For decades, one of the most popular themes in science fiction has been overpopulation: Because of the skyrocketing number of people shortages of every item abound, even simple things like taking a walk and going shopping have become challenging because of humongous crowds. These days, this theme has to be re-considered, because populations in countries around the world are declining, and in some they are plunging.
If this seems fortuitous, it is not. The consequences of this shift in demographics may be slow in coming but come they certainly will. And when they do, they will shake people and industries, economies and militaries, and will impact the way we work, think, study, travel, spend money, and invest.
Entrepreneur Elon Musk said the view that the world has too many people is outdated. “I think the biggest problem the world will face in the next 20 years is population collapse,” he says. “People are not reproducing as fast as they need to. The common rebuttal is that this is not a serious problem - it can be solved by increasing immigration. But immigration from where?
“It would be a sad ending for civilization if the average age becomes very high and the youth are effectively enslaved to take care of the old people. People are going to have to regard, to a certain degree, the notion of having kids as almost a social duty. Otherwise, civilization will literally just die.”
Can this idea really be correct? Is Musk exaggerating? Unfortunately, recent statistics back him up. On April 26, the Census Bureau reported that in the last decade, the U.S. population grew at the slowest rate since the Great Depression - which also was the second-slowest rate for any 10-year period since 1776.
In mid-April the government reported that the birthrate in America had declined for the sixth straight year. When factoring in the very steep drop in births in December, the population is no longer growing by births alone.
These trends are by no means limited to the US - other industrialized nations in Europe and Asia have been experiencing the same or worse for years - but now it is accelerating.
Couples need on average 2.1 children simply to maintain populations at their current levels; a higher number means that the population will grow, if lower it will decline. In many countries it is declining dramatically and is expected to fall even faster going forward. The populations of 23 nations are expected to drop by half by 2100, and at that time there will be as many people turning 80 as there are being born.
Japan’s population is projected to fall from a peak of 128 million in 2017 to less than 53 million by the turn of the century. Italy’s population is expected to crash from the current 61 million to 28 million during the same time period.
China’s population is expected to peak in 2024 and drop by nearly half by 2100. The population in the UK will rise slowly until 2063, then it too will fall.
Spain, Portugal, Thailand, and South Korea also are among the many countries whose populations are expected to drop by half by 2100. At the same time, the number of people over 80 will soar from 141 million in 2017 to 866 million. Add all of these together and the world will look like a very different place in the coming years.
Why This Is A Problem
At first glance, fewer people may sound like a good thing. There will be less hunger, more resources per capita, less pollution, less congestion on our highways, less competition for jobs, and less need for farmland and clean water. So what’s wrong if there aren’t as many people?
Prof Christopher Murray offers this explanation. “(The crash in population) will create enormous social change,” he says. “Who pays tax in a massively aged world? Who pays for healthcare for the elderly? Who looks after the elderly? Will people still be able to retire from work? We need a soft landing.”
According to Musk, “We are going to face in the mid-part of the century and particularly the latter part of the century a demographic implosion the likes of which we have never seen - even during the Black Plague.”
When the pandemic ramped up early last year and quarantines and lockdowns became widespread many people, including experts in demographics, predicted there would be a Baby Boom. Not only didn’t that happen, but birth rates, which already had been trending down, continued to fall. In the US, birth rates hit a 35-year low in 2019. And in 2020, populations actually declined in at least five states.
Why The Drop?
So why is this happening? One answer is increased financial pressures. In 2020, money pressures forced many millennials - adults between 24 and 39 - to move back home with their parents. The percentage of 18- to 29-years-olds living with a parent rose to the highest level since the Great Depression.
Many weddings had to be postponed and, in some cases, cancelled, because of financial costs, travel restrictions, and limits placed on the number of people who could gather. Reuters reported that in Italy, the number of marriages dropped by more than 50% in the first ten months of 2020. By December, nine months after the lockdowns were first imposed, births dropped by 21.6%; in Britain imports of baby carriages plunged to the lowest since records were first kept in 2000.
Restrictions on non-urgent medical procedures had an impact on the one-in-seven couples who has difficulty conceiving and who require medical intervention. Headlines warning that pregnant women were at higher risk of becoming infected with severe COVID and even dying also held down births. And so did the narrowing pay gap in the work force, as many women put priority on advancing their careers and delayed starting or building their families. The think-tank Brookings Institution expects there will be between 300,000-500,000 fewer births in the US in 2021 than the year before.
As these trends progress businesses and institutions of all kinds will be impacted, including food and clothing companies, toys, housing, the military, colleges and other areas of education, medical care, autos, health insurance, computers, and most everything else too.
Stanford University economics professor Charles Jones predicts that living standards will stagnate as the population stagnates. Jones says economic growth ultimately comes from new ideas, and the discovery of new ideas depends on the number of people researching them.
As if these problems weren’t enough, it’s also very likely that there will be increasing social pressures between the various sectors of society. Financial strains will likely emerge as governments have to pay higher social costs while revenues are declining from a smaller tax base, and because of increasing automation.
A very different sort of problem is unfolding in several countries because of the falling birth rate, most notably in France. The native French population is growing very slowly, but immigrant communities there refuse to accept the French culture and are growing very rapidly; an increasing number of neighborhoods have become no-go zones - so violent that even police are afraid to go there. Many hundreds of current and former army officers have sent an urgent letter to French President Macron warning that a civil war may be imminent. Had the birth rate in France been higher in recent years, this may not have become a problem - and certainly would not have grown into the major issue it is now.
While suggested solutions to the drop-off in births vary sharply, there is one thing all can agree with: that we are living in very “interesting” times. Unfortunately, they are also becoming very worrisome.
Sources: aier.org; bbc.com; ft.com; msn.com; zerohedge.com; YouTube: Elon Musk’s Controversial Speech That Exposed The Biggest Deception In The World