Fighting population decline – Not having children is not sustainable

Within 50 years population decline will prevail in most of the world except for some countries in Africa. Within 100 years population decline would have set in across the entire globe. The demographic reality is that the long-term decline in fertility levels cannot be reversed very quickly and the coming peaks and declines cannot be averted. However catastrophic population declines will surely be avoided by most countries. Some have already started taking mitigating actions. The optimistic view would be that population enhancing measures will increase fertility sufficiently so that populations will not drop to lower than about 70-80% of the peak levels reached during this century between 2010 and 2100. As an illustrative example, Japan reached its peak in 2010 when the population reached 128.6 million. The decline has started and population is now about 3 million less. The projections are for a population of around 90 million in 2060 and, without any mitigating actions, down to a catastrophic level of less than 60 million by 2100. China’s population is peaking this year (2021/22) and could halve within another 100 years. India’s population will peak in about 2050 though there are some indications that this may happen as early as 2040. Some countries in Africa will reach their peak towards the end of this century but by 2100 all countries will be in decline.

The question is no longer whether populations will decline, but how fast will they decline? The interconnected nature of our societies means that a too rapid decline could lead to a breakdown of the fabric of society. A resilient society might be able to cope with, say, a 30% decline in about 100 years (<0.3%/year). The projected Japanese decline of 50% over 90 years would be catastrophic. 

Some aspects of societal strains are already evident in Japan and parts of Europe. Public Services are gradually withdrawn from peripheral areas which, in turn, leads to people moving from remote areas towards urban conglomerations. The decline of schools, health services, clinics, public transport  and other services in remote, rural areas is already happening in Japan and parts of Europe. Remote areas are seeing depopulation as services decline or get more expensive. The increase of aged populations compared to working-age numbers is an additional stress factor for provision of services. 

Population decline is an existential threat far more difficult to handle than a population increase.

Mitigation measures focus on keeping society functioning despite a declining population. Increasing automation and the use of distributed artificial intelligence is a way of coping with a decline, but that does not change the demographic trend. Nevertheless, working from home, distance learning, the use of distributed diagnostic machines, and smart unmanned vehicles will all increase with the use of AI in smart devices. Even more automation in farming, industry and the provision of basic services can be expected. However, mitigation actions can only help in tolerating a population decline and cannot reverse the demographic trend. Immigration has been seen as a mitigation action. Populations only move from regions of lower to regions of higher economic development. Such immigration of people of child-bearing ages, usually brings an increase of fertility rates. However this increase disappears very quickly with the next generation and is only a short-term benefit. But increased immigration of working-age populations does provide short-term gains which can help to prevent the collapse of societal structures. 

The root problem, though, is the declining fertility rate and to have any chance of arresting the population decline will need actions to arrest and reverse the underlying fertility trend. Some possible actions are already being tried. It can be expected that we will see increasing attempts in the next 100 years to provide incentives for having children. It will be quite different from the last 100 years where the fear of population growth has led to an unhealthy emphasis on disincentives for having children and even incentives for terminating pregnancies. For a hundred years, the scare-mongers (such as The Club of Rome) have promoted the apocalyptic vision of exploding populations starving to death in a world unable to feed itself. The doom-sayers have hijacked the perception of virtue. Having many children has invited ridicule. Being a mother has been denigrated while being a childless “career-woman” has been glorified. The nuclear family has been maligned as being damaging to freedom and sustainability. But the bleak and cowardly narratives of population-explosion and peak-oil and peak-water and peak-food and peak-energy have all been false, malicious and insidious. The last 100 years have seen incentives for sterilisation and even forced sterilisations. Since the end of WW II, it has become, not just socially acceptable, but admirable, socially responsible and virtuous, not to have children. Abortion has become fashionable. From being a last-resort medical procedure to protect the life of the mother, abortion on demand and for convenience has become just another alternative to contraception. There are circles where having had an abortion is a badge of honour. There are around 60 million deaths every year and this will increase to about 120 million in 2100 as the world ages. There are around 115 million births per year and these will decline slowly through the rest of this century. In addition, according to the WHO,  there are an estimated 40-50 million abortions per year. This is incongruous in a world where a false “sustainability” has become a fashionable buzz-word. But it is economic development, not encouraged or forced sterilisations, which has reduced fertility rates. Not having children, it is being finally acknowledged, is not sustainable. 

Can public policy break the inexorable demographic trend and increase the fertility rate?

This will become the great challenge of the next 100 years. Financial incentives, often in the form of tax breaks, for having children are increasingly being introduced in many countries with low birth rates. These include Finland, Estonia, Italy, Japan, S Korea, Turkey, Iran and Australia among others. How successful they are remains to be seen. I suspect that financial incentives will not be enough. They will need to be provided together with strong social incentives to reverse the trend. Not having children cannot be a badge of honour. It is only when having children becomes a matter of social admiration that women will want to be mothers. It is only when having children becomes fashionable again that the declining trend can be reversed.


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