in the face of expanding populations, "the world will undergo famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death."
As Ehrlich himself admits, this prediction proved faulty. Instead, the availability of food has greatly increased, even with growing population. Demographer Philip Longman notes that, between 1980 and 2001, the price of food declined by 53 percent. Famine, observes Longman, has become "a political problem — a matter of fair distribution, not of inadequate supply."
How did this happen? The Danish economist Ester Boserup upended the classical Malthusian model of agriculture in 1965 by proposing that population increase fosters agricultural innovation, which, in turn, spurs leaps in production. Her theories have been borne out.
What about overcrowding? Everywhere you go today, you find traffic jams and sprawl, with people packed into condominiums and crowded malls. But this is a problem of density, not population. There's plenty of land available out there. The problem is that people who used to live in the countryside have relocated to cities: There are fewer people living in the Great Plains today than there were in the 1920s.
Environmental concerns are more interesting. However, such end-of-the-world warnings are not new. In the 1970s, many scientists were concerned about a new Ice Age. But leave aside global warming, on which science is conflicted, and take the other concern principally cited by environmentalists: that the Earth has a finite supply of resources that we shall surely soon deplete.
This, too, is an argument we have heard before. As Massimo Livi-Bacci explains in his "Concise History of World Population" more than 100 years ago, economists "feared that coal supplies would be used up, and about 30 years ago the Club of Rome made similar predictions regarding other raw materials." Instead, markets and human innovation stepped in to provide greater efficiency.
For instance, in the America of 1850, you needed an average of 4.6 tons of petroleum equivalent to produce $1,000 of goods and services. By 1950, you needed only 1.8 tons, and, by 1978, 1.5 tons. Markets are exceptional engines of conservation.
Which leaves us with the economy. In 1971, Simon Smith Kuznets won the Nobel Prize in economics for his theory of "tested knowledge." As Kuznets explained: "More population means more creators and producers, both of goods along established production patterns and of new knowledge and inventions."
Kuznets was codifying what others had noticed before. Adam Smith remarked that "the most decisive mark of the prosperity of any country is the increase of the number of its inhabitants." As Livi-Bacci observes, "All things being equal, population increase leads to increased per capita production."
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Europe's future demographic decline is not due to plague, starvation, warfare, climate change or some other calamity. It's the result of women and men choosing to have fewer children than needed to ensure population replacement. With the exception of Albania, all nations of Europe are experiencing low fertility. In many countries, such as Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, the Russian Federation, Spain and Ukraine, fertility levels are now closer to one child than two children per couple.
Two-thirds of the European countries view current fertility levels as too low and half of the countries have adopted policies to raise fertility, the most recent being Germany. Many European governments seek to address the underlying causes of low fertility and adopt polices to encourage couples to have more babies. Job security, maternity and paternity leave, childcare, after-school programs, cash grants and allowances, priority housing, flexible work schedules and part-time employment are incentives already adopted or seriously considered by governments.
Will government policies, programs and other pro-natalist incentives raise birth rates sufficiently to attain replacement-level fertility? European fertility levels will likely increase somewhat above the low rates of today as the lowering effect of postponing childbearing runs its course. However, most European governments probably cannot raise fertility to replacement levels in the near term.
In addition to population decline, Europe's population continues to age, an issue of concern for most European governments. Whereas in 1950 the median age of the European population was 30 years, today it's 40 years. Europe is the world's oldest region, on average about 10 years older than Latin America and Asia and 20 years older than Africa. By 2050, Europe's median age is projected to reach 47 years.
Europe is the world's oldest region, on average about 10 years older than Latin America and Asia and 20 years older than Africa.
Also during the coming decades, Europe's population age structure will undergo a dramatic transformation, with marked declines in the working ages and corresponding increases in the population 65 years or older. The population aged 25-49, for example, is expected to decline by approximately 75 million and those aged 65 or older to increase by nearly 70 million by mid-century. In the absence of immigration, the projected declines in the working ages are more striking, with the population aged 25-49 declining by nearly 100 million, a 20 percent decline from today's level.
Although Europe receives many immigrants, today's numbers - an estimated net flow of some 1 million per year - are not enough to offset the demographic consequences of low birth rates. Europe would need to double its current annual level of net immigration to halt its population decline, triple the level to maintain the size of its current working-age population and quintuple the level to keep worker/elderly ratios at roughly today's levels.
Moreover, and in contrast to the past, the ethnic composition of immigrants in many instances differs markedly from the populations of the receiving countries. Immigrants in the past were largely from countries in southern Europe, including Italy, Spain and Portugal. Many of today's immigrants to Europe come from Africa and Asia, raising concerns in host communities about cultural integrity and assimilation. While the absolute numbers of immigrants are comparatively small, concentrations have increased visibly in recent decades. Adding complications is the presence of large numbers of migrants who have entered illegally or lack documents for legal residence, many of whom are poorly educated and low skilled. These conditions contribute to greater ethnic diversity and tensions within and among countries, raising concerns about cultural integrity, national identity, integration and national security.
Do Europe's future population decline and aging offer promise or peril? Not surprisingly, the answer to this question varies considerably. Many European governments are increasingly alarmed about the economic, social, cultural as well as geo-political consequences of shrinking and aging populations. Some countries, such as the Russian Federation which by mid-century is expected to decline by a fifth, or more than 30 million people, consider low birth rates a serious crisis, jeopardizing the basic foundations of the nation and threatening its survival. Some countries consider low birth rates a serious crisis, jeopardizing the basic foundations of the nation and threatening its survival.
Economic growth, defense, pensions and health care are areas of major concern. Faced with demographic decline and rapid aging, many European governments adjust their migration policies with the aim to maintain or increase the size and quality of their workforces, which in turn is expected to reduce fiscal pressures on pensions and health care.
Others view Europe's population decline as a welcome development. Much of the public already feels that the continent is overcrowded and would prefer less density and congestion as well as lower levels of immigration, especially illegal migration. In addition, many analysts see future population decline as reducing the harmful effects of modern production and consumption patterns on the environment, especially with regard to global warming. Others, such as environmentalists and those who support sustainable development and population stabilization, question the widely held orthodoxy that an ever-increasing population is required to maintain economic vitality and societal well-being.
Promise or peril, there's little doubt that the nations of Europe - as well as Japan - sail into uncharted demographic territory. Voluntary population decline and demographic aging of this order and scale have few, if any, comparable historical parallels. Since this occurs at a time when for variety of reasons, for example, growing fear of religious extremism and threats to national security, countries are reluctant to open the immigration door, the challenge for the governments is greater. Population decline can no longer be left to economists and demographers to ponder about as it fast rises to the top of the political agenda.
Contributed by Joseph Chamie, managing director of the Center for Migration Studies and editor of the International Migration Review. Reprinted with permission from Yale Global. Copyright © 2007 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.
World Population Becoming Grayer as Fertility Rates Go into Decline
From the Archives
Posted on June 6, 2006
Previously filed under: General Globalization
What lies ahead when so many countries' fertility rates are below the population replacement levels?
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