Newsweek International, September 27, 2004
Remember the population bomb?
The new threat to the planet is not too many
people but too few. How the new demography
will shape the coming century.
By Michael Meyer
Sept. 27 issue - Everyone knows there are too
many people in the world. Whether we live in
Lahore or Los Angeles, Shanghai or So Paulo,
our lives are daily proof. We endure traffic
gridlock, urban sprawl and environmental depredation.
The evening news brings variations on Ramallah
or Darfurimages of Third World famine,
poverty, pestilence, war, global competition
for jobs and increasingly scarce natural resources.
Just last week the United Nations warned that
many of the world's cities are becoming hopelessly
overcrowded. Lagos alone will grow from 6.5
million people in 1995 to 16 million by 2015,
a miasma of slums and decay where a fifth of
all children will die before they are 5. At
a conference in London, the U.N. Population
Fund weighed in with a similarly bleak report:
unless something dramatically changes, the
world's 50 poorest countries will triple in
size by 2050, to 1.7 billion people.
Yet this is not the full story. To the contrary,
in fact. Across the globe, people are having
fewer and fewer children. Fertility rates have
dropped by half since 1972, from six children
per woman to 2.9. And demographers say they're
still falling, faster than ever. The world's
population will continue to growfrom
today's 6.4 billion to around 9 billion in
2050. But after that, it will go sharply into
decline. Indeed, a phenomenon that we're destined
to learn much more aboutdepopulationhas
already begun in a number of countries. Welcome
to the New Demography. It will change everything
about our world, from the absolute size and
power of nations to global economic growth
to the quality of our lives.
This revolutionary transformation will be led
not so much by developed nations as by the
developing ones. Most of us are familiar with
demographic trends in Europe, where birthrates
have been declining for years. To reproduce
itself, a society's women must each bear 2.1
children. Europe's fertility rates fall far
short of that, according to the 2002 U.N. population
report. France and Ireland, at 1.8, top Europe's
childbearing charts. Italy and Spain, at 1.2,
bring up the rear. In between are countries
such as Germany, whose fertility rate of 1.4
is exactly Europe's average. What does that
mean? If the U.N. figures are right, Germany
could shed nearly a fifth of its 82.5 million
people over the next 40 yearsroughly
the equivalent of all of east Germany, a loss
of population not seen in Europe since the
Thirty Years' War.
And so it is across the Continent. Bulgaria will
shrink by 38 percent, Romania by 27 percent,
Estonia by 25 percent. "Parts of Eastern
Europe, already sparsely populated, will just
empty out," predicts Reiner Klingholz,
director of the Berlin Institute for Population
and Development. Russia is already losing close
to 750,000 people yearly. (President Vladimir
Putin calls it a "national crisis.")
So is Western Europe, and that figure could
grow to as much as 3 million a year by midcentury,
if not more.
The surprise is how closely the less-developed
world is following the same trajectory. In
Asia it's well known that Japan will soon tip
into population loss, if it hasn't already.
With a fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman,
the country stands to shed a quarter of its
127 million people over the next four decades,
according to U.N. projections. But while the
graying of Japan (average age: 42.3 years)
has long been a staple of news headlines, what
to make of China, whose fertility rate has
declined from 5.8 in 1970 to 1.8 today, according
to the U.N.? Chinese census data put the figure
even lower, at 1.3. Coupled with increasing
life spans, that means China's population will
age as quickly in one generation as Europe's
has over the past 100 years, reports the Center
for Strategic and International Studies in
Washington. With an expected median age of
44 in 2015, China will be older on average
than the United States. By 2019 or soon after,
its population will peak at 1.5 billion, then
enter a steep decline. By midcentury, China
could well lose 20 to 30 percent of its population
The picture is similar elsewhere in Asia, where
birthrates are declining even in the absence
of such stringent birth-control programs as
China's. Indeed, it's happening despite often
generous official incentives to procreate.
The industrialized nations of Singapore, Hong
Kong, Taiwan and South Korea all report subreplacement
fertility, says Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer
at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
To this list can be added Thailand, Burma,
Australia and Sri Lanka, along with Cuba and
many Caribbean nations, as well as Uruguay
and Brazil. Mexico is aging so rapidly that
within several decades it will not only stop
growing but will have an older population than
that of the United States. So much for the
cliché of those Mexican youths swarming
across the Rio Grande? "If these figures
are accurate," says Eberstadt, "just
about half of the world's population lives
in subreplacement countries."
There are notable exceptions. In Europe, Albania
and the outlier province of Kosovo are reproducing
energetically. So are pockets of Asia: Mongolia,
Pakistan and the Philippines. The United Nations
projects that the Middle East will double in
population over the next 20 years, growing
from 326 million today to 649 million by 2050.
Saudi Arabia has one of the highest fertility
rates in the world, 5.7, after Palestinian
territories at 5.9 and Yemen at 7.2. Yet there
are surprises here, too. Tunisia has tipped
below replacement. Lebanon and Iran are at
the threshold. And though overall the region's
population continues to grow, the increase
is due mainly to lower infant mortality; fertility
rates themselves are falling faster than in
developed countries, indicating that over the
coming decades the Middle East will age far
more rapidly than other regions of the world.
Birthrates in Africa remain high, and despite
the AIDS epidemic its population is projected
to keep growing. So is that of the United States.
We'll return to American exceptionalism, and
what that might portend. But first, let's explore
the causes of the birth dearth, as outlined
in a pair of new books on the subject. "Never
in the last 650 years, since the time of the
Black Plague, have birth and fertility rates
fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long,
in so many places," writes the sociologist
Ben Wattenberg in "Fewer: How the New
Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future."
Why? Wattenberg suggests that a variety of
once independent trends have conjoined to produce
a demographic tsunami. As the United Nations
reported last week, people everywhere are leaving
the countryside and moving to cities, which
will be home to more than half the world's
people by 2007. Once there, having a child
becomes a cost rather than an asset. From 1970
to 2000, Nigeria's urban population climbed
from 14 to 44 percent. South Korea went from
28 to 84 percent. So-called megacities, from
Lagos to Mexico City, have exploded seemingly
overnight. Birth rates have fallen in inverse
Other factors are at work. Increasing female
literacy and enrollment in schools have tended
to decrease fertility, as have divorce, abortion
and the worldwide trend toward later marriage.
Contraceptive use has risen dramatically over
the past decade; according to U.N. data, 62
percent of married or "in union"
women of reproductive age are now using some
form of nonnatural birth control. In countries
such as India, now the capital of global HIV,
disease has become a factor. In Russia, the
culprits include alcoholism, poor public health
and industrial pollution that has whacked male
sperm counts. Wealth discourages childbearing,
as seen long ago in Europe and now in Asia.
As Wattenberg puts it, "Capitalism is
the best contraception."
The potential consequences of the population
implosion are enormous. Consider the global
economy, as Phillip Longman describes it in
another recent book, "The Empty Cradle:
How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity
and What to Do About It." A population
expert at the New America Foundation in Washington,
he sees danger for global prosperity. Whether
it's real estate or consumer spending, economic
growth and population have always been closely
linked. "There are people who cling to
the hope that you can have a vibrant economy
without a growing population, but mainstream
economists are pessimistic," says Longman.
You have only to look at Japan or Europe for
a whiff of what the future might bring, he
adds. In Italy, demographers forecast a 40
percent decline in the working-age population
over the next four decadesaccompanied
by a commensurate drop in growth across the
Continent, according to the European Commission.
What happens when Europe's cohort of baby boomers
begins to retire around 2020? Recent strikes
and demonstrations in Germany, Italy, France
and Austria over the most modest pension reforms
are only the beginning of what promises to
become a major sociological battle between
Europe's older and younger generations.
That will be only a skirmish compared with the
conflict brewing in China. There market reforms
have removed the cradle-to-grave benefits of
the planned economy, while the Communist Party
hasn't constructed an adequate social safety
net to take their place. Less than one quarter
of the population is covered by retirement
pensions, according to CSIS. That puts the
burden of elder care almost entirely on what
is now a generation of only children. The one-child
policy has led to the so-called 4-2-1 problem,
in which each child will be potentially responsible
for caring for two parents and four grandparents.
Incomes in China aren't rising fast enough to
offset this burden. In some rural villages,
so many young people have fled to the cities
that there may be nobody left to look after
the elders. And the aging population could
soon start to dull China's competitive edge,
which depends on a seemingly endless supply
of cheap labor. After 2015, this labor pool
will begin to dry up, says economist Hu Angang.
China will have little choice but to adopt
a very Western-sounding solution, he says:
it will have to raise the education level of
its work force and make it more productive.
Whether it can is an open question. Either
way, this much is certain: among Asia's emerging
economic powers, China will be the first to
grow old before it gets rich.
Equally deep dislocations are becoming apparent
in Japan. Akihiko Matsutani, an economist and
author of a recent best seller, "The Economy
of a Shrinking Population," predicts that
by 2009 Japan's economy will enter an era of
"negative growth." By 2030, national
income will have shrunk by 15 percent. Speculating
about the future is always dicey, but economists
pose troubling questions. Take the legendarily
high savings that have long buoyed the Japanese
economy and financed borrowing worldwide, especially
by the United States. As an aging Japan draws
down those assets in retirement, will U.S.
and global interest rates rise? At home, will
Japanese businesses find themselves competing
for increasingly scarce investment capital?
And just what will they be investing in, as
the country's consumers grow older, and demand
for the latest in hot new products cools off?
What of the effect on national infrastructure?
With less tax revenue in state coffers, Matsutani
predicts, governments will increasingly be
forced to skimp on or delay repairs to the
nation's roads, bridges, rail lines and the
like. "Life will become less convenient,"
he says. Spanking-clean Tokyo might come to
look more like New York City in the 1970s,
when many urban dwellers decamped for the suburbs
(taking their taxes with them) and city fathers
could no longer afford the municipal upkeep.
Can Japanese cope? "They will have to,"
says Matsutani. "There's no alternative."
Demographic change magnifies all of a country's
problems, social as well as economic. An overburdened
welfare state? Aging makes it collapse. Tensions
over immigration? Differing birthrates intensify
anxieties, just as the need for imported labor
risesperhaps the critical issue for the
Europe of tomorrow. A poor education system,
with too many kids left behind? Better fix
it, because a shrinking work force requires
higher productivity and greater flexibility,
reflected in a new need for continuing job
training, career switches and the heath care
needed to keep workers working into old age.
In an ideal world, perhaps, the growing gulf
between the world's wealthy but shrinking countries
and its poor, growing ones would create an
opportunity. Labor would flow from the overpopulated,
resource-poor south to the depopulating north,
where jobs would continue to be plentiful.
Capital and remittance income from the rich
nations would flow along the reverse path,
benefiting all. Will it happen? Perhaps, but
that presupposes considerable labor mobility.
Considering the resistance Europeans display
toward large-scale immigration from North Africa,
or Japan's almost zero-immigration policy,
it's hard to be optimistic. Yes, attitudes
are changing. Only a decade ago, for instance,
Europeans also spoke of zero immigration. Today
they recognize the need and, in bits and pieces,
are beginning to plan for it. But will it happen
on the scale required?
A more probable scenario may be an intensification
of existing tensions between peoples determined
to preserve their beleaguered national identities
on the one hand, and immigrant groups on the
other seeking to escape overcrowding and lack
of opportunity at home. For countries such
as the Philippinesstill growing, and
whose educated work force looks likely to break
out of low-status jobs as nannies and gardeners
and move up the global professional ladderthis
may be less of a problem. It will be vastly
more serious for the tens of millions of Arab
youths who make up a majority of the population
in the Middle East and North Africa, at least
half of whom are unemployed.
America is the wild card in this global equation.
While Europe and much of Asia shrinks, the
United States' indigenous population looks
likely to stay relatively constant, with fertility
rates hovering almost precisely at replacement
levels. Add in heavy immigration, and you quickly
see that America is the only modern nation
that will continue to grow. Over the next 45
years the United States will gain 100 million
people, Wattenberg estimates, while Europe
loses roughly as many.
This does not mean that Americans will escape
the coming demographic whammy. They, too, face
the problems of an aging work force and its
burdens. (The cost of Medicare and Social Security
will rise from 4.3 percent of GDP in 2000 to
11.5 percent in 2030 and 21 percent in 2050,
according to the Congressional Budget Office.)
They, too, face the prospect of increasing
ethnic tensions, as a flat white population
and a dwindling black one become gradually
smaller minorities in a growing multicultural
sea. And in our interdependent era, the troubles
of America's major trading partnersEurope
and Japanwill quickly become its own.
To cite one example, what becomes of the vaunted
"China market," invested in so heavily
by U.S. companies, if by 2050 China loses an
estimated 35 percent of its workers and the
aged consume an ever-greater share of income?
America's demographic "unipolarity"
has profound security implications as well.
Washington worries about terrorism and failing
states. Yet the chaos of today's fragmented
world is likely to prove small in comparison
to what could come. For U.S. leaders, Longman
in "The Empty Cradle" sketches an
unsettling prospect. Though the United States
may have few military competitors, the technologies
by which it projects geopolitical powerfrom
laser-guided missiles and stealth bombers to
a huge military infrastructuremay gradually
become too expensive for a country facing massively
rising social entitlements in an era of slowing
global economic growth. If the war on terrorism
turns out to be the "generational struggle"
that national-security adviser Condoleezza
Rice says it is, Longman concludes, then the
United States might have difficulty paying
None of this is writ, of course. Enlightened
governments could help hold the line. France
and the Netherlands have instituted family-friendly
policies that help women combine work and motherhood,
ranging from tax credits for kids to subsidized
day care. Scandinavian countries have kept
birthrates up with generous provisions for
parental leave, health care and part-time employment.
Still, similar programs offered by the shrinking
city-state of Singaporeincluding a state-run
dating servicehave done little to reverse
the birth dearth. Remember, too, that such
prognoses have been wrong in the past. At the
cusp of the postwar baby boom, demographers
predicted a sharp fall in fertility and a global
birth dearth. Yet even if this generation of
seers turns out to be right, as seems likely,
not all is bad. Environmentally, a smaller
world is almost certainly a better world, whether
in terms of cleaner air or, say, the return
of wolves and rare flora to abandoned stretches
of the east German countryside. And while people
are living longer, they are also living healthierat
least in the developed world. That means they
can (and probably should) work more years before
Yes, a younger generation will have to shoulder
the burden of paying for their elders. But
there will be compensations. As populations
shrink, says economist Matsutani, national
incomes may dropbut not necessarily per
capita incomes. And in this realm of uncertainty,
one mundane thing is probably sure: real-estate
prices will fall. That will hurt seniors whose
nest eggs are tied up in their homes, but it
will be a boon to youngsters of the future.
Who knows? Maybe the added space and cheap
living will inspire them to, well, do whatever
it takes to make more babies. Thus the cycle
of life will restore its balance.
With Stefan Theil in Berlin, Eric Pape and
Tracy Mcnicoll in Paris, Kay Itoi in Tokyo,
Sarah Schafer in Beijing, Owen Matthews in
Istanbul and bureau reports
© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.
FAIR USE NOTICE
site contains copyrighted material the
use of which has not always been specifically
authorized by the copyright owner. We
are making such material available in
our efforts to advance understanding of
environmental, political, human rights,
economic, democracy, scientific, and social
justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes
a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material
as provided for in section 107 of the
US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title
17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on
this site is distributed without profit
to those who have expressed a prior interest
in receiving the included information
for research and educational purposes.
For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml.
If you wish to use copyrighted material
from this site for purposes of your own
that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain
permission from the copyright owner.