Preparing for an age of population decline

The fertility rate in virtually all countries is declining.  The fertility rate in much of the world, including North America, Europe, Russia, China and Japan, is already below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per average woman.

If this goes on, world population will peak soon after the end of the century and start declining.  Populations of a few countries are declining already.

This is good news.  All other things being equal, it means less danger of famine, less pressure on the environment and less competition for scarce resources.

Click to enlarge.

But there are problems, too.  One is decline of nations as their populations become older and smaller.  Another is a change in the world balance of power during the transition, as some nations shrink while others continue to grow.

Two Canadian writers, Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, explored these issues in a new book, EMPTY PLANET: The Shock of Global Population Decline.

The fertility rate is 1.4 in Japan and 1.1 in South Korea.  In the short term, this means an ever-larger elderly population that must be supported by an ever-smaller working age population.  I don’t think it is an accident that Japan has more robots per person than any other country.

A younger population tends to be more ambitious, innovative and warlike.  An older population tends to be more cautious and peaceful.  Older populations consume less, which is a good thing—but not for a capitalist economy, which requires growing markets.

In the long run, unless there is a change of direction, countries with low fertility rates could literally die out.  Americans and Canadians, with fertility rates of 1.8 and 1.5, have kept up national population numbers through immigration.  But the Japanese and South Koreans accept virtually no immigrants.  They see immigration as a threat to their racial and cultural purity.

In the short run, Japan and South Korea face economic decline and, in the long run, a slow fading from the world scene.  All countries whose birth rates fall below the replacement rate will face this dilemma sooner or later, the authors wrote.

Demographers have a term, “the population transition.”  It describes how countries go from having a high birth rate and high death rate to a high birth rate and low death rate (a population explosion) and end up with a low birth rate and low death rate.

This is often attributed to growing wealth, but Bricker and Ibbitson argued that the key factor is cultural change.  It is a combination of:

  • Feminism, women gaining control of reproduction and finding opportunities outside the home.
  • Urbanization, people moving to cities where, unlike on the farm, additional children are no longer an asset.
  • Modernity, people living for themselves instead of to perpetuate a family, faith or nation.

Feminism, urbanization and modernity explain how the fertility rate in Brazil, a poor country, can be 1.7,  well below the 2.1 replacement rate and below the 1.8 fertility rates of the United States and the United Kingdom.  This is good news because it means that the population transition can take place without the whole world adopting the American consumer culture.

When religion and nationalism are strong, fertility rates, all other things being equal, are likely to be high.  Loyalty to faith and nation  likely explain why the Israeli fertility rate is 3.1 and the Palestinian rate is 3.9.

Ibbitson and Bricker think their own nation, Canada, has found a good temporary answer to population decline.  It is to encourage and welcome immigrants.  On a per capita basis, Canada admits three times as many immigrants each year as the USA does.

The authors believe English Canada has a weak sense of cultural identity and think this makes it easier for immigrants ro adapt to Canadian life.  They deplore French Canadian cultural nationalism because they think it makes Quebec less welcoming

They said Canada makes immigration work by screening immigrants based on on a points system, which includes education, job skills, knowledge of English or French and prior connection with Canada.

Canada also admits a certain number of refugees, but they have to have Canadian sponsors.  So most immigrants are able to fit in and make a positive contribution to Canadian life.

I myself enjoy visits to Toronto, a thriving city where about half the population is foreign-born. It is like a smaller New York City without the grime and crime.

As the authors note, Canadians are not particularly welcoming to asylum seekers who enter their country without authorization.  They don’t get many because their country is bounded by oceans on the north, east and west and by the United States on the south.  The USA, on the other hand, is bounded on the south by Mexico and the Caribbean.

Historically, the American melting pot has been different from the Canadian mosaic.  Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were mostly poor people who found work as servants or sweatshop workers.  Their children were indoctrinated into American values as public school teachers and social workers understood them at the time.

It worked.  Most immigrants became generic Americans.  I hope this can continue to work.

Canada is committed to multiculturalism.  This is a paradox because multiculturalism itself is a cultural value that is unique to white English-speaking and northern European countries.  Almost all other cultures think of themselves as something special.

In Canada, it seems to me, everybody, immigrants included, are expected to embrace the philosophy I call “woke-ness” and the Canadian writer Eric Kaufmann calls left modernism.  So immigrants are not expected to assimilate to a pre-existing national culture, but to a blended modernist international culture that includes such values as abortion rights and gay marriage (which I personally happen to favor).

Left modernism would be contrary to the morals of a traditional Muslim or Hindu.  But maybe it would be less humiliating for an immigrant from India or Pakistan to adopt the values of left modernism than it would be to adopt the values of Protestant Christianity.

Unlike Bricker and Ibbitosn, I do not criticize nations such as Viktor Orban’s Hungary for barring immigrants out of fear will swamp the national culture.  That is a decision that nations have a right to make.  But I think it will take more to preserve Hungary’s culture than barring Middle Eastern refugees.

Hungary is a relatively poor country with a difficult language and a fertility rate of 1.5. Unlike with Canada and the USA, I doubt if there are many people worldwide whose ambition is to become Hungarian.  Immigrants to Hungary would likely regard it as a temporary stop until they can move to a more dynamic country.

Hungary has another population problem, and that is emigration of its young people to places that offer more excitement and opportunity.  Out-migration from Hungary and other eastern European countries is a big problem for them.

Small nations with low fertility rates and lagging economic growth will wind up like certain small rural American towns where all the young people have left for the big cities, leaving behind nothing but empty buildings and old retired people.


Overall Empty Planet is a best-case scenario for the demographic transition.

Bricker and Ibbitson expect fertility rates to continue to decline worldwide, even faster than the United Nations predicts, including in sub-Saharan Africa.

They expect the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, to continue to progress technologically and become wealthier while population shrinks.

They don’t expect catastrophic climate change, catastrophic war or a catastrophic economic crisis or anything else that would disrupt progress.  I’m not so sure.  But may it be so!

Sub-Saharan Africa is the last region of the world to begin rapid population growth.  The United Nations predicts that, by the year 2100, one out of every two babies born on the planet will be from Africa (as a whole) and 90 percent of the human race will be African or Asian.  Population growth in sub-Saharan Africa will be the topic of my next post.


An excerpt from Empty Planet.

The World Might Actually Run Out of People, an interview of Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson for Wired.

Empty Planet: Why shrinking population could be the next big threat to geopolitics by Srinivas Goli for The Financial Express (Bangladesh)

World population growth is expected to nearly stop by 2100 by Anthony Gilluppo and Neil Ruiz for Pew Research Center.

Many worldwide oppose more migration—both into and out of their countries by Philip Connor and Jens Manuel Krogstad for Pew Research Center.

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