The disruptive effect of falling fertility – the real population question?

October 28, 2011 6 By admin

On Monday the world’s 7th billion person will be born (allegedly) and the press have had a field day. Some poor baby somewhere is going to be nominated for the honour by the UN and find the rest of their life plagued by incessant journalistic visits, as is v4306_mid_Adnan_Nevic_ananhappening this week to Adnan Nevic (see pic, with Kofi Annan), now a 12 year old in Sarajevo who in 1999 was named the 6 billionth.

Much of the press coverage is pretty awful (see below), but I really enjoyed the Economist’s 3 page briefing. Some excerpts:

“The world’s decline in fertility has been staggering (see chart). In 1970 the total fertility rate was 4.45 and the typical family in the world had four or five children. It is now 2.45 worldwide, and lower in some surprising places. Bangladesh’s rate is 2.16, having halved in 20 years. Iran’s fertility fell from 7 in 1984 to just 1.9 in 2006. Countries with below-replacement fertility include supposedly teeming Brazil, Tunisia and Thailand. Much of Europe and East Asia have fertility rates far below replacement levels.

The fertility fall is releasing wave upon wave of demographic change. It is the main influence behind the decline of population growth and, perhaps even more important, is shifting the balance of age groups within a population.

A fall in fertility sends a sort of generational bulge surging through a society. The generation in question is the one before the fertility fall really begins to bite, which in Europe and America was the baby-boom generation that is just retiring, and in China and East Asia the generation now reaching adulthood. To begin with, the favoured generation is in its childhood; countries have lots of children and fewer surviving grandparents (who were born at a time when life expectancy was lower). That was the situation in Europe in the 1950s and in East Asia in the 1970s.

fertility declineBut as the select generation enters the labour force, a country starts to benefit from a so-called “demographic dividend”. This happens when there are relatively few children (because of the fall in fertility), relatively few older people (because of higher mortality previously), and lots of economically active adults, including, often, many women, who enter the labour force in large numbers for the first time. It is a period of smaller families, rising income, rising life expectancy and big social change, including divorce, postponed marriage and single-person households. This was the situation in Europe between 1945 and 1975 (“les trente glorieuses”) and in much of East Asia in 1980-2010.

But there is a third stage. At some point, the gilded generation turns silver and retires. Now the dividend becomes a liability. There are disproportionately more old people depending upon a smaller generation behind them. Population growth stops or goes into reverse, parts of a country are abandoned by the young and the social concerns of the aged grow in significance. This situation already exists in Japan. It is arriving fast in Europe and America, and soon after that will reach East Asia.”

And some interesting thoughts on China:

“With its fertility artificially suppressed by the one-child policy, it is ageing at an unprecedented rate. In 1980 China’s median age (the point where half the population is older and half younger) was 22 years, a developing-country figure. China will be older than America as early as 2020 and older than Europe by 2030. This will bring an abrupt end to its cheap-labour manufacturing. Its dependency ratio will rise from 38 to 64 by 2050, the sharpest rise in the world. Add in the country’s sexual imbalances—after a decade of sex-selective abortions, China will have 96.5m men in their 20s in 2025 but only 80.3m young women—and demography may become the gravest problem the Communist Party has to face.”

Overall message?

“If you look at the overall size of the world’s population, then, the picture is one of falling fertility, decelerating growth and a gradual return to the flat population level of the 18th century. But below the surface societies are being churned up in ways not seen in the much more static pre-industrial world.”

I tend to avoid the ‘population control’ issue because it is so polarized that it is almost impossible to have an intelligent conversation. But here are some past thoughts on the link (or lack of it) with climate change and why the whole issue makes NGO types uncomfortable and a more slapstick discussion of pets and climate change, (which at least one person told me persuaded them not to get a dog – does that count as evidence of impact?). Overall, I have a lot of sympathy with Claire Melamed in her recent counterblast against sloppy thinking on the issue (and with this polemic from George Monbiot) but the level of vitriol in the comments shows just how polarized and unproductive the debate has become. I would much rather reframe the whole thing in terms of reproductive rights and women’s education, but even if you do that, it’s very hard to shake off the underlying frame that ‘they’ are the problem, (and less of ‘them’ the solution). That is a real shame.

Plus here’s a nice interactive feature from the Guardian. How big was the world population when you were born?