What a shrinking world may mean for us

The Sunday Times
By David Goodhart

The world’s population may be about to contract. Good news? A fascinating study looks at the possible fallout for us all.

Market economics failed to topple Chinese communism, but perhaps the halving of its population by the end of the century will do the trick instead. Meanwhile the oceans are set to heal, the temperature will cool and Canada will become a global superpower.

All because of the next big thing, spelt out in this book: a sharply declining global population. This is a popular guide to modern demography, by two Canadian journalists, with a very strong point of view about the direction of travel. It is full of fascinating speculation and written with an energy that degenerates only occasionally into jauntiness.

It is also a case study in what one might call the “Canadian ideology”, the world view of the globe’s first “post-national” country, which is set to come into its own in the individualistic world of the low population, immigration-favouring future that the authors view as largely benign but many others might find less to their taste.

The basic claim that global population, now 7.5bn, will decline rapidly later this century after peaking at below 9bn — rather than the 11bn that is the UN’s central forecast — is hardly as new or controversial as the authors imply. More than 20 years ago I commissioned a cover story for Prospect magazine by Nicholas Eberstadt titled “Too few people?” that predicted global population peaking in 2040 and then starting a headlong dive. Fred Pearce made a similar argument nearly a decade ago in a book called Peoplequake.

But wielding a mix of data, argument and reportage, the authors do a decent job of explaining why this is probably going to happen. It can be summed up in one sentence. As societies urbanise, women become better educated (including about contraception) and more financially autonomous thanks to working outside the home, and this causes fertility rates to plummet, which is reinforced in most places by the weakening ties of family, clan and organised religion.

Male chauvinism helps the process along, too, as men fail to adapt to the new priorities of working women and make it harder for them to combine work and family.

In rural societies children are an asset, working on the land and then supporting their parents when they get old. When people move to the city, however, children become more of a cost and the welfare function is partly taken over by the state. And children are an opportunity cost when women have enhanced earning power.

The decline of family size also becomes self-reinforcing, for when more of your social network consists of friends rather than relatives there is less peer pressure on women, or couples, to have children.

It is hardly news that almost the entire rich world is now in the fifth stage of the so-called Demographic Transition Model, meaning below replacement-level fertility. But the news from the front line is that many developing countries, too — Brazil, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Iran, India — look as if they are only pausing at the fourth stage, replacement fertility, before plunging on down.

The places with the highest fertility rates tend to be some of the unhappiest, most violent places on Earth: intensely religious, clan-based cultures such as Afghanistan (5.2), Iraq (4) and Yemen (3.8).

China is becoming Japan thanks to the one-child policy introduced in 1979 when the fertility rate was already down to 2.5. The rate is now just 1.2 and China’s population could halve to 600m by the end of the century, which would mean it was not far above the United States, which is likely to continue growing because of immigration.

Africa is the key continent for the decline thesis. The authors paint an optimistic picture from Kenya (where fertility has halved to 4 since 1975) of rising female education and empowerment. They also talk about growth prospects opened up by the Trans-West African Coastal Highway linking Lagos to Accra and Abidjan in Ivory Coast. This could be over-optimistic and Nigeria still has a fertility rate of 6 despite rapid urbanisation.

They might also underestimate the extent of the “goldilocks” option, of coming to rest at replacement levels, as Sri Lanka has been for the past 25 years and maybe India could be in the future. An Ipsos poll of almost 20,000 people in 26 countries found the ideal family size to be just over two.

In the short term, the authors imply, a faster than expected decline in population is mainly a benefit. Pressure on the environment is relieved, older populations are more pacific (although the 30m Chinese men without women might turn rough).

And one thing they don’t mention is how economic power is likely to swing back from capital to labour as the latter becomes scarce. This in turn is likely to reduce inequality; after all, one reason for inequality rising was the flooding of the labour market with all those cheap workers in India and China.

There are well-known social and economic costs from ageing populations and their reduced energy, innovation and optimism, but being Canadian the authors say these can be mitigated by becoming more open to immigration. They are also honest enough to admit that falling populations in poor countries will reduce migrant flows, and even immigrants who do arrive are likely to adapt swiftly to the lower fertility levels of host countries. The overall effect will probably be to reduce permanent immigration, though there may be more temporary movement.

Indeed their proselytising for the Canadian ideology of the citizens of nowhere — economism, individualism, androgynous feminism, multiculturalism — is rather charmingly undermined by their own acknowledgement that Canada is a historical one-off and a somewhat colourless one at that.

It is precisely because most of the world doesn’t want to become Canada that there is likely to be some limit to how low the population will fall, and maybe even a global version of the postwar baby boom pushing fertility rates back up as we tire of the narcissistic world of the only child.

Women not only want autonomy and decent careers, a lot of them apparently still want to have babies, too! Once feminism has achieved a sufficient degree of equality with men, the pendulum may swing back to a more family friendly version.

The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari talks about humanity in the modern era giving up meaning for power: exchanging magical, reassuring beliefs for the cold reason that allows us to control the physical world. The populist revolt seems in part to be a rejection of that trade off, a rejection of the fluid, soulless world of the cognitive class in favour of meaning and belonging.

And what better symbol of re-enchantment than the messy warmth of family? As the authors themselves ask: “Have you ever met someone who grew up with lots of brothers and sisters who wishes they’d been an only child? We haven’t.”

Darrell Bricker & John Ibbitson
Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline