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The Unexpected Future

We need to consider ways to reverse or at least slow rapid depopulation

· 15 min read
The Unexpected Future
Takasuu / Getty 

We are entering an unanticipated reality—an era of slow population growth and, increasingly, demographic decline that will shape our future in profound and unpredictable ways. Globally, last year’s total population growth was the smallest in a half-century, and by 2050, some 61 countries are expected to see population declines while the world’s population is due to peak sometime later this century.

This kind of long-term global demographic stagnation has not been seen since the Middle Ages. World population has been growing for centuries, but the last century has dwarfed previous rises. About 75 percent of the world’s population growth has occurred in the last hundred years, more than 50 percent since 1970. But now, population growth rates are dropping, especially in more developed nations, according to the United Nations (all subsequent references to UN research in this essay are drawn from these data).

It’s not a matter of if but when global populations will start to decline. Under the UN’s medium variant projection, the world’s population will peak in 2086, while under the low variant, the peak will occur in 2053, and by 2100, the population will be about a billion below today’s level. Demographer Wolfgang Lutz and colleagues project a global population of between 8.8 and 9.0 billion by 2050 falling to between 8.2 and 8.7 billion by 2100. The projected declines are concentrated in countries with high fertility rates, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. In the process, we will inhabit a rapidly aging planet. In 1970, the median world age was 21.5 years. By 2020, it had increased to 30.9 years, and the UN projects that it will be 41.9 years in 2100.

We are well past the time when we need to concern ourselves with Paul Ehrlich’s long-standing prophecy that humanity will “breed ourselves to extinction.” On the contrary, we need to worry about the potential ill-effects of depopulation, including a declining workforce, torpid economic growth, and brewing generational conflict between a generally prosperous older generation and their more hard-pressed successors. The preponderance of low fertility in wealthier countries also presages a growing conflict between the child-poor wealthy countries and the child-rich poor countries.

The shrinking of the rich world

Europe’s population shrank by 744,000 in 2020 and by 1.4 million last year—the largest fall on any continent since records began in 1950. Although worsened by the pandemic, this was largely an acceleration of a longstanding pattern. The EU’s population growth has been tapering for a generation, with fertility rates well below the 2.1 rate required to simply replace population the largest EU country, Germany, is forecast to drop five percent by 2050 while Italy is projected to lose 10 percent of its population. Overall, the 27-nation European Union projects that its population will drop from its 2022 figure of 447 million to 416 million by the century’s end.

European fertility has largely declined since the 1960s and the birth rate has slumped to “a 60-year low of 4 million births.” Compared to 1970, when 16.4 babies were born for every 1,000 persons, the crude birth rate dropped to 9.1 in 2020. Last year, the birth rate in England and Wales also hit a record low, with fertility rates for women under 30 at their lowest levels since records began in 1938. A fifth of all British women are childless by mid-life.

The lowest fertility rates are found in the countries of Eastern Europe, which have long been exporters of their shrinking youth populations. According to UN projections, Ukraine’s population will fall 18 percent from 2022 to 2050, even without accounting for the impact of the Russian invasion. Poland will be down 13 percent. Arch-rival Russia also faces inexorable depopulation: during 2019 (pre-pandemic), deaths were running about 50 percent higher than births there. With a 2022 population of 145 million, Russia is expected to drop to 133 million by 2050, according to the UN.

Plummeting fertility rates

Europe was the trailblazer of these new demographic trends but it is no longer an outlier. Over the past few decades, fertility has dropped precipitously in China, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Today, all are saddled with birth rates well below replacement rates. South Korea’s birth rates have fallen for so long that the country plans to reduce its armed services to about half their current size within 20 years.

Perhaps the most extreme case is Japan, where population growth has been slowing since the 1960s. Rather than seek to reverse this pattern, Japanese authorities are now working to adjust to a much smaller population. If the current trend continues, the island nation’s population will drop from 125 million to under 90 million by 2065 and barely 50 million by 2115, according to the country’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

More recently, this pattern of demographic decline has spread to historically more fecund Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the US. Today, all these countries are well below replacement rates. The US population growth rate fell to 0.5 percent in 2019 (the last pre-pandemic year), which is the lowest at least since 1900. Based on the limited data available, the St. Louis Fed believes that this is the lowest rate in our nation’s peacetime history. It has been estimated that the white fertility rate in the United States during the first half of the 1800s was more than 7.0 but had dropped to a little over 3.5 by 1900. It remained over 2.0 as late as 2009, but it is now well below the replacement rate.

Today, a majority of the world’s people live in countries with fertility rates well below replacement level. This number will grow to 75 percent by 2050, according to UN data. Even traditional sources of new population in the developing world are drying up. Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest nations, has seen its total fertility rate drop from 6.9 children per woman in the early 1970s to 2.0 in 2020, slightly below replacement rates. India, expected to be the most populous country in the world by 2024, has seen its total fertility rate drop to 2.2, according to the UN.

Economic ramifications

John Maynard Keynes warned that “chaining up of the one devil [of overpopulation] may, if we are careless, only serve to loose another still fiercer and more intractable.” A major reduction in childbearing may be a blessing in some impoverished parts of the globe, but many higher-income countries—Germany, Italy, and much of the rest of Europe, as well as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan—are already experiencing the first ill-effects of the demographic transition.

Generally, countries with severely low birth rates will eventually experience reduced economic growth, as has been the case in Japan for decades. Japan’s long economic slowdown reflects a labor force that has been declining since the 1990s and will be a third smaller by 2035. China faces a similar dilemma. The senior population there is expected to have more than tripled by 2050, one of the most rapid demographic shifts in history.

As the employment base shrinks and the demands of the elderly rise, countries like Germany are raising taxes on the existing labor force to pay for the swelling ranks of retirees. For the OECD as a whole, “the dependence ratio of older people (i.e., those aged 65 and over as a proportion of those aged 20–64) will rise from the current figure of 22 percent to 46 percent in 2050.” Given the higher costs of housing, the current generation will not be able to count on pensions to maintain their post-retirement living standards, even in well-managed countries like Singapore.

For its part, the United States already faces a massive public pension crisis and security reserve funds are expected to be depleted by 2035. As in other countries, this stems largely from the reduction of new entrants into the labor force due to low birth rates. US population growth between ages 16 and 64 has dropped from 20 percent in the 1980s to less than five percent in the past decade. In 1970, there were 19.1 persons aged 65 and older for each 100 aged 20 to 64. By 2020, this had increased to 28.4 and is projected by the UN to increase to 40.4 by 2050 and 54.1 by 2100.

The loss of youthful dynamism

This shift also undermines the traditional source of economic dynamism—youth. Economist Gary Becker notes that the impetus for change tends to come from younger workers and entrepreneurs. In contrast, the ascendency of the elderly, who tend to be more concerned with protecting pensions, does not bode well for economic growth.

In many countries, firms are finding skilled workers scarce, which is raising costs and accelerating the movement of jobs to more fecund countries. Historically, expanding workforces tend to drive economic growth and innovation. This was the case with early modern Europe, which sent its surplus population to colonize much of the world. UN data indicates that Eastern Asia benefited from an enormous “youth bulge” of younger workers at a time when overall fertility rates had begun to decline. The total fertility rate dropped from 1.69 in 2010 to 1.18 in 2022, driven by China’s cataclysmic decline (from 1.77 to 1.15). China’s working-age population (those between 15 and 64 years old) peaked in 2011 and is projected to drop 23 percent by 2050.

This decline will be exacerbated by the effects of China’s now-discarded one-child policy, which created a huge imbalance—at least 30 million—of boys over girls as most Chinese traditionally prefer male offspring. By 2050, China will have 55 million fewer people under the age of 15 than it does now, a loss approximately the size of Italy’s total population. At the same time, China will have nearly 170 million more people aged 65 and over, approximately equal to the population of Bangladesh, the world’s eighth most populous country.

The impacts of a shrinking labor force are widely evident in the United States. The consultancy firm Manpower notes that the percentage of firms reporting shortages of labor more than doubled between 2015 and 2020, to 70 percent. COVID, of course, worsened the situation dramatically, but by 2028, Korn Ferry projects that there will be a deficit of at least six million workers. “The people shortage was already coming,” says the consultancy firm EMSI in a recent report. “It was already here. All 2020 did is act as an accelerant.”

Global political implications of the new demography

The UN predicts that the world will see growth of 2.7 billion over the next 50 years compared to the previous half-century’s 4.1 billion. But all of that growth will be in the less developed world. Between 2022 and 2050, United Nations projections indicate that nearly 55 percent of world population growth will occur in sub-Saharan Africa, where fertility rates are still relatively high. During the following 50 years, that share is projected to grow further as populations plummet elsewhere. Those workers need somewhere to go, or people to provide with goods and services if they wish to be gainfully employed.

As labor forces decline in the high-income countries, the developing world’s “youth bulge” is expected to peak in this decade. For these workers, the demographic slowdown in high-income economies could prove devastating. The very things places like sub-Saharan Africa need—new energy sources, growing export markets, and capital—will not be easy to procure from stagnant economies concerned largely with satisfying their pensioners. The key potential markets for Africa’s exports, besides some rare metals, will be shrinking while Western countries automate and could impose carbon taxes on imports.

Without massive economic growth, migration to the developed world—expected to average 2.2 million annually through 2050—remains the only real hope of improving one’s prospects. But this imperative is almost certain to elicit a strong reaction in host countries, as occurred after Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, opened the doors to a huge wave of refugees and migrants from the war-ravaged Middle East in 2015. Germany industry, at least initially, embraced the newcomers to fill their employee ranks, but popular opposition has led to a more restrictive policy. Countries like Latvia, Poland, and Hungary also have become less welcoming to migrants from outside Europe even as births have plummeted.

This is a Europe-wide phenomenon. A year after the rapid influx of refugees began, Pew Research found that 50 percent of Europeans across 10 countries thought immigrants were imposing a burden on their country, while no more than 40 percent in any country surveyed said that immigrants made their country a better place to live. Among Greeks, 63 percent said that immigrants made things worse, as did 53 percent of Italians. Even in Sweden, where the citizens take pride in their tolerance, there is widespread anger about rising crime and an unprecedented level of social friction in a formerly homogeneous country.

US attitudes to immigration, mostly from Asia and Latin America, have also hardened somewhat. As in other countries, popular perception of the size of immigrant populations is considerably higher than the reality, as are assumptions about their economic conditions. Unsurprisingly, the record numbers now crossing the border have provoked strong opposition among the populace. Even as the nation struggles with workforce shortages, US tensions with its southern neighbors over immigration are likely to fester in the years ahead.

The rise of post-familialism

The depression in fertility also reflects the rise of what may be best described as post-familialism. This is most evident in many of the world’s great core cities—Beijing, Tokyo, London, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco—which have exceptionally low percentages of families among their residents. This pattern was accelerated during the pandemic, during which young families led the exodus from bigger cities.

But the biggest problem lies with the expense and crowding of urban centers. In Hong Kong, the world’s most crowded high-income urban area, two-thirds of women want either one child only or no children at all, mainly due to the price of housing and the harried lifestyle there. Major Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai have fertility rates among the lowest in the world, and only about one-third of the replacement level.

We are also experiencing something of a kulturkampf, in which singleness increasingly prevails as sex roles shift from the 1950s model of the single earner to more flexible and less well-defined archetypes. Since 1960, the percentage of single person households in the United States living alone has grown from 13 percent to 27 percent (2019). In the European Union (post-Brexit), 35 percent of households consist of a single person, while in Finland they constitute 45 percent of households.

In rapidly urbanizing China, traditionally a bastion of familialism, there are now 200 million unmarried adults, including 58 million single people between 20 and 40 years of age. The proportion of people living alone in China, once a virtually unimaginable situation, has risen to 15 percent. China’s young men are so disconnected socially that the Communist Party and some private firms are teaching them how to “act masculine.”

In Japan, the harbinger of modern Asian demographics, single-person households are expected to reach 40 percent by 2040. Roughly a third of men enter their 30s as virgins, and a quarter of men are not married at 50. This sex recession even affects places like Hong Kong’s famous Wan Chai “red light” district, which is now being remade into an upscale hipster area as the sex trade plummets.

The green factor

An accelerating pattern of demographic decline brilliantly fits an array of change objectives. Massive reductions in population are a “necessity” according to many climate scientists, and green activists generally prioritize a reduced population while embracing economic stagnation or “de-growth,” even in developing countries

Environmental groups will therefore often celebrate the notion of being “childfree,” and the young are encouraged to consider foregoing parenthood for the sake of the planet. This seems to be having an effect, as many young people do not see much future on Earth—at least not a pleasant one. Over half of all young people around the world, according to one survey, see the planet as essentially doomed by climate change. People with no faith in the future are unlikely to have children.

Some climate activists even favor expanding China’s one-child policy to the entire planet. Yet anti-natalist policies can be imposed more subtly (whether intended or not) by, for example, driving up the price of housing (which drives up the cost of living), or reducing economic activity and energy consumption. This notion is even embraced by some of the higher corporate and financial elites. “Having a child,” analysts at Morgan Stanley proclaimed last year, “is 7-times worse for the climate in CO2 emissions annually than the next 10 most discussed mitigants that individuals can do.”

The coming generational conflict

A warming climate is not the only reason for—or even the most pressing cause of—depressed birth rates. Generally, millennials face a future of greater economic insecurity, poorer living conditions, and fewer opportunities than the baby boomers experienced. In virtually every high-income country, surveys show that the vast majority of parents—80 percent in Japan and over 70 percent in the US—are pessimistic about the financial future of their offspring, notes Pew. Young people have similar sentiments, including in the United States, Britain, Japan, and Korea.

Compared with their parents, young people today are more likely to have a future with no substantial assets or property. A Deloitte study projects that millennials (born 1981–1996) in the United States will hold barely 16 percent of the nation’s wealth in 2030, when they will be by far the largest adult generation. By then, the preceding generation (Gen X) born between 1965 and 1980 will hold 31 percent, while boomers, entering their 80s and 90s, will still control 45 percent.

No surprise then that people bereft of hope avoid marriage and particularly procreation, even among those with somewhat better economic conditions. Most people in the UK, for example, who don’t have children once wanted them. Jody Day, the founder of Gateway Women, a support network for involuntarily childless women, told the Guardian that the primary reasons were not choice or infertility but “a tapestry of systemic issues, like student debts and career focus, meaning that family planning is left too late.”

Day and other observers see housing as a prime culprit. Notably, the decline in homeownership has long been linked to family formation. In the United States, according to the Urban Institute, millennials are less likely to be homeowners than baby boomers and Gen Xers. The homeownership rate among millennials aged 25 to 34 is eight percentage points lower than baby boomers and 8.4 percentage points lower than Gen Xers in the same age group. Similar trends can be seen in other high-income countries, including Australia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

Long term, the poor prospects for the younger generations will impact not only the economy but could shape our political future. Unable to achieve the standard of living their parents enjoyed, they either reject society entirely—Le Monde described this trend as “political de-socialization”—or vote for political extremes, favoring Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the aging Trotskyite, or Marine Le Pen, the doyenne of French populist nationalism. Similarly, in the US, younger voters have tended to favor more ideologically extreme candidates like Bernie Sanders, who in the 2016 primaries won more votes from people under 30 than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined. More troubling still, young Americans are increasingly rejecting the system altogether. In his 2018 book, The People vs. Democracy, the political scientist Yascha Mounk, reported that only one-in-three millennials continue to embrace democracy, compared to more than two-thirds of older Americans.

Can we reverse the trend?

Some, however, see the emerging demographic implosion as a pleasant prospect. Japan emerges as a model for high-income countries that can dispense with growth and instead focus on spiritual or quality-of-life issues. Japan will not conquer the world, suggests author Fred Pearce, but it could settle into being something like an Asian Switzerland with a rapidly aging but comfortable population. Population loss, Pearce writes, “is no bad thing. We need a breather. A stable, sagacious society that has lost its adolescent restlessness and settled into middle age sounds appealing.”

It is difficult to see how a senior and single dominated society that ignores the aspirations of the young can progress over time. Some suggest adopting the “Nordic way” which shifts much of the burden of child-raising from families to the state. Yet perhaps the problem lies elsewhere. Many of the places with the most elaborate state-sponsored childcare systems, not only in Scandinavia but also in places like Quebec, have retained well below replacement fertility rates according to UN data, and like other geographies, they rely on immigration for much of their population growth.

Birth rates may never—and probably should never—reach 1950s or 1960s levels, but we need to consider ways to reverse or at least slow rapid depopulation. This is as much a civilizational or spiritual crisis as an economic one, and it requires a shift in values, including perhaps religious ones. As Eric Kaufmann, professor at Birkbeck College in London, explains in his important book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, secular people or members of the progressive faiths have fewer children than adherents of evangelical Christianity, orthodox Judaism, or fundamentalist Islam. And as a Japanese professor told the Wall Street Journal, basic attitudes would also need to change if we want to become “a society where people have fun working and raising children.”

Economics will play a critical role. People tend to have children if they are able to envision a better economic future for themselves and their potential offspring. Pew has noted that, “the U.S. birth rate dipped in 2011 to the lowest ever recorded, led by a plunge in births to immigrant women since the onset of the Great Recession.” What happens during the emerging recession may not be pretty. Birth rates cannot be expected to recover as long as economic prospects are bleak for the young and child-raising is devalued and even denigrated.

Ultimately, it comes down to our view of humanity. We must, Austin Williams has suggested, decide whether humanity represents “the biggest problem on the planet” or the “creators of a better future.” We still have the ability to raise living standards, encourage economic growth, and restore housing affordability and upward mobility, all of which are critical to family formation. It’s really a question of whether we build a sustainable economic and social environment or regress to the demographic and economic torpor of the Dark Ages.

Joel Kotkin

Joel Kotkin is the presidential fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His most recent book is 'The Coming of Neo-Feudalism.'

Wendell Cox

Wendell Cox is head of Demographia, a public policy firm. He served on the LA Co. Transportation Commission and is author of ‘Demographia: World Urban Areas and International Housing Affordability.’

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