The Depopulation Bomb
Today, the spectre haunting the global order is not communism, as Marx predicted, but seemingly relentless demographic decline. We can already see its consequences in everything from the fight over pensions in France to the persistent labour shortages across almost all the high-income world. In the future, a lack of human labour is also likely to accelerate a shift towards automation, reshaping economic and political conflict for decades to come.
The world’s population has long been growing on an upward curve. About 75 per cent of the world’s population growth has occurred over the past 100 years, more than 50 per cent of it since 1970. But now, according to the United Nations, population growth is on course to drop to near zero, especially in more developed nations. Globally, last year’s total population growth was the smallest in half a century. By 2050 it is estimated that some 61 countries are expected to experience population declines.
A majority of the world already lives in countries with fertility rates well below the replacement level (2.1 births per woman) – the level, that is, at which a country’s population would remain steady. By 2050, UN data suggests 75 per cent of countries will have fertility rates below replacement level. Some UN demographic projections now contemplate that world population could peak in 2086, with the global population about one billion below today’s level by 2100. Ours will become a rapidly ageing planet. In 1970, the median world age was 20.3 years. By 2020, it had increased to 29.7 years, and it is expected to be 42.3 years in 2100.
It’s no longer a question of if, but when global populations will start to decline. We are entering a new epoch, defined by the first large population declines since medieval times. A series of plagues halved Europe’s population between 1346 and 1460. The primary causes today are not war or disease, however, but social evolution, including the decline of the family and religion, as well as diminished economic opportunity and a soaring cost of living. Most rich countries have to contend with birth rates well below the replacement rate. Japan, which has a fertility rate consistently 50 per cent below replacement, is likely to see its population drop from 126million in 2021 to under 90million by 2065. Indeed, last year, Japan recorded twice as many deaths as births.
Similarly, Europe’s population growth has been tapering for a generation. European fertility rates fell from 16.4 babies born for every 1,000 persons in 1970, to 9.1 in 2020. Last year the UK’s birthrate 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 now childless by middle-age.
The decline in fertility rates has also been evident in North America, traditionally a bastion of stronger demographic growth. US population growth, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, has fallen to the lowest rate in peacetime since America’s founding. China’s birthrate has also cratered, causing its workforce to shrink by 41million – equal to the entire German workforce – in just the past three years. And it’s now slated to drop by a further 20 per cent by 2050. Over the past few decades, fertility has dropped precipitously across east Asia, including in Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore.
This demographic decline is already reshaping the world economy. As economist John Maynard Keynes warned as early as 1937, the ‘chaining up of the one devil’, overpopulation, ‘may, if we are careless, only serve to loose another still fiercer and more intractable’ – the devil of demographic decline. The US population aged between 16 and 64 grew by 21 per cent during the 1980s, but in the 2010s grew by less than three per cent – shrinking as a proportion of the population. Consultancy Korn Ferry projects a deficit of at least six million workers in the US by 2028. Even greater declines in the workforce can be seen in the UK, the EU and east Asia.
Read the rest of this piece at Spiked.
Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.
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