The population of our planet, which has been growing so rapidly in an age of vaccines and water treatment, has been slowing in its growth rate and will reach 9.8 billion in 2050 and eventually level off at 11.2 billion in 2100, according to the “medium variant” version of the UN 2017 population projections (description of findings here and graphs here), a pace of growth that reflects a doubling of population by 2050 in 26 African countries. This projection has itself increased from prior versions of the same calculations, which were 9.0 billion in 2010 and 9.6 billion in 2012 for the 2050 estimate, and 10.0/10.9 billion in 2010 and 2012, respectively, for the 2100 estimate, which suggests, to those worried about overpopulation, that world population will never stabilize, raising fears of environmental catastrophe.
Now, a new book, Empty Planet by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, promises some good, or at least different news, as indicated in the book’s subtitle, The Shock of Global Population Decline. They believe that the UN model, respected though it may be, is flawed. In particular, the model is based on an assumption that future fertility declines will match past declines in their pacing; here’s their description of the UN calculation process:
Simply put: the UNPD assumes the fertility rate in a given country or region will match other countries or regions that have had similar experiences but that are further down the road. Let’s say Country A has lowered its fertility rate from six to four over the space of thirty years. Country B once had a fertility rate of six, and it also took thirty years to reduce its fertility rate to four. Country B then lowered its fertility rate from four to two in the space of forty years. The UNPD predicts that the fertility rate of Country A will also decline from four to two over forty years (p. 44).
Bricker and Ibbitson dispute this approach. Fundamentally, there has been so much rapid recent change, they write, that it simply isn’t appropriate to assume the same pace of change going forward as in the past. And this assertion makes sense in light of some of the stunning statistics one happens upon periodically: “FGM rates in east Africa drop from 71% to 8% in 20 years, study shows,” according to a recent Guardian headline. “India says all villages have electricity,” reported the BBC in 2018. “Majorities in sub-Saharan Africa own mobile phones, according to Pew polling. And so on.
Instead, they, and the experts they learn from believe that the earth’s population is more likely to follow the “low variant” model, in which the population peaks at 8.5 billion at around 2050, and by 2100 is much closer to our present 7.5 billion.
Are they right?
On the one hand, they state unambiguously that fertility declines are the inevitable result of urbanization; worldwide (though at different rates), populations will urbanize and children will become “more mouths to feed” rather than contributors to the family economy, producing the desire for fewer children, or, expressed another way, the lack of desire for children, beyond the one or two that enable the parent to check that box of child-bearing. What’s more, girls are moving into formal education, and their numbers of years of education are increasing dramatically, which is bringing about a delay in childbearing not just among the professional class but among all classes.
On the other hand, many of these countries have had very aggressive population-control campaigns. The authors’ reaction is largely that these fertility rate reductions would have happened anyway, but the crux of their argument is that changes will happen far more rapidly now and going forward than in the past, noting, for instance, the extremely rapid pace of mobile phone penetration. How well can demographers judge the future pace of changes in fertility rates based on women’s desire and ability to practice family planning, when they must rely on past trends reflecting, to various degrees, compulsion by their governments?
And what of proposals in developed world countries to increase child benefits, daycare, parental leave, and the whole list of items on the agenda meant to increase fertility rates? Here, too, the authors reject the UN approach of assuming that fertility rates will, in the long run, return from very, very much lower than replacement rate to just somewhat lower than replacement rate, as child care becomes more affordable and childrearing less burdensome. Instead, they cite demographers who say that a “low-fertility trap” mindset takes hold once fertility rates of 1.5 are sustained for a generation; childbearing is no longer about obligations to family, community, and God, but about personal fulfilment (p. 80), and that mindset simply can’t be unwound with more childcare or child benefits.
But Bricker and Ibbitson are not demographers; they’re a pollster and a journalist, respectively, and more interested in how this changing world will impact all of us. They visit with young professionals across the globe and find commonalities in their expectations, that their life goals accommodate one or two, or no, children. They express the same concern others have, that, however much a smaller population might sound attractive due to environmental worries, an aging society will leave the younger generation burdened with eldercare and missing the sense of vitality and innovation necessary for economic growth. And they promote the Canadian model of immigration, a policy which seeks to grow the population size considerably, but to do so by deliberately selecting high-skilled future citizens with a points-based immigration system.
So what does this all mean for our future, specifically in the United States? To begin with, their concept of the “low-fertility trap” as it relates to the currently record-low fertility rate in the U.S., is properly the subject of a follow-up article (with, yes, a growing collection of links). And there’s no reason to expect that immigration to America, or interest in such, will be curtailed at any time soon, both because the populations of many countries will continue to grow for many years as their youth-bulges reach childbearing age, regardless of how few or many children they, collectively, have and because there’s no reason the United States wouldn’t continue to be a magnet for immigrants even with home countries with stable or declining population (after all, many countries already in that situation are seeing their young adults seeking greener pastures). What’s more, this is a long term trend which will occur alongside likewise-unknowable impacts of increasing automation, robotics and AI, which will, depending on the experts you trust, lead us into a Golden Age of prosperity or a Gilded Age of misery.
Ultimately, it’s one more example of the profound changes underway in society and the economy across the world — and a reminder that planning for the future simply must happen even despite the uncertainty about what that future holds.