World Population Implosion?

Congressional Briefing
February 23, 1998

Over the past several years, some of the world's best demographers have begun a dramatic reassessment of the world's demographic future. They are now seriously proposing the possibility that the world's population will peak in our lifetimes, and then commence an indefinite decline. At a time when all manner of potential "population problems" are regularly accorded official attention by national and international authorities, the neglect that has to date greeted the possibility of a long-term reduction of human numbers is curious, and striking.

The "depopulationist" scenario has been set out most recently in the United Nations Population Division's 1996 revision of its biennial compendium, World Population Prospects. According to the entirely plausible assumptions of its "low variant projection" about the future, global depopulation would commence in a little over four decades. Between 2040 and 2050, the world's population would fall by about 85 million. From then on, world population would shrink by roughly 25 percent with each successive generation. To put the matter another way, world fertility patterns in this vision of the future would be similar to those in the "more developed regions" today, where the "net reproductions rate" (NRR) is already down to about 0.7 (meaning that the next generation, under present patterns of childbearing and survival, would be about 30 percent smaller than the current one)

How significant are these trends — or is their significance anything we can meaningfully assess? Consider for starters one example: their possible implications for global politics. For the same projections that would result in an ultimate global population decline would also bring about a significant redistribution of world population. In 1995, the ratio of population between "less developed" and "more developed" regions stood at about four to one; in 2050, by these projections, it would be seven to one. The balance of population would shift dramatically not only between given countries but even between entire continents. In 1995, for example, the estimated populations of Europe (including Russia) and Africa (including Egypt and the Maghreb states) were almost exactly equal. In 2050, by these projections, Africans would outnumber Europeans by over three to one.

Just how demographically negligible the current industrial democracies would be in this version of the year 2050 may be illustrated with a single comparison: Not a single European state — including Russia — could match the Philippines in total population. Other things being equal, one can argue, these trends presage a tremendous shift in the balance of global power.

These same demographic forces of longer lives and falling fertility would also inexorably pave the way for a radical aging of the human population — a shift of a magnitude with no historical precedent. Around 1900, the median age of the world's population may have been about 20 years — not far from what it had been in all earlier eras. By 1995, it reached about 25 years. By the year 2050, in this "low variant" world, the median age would be over 42. In some countries, of course, the population would be even more aged: Japan's median age would be 53; Germany's, 55; Italy's 58.

This tremendous and rather sudden aging process would have subsidiary implications. For the world as a whole the number of children would sharply decline while there would be a population boom among the elderly (or let us say, groups currently considered elderly). [SEE FIGURE 1] In the "less developed regions," there would be three times as many older people as young children; in the "more developed regions," the ratio would be eight to one. In Italy, which serves in these projections as the extreme instance of demographic aging, barely 2 percent of the population in 2050 would be under the age of five, but more than 40 percent would be 65 or older.

The world imagined in the UN's "low variant" projections would also have major implications for governments. Negative population growth would especially threaten the central feature of the modern welfare state: the nationwide, tax-financed, pay-as-you-go pension program. In virtually all of today's industrial democracies, such programs were established in periods of relatively high fertility and relatively rapid population growth. With below-replacement fertility and increasing longevity, the arithmetic changes unforgivingly. As the ratio of employees to retirees falls, such programs have only three options for preventing bankruptcy: reduce pension benefits; raise taxes; restrict eligibility. There are no alternatives.

Finally, it is interesting to ponder how the demographic revolution to come will affect the human family as most of us have experienced it. The UN's projections set the state for a world never before inhabited: a world in which the only biological relatives for many people — perhaps most people — will be their ancestors.

Consider the possibilities for Italy, currently the country with the world's lowest fertility level. If Italy's current regimen is extended for two generations, almost three-fifths of the nation's children will have no siblings, cousins, aunts, or uncles; they will have only parents, grandparents, and perhaps great-grandparents. Under those same assumptions, less than 5 percent of Italy's children would have both siblings and cousins.

Projecting the fertility rates for the entire European Union forward two generations only slightly alters the Italian scenario. Meanwhile, families in the "less developed regions" in the year 2050 would not have moved so far in this direction. But they would in time: Within another generation or two, a family consisting of siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts would be anomalous throughout the entire world. For many people, "family" would be understood as a unit that does not include any biological contemporaries or peers.

All this represents merely a sketch of a future whose social, political, economic, and otherwise human outlines promise to break sharply with anything in recorded experience. Yet opaque as these changes may appear today, we may yet manage to discern them very carefully. A good number of us we could eventually experience them firsthand: in the UN's "low variant" projections, in fact, half of the world's current inhabitants will still be alive at the time that global depopulation commences.

Nicholas Eberstadt is a researcher with the American Enterprise Institute and the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. This piece is digested from "World Population Implosion? Speculations About the Demographics of De-population," The Public Interest, Fall 1997.

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