Houses are abandoned in the UK, ghost cities pop up across China, schools in South Korea are shuttered while vacant properties in Germany are plowed under, replaced by open fields. It sounds apocalyptic but it is taking place today as population growth reverses for the first time in recorded history.
Fertility rates are falling everywhere, and scientists predict a sustained decline for the entire later half of the century. Governments are already planning for the downswing but as with climate change, it may be too little too late. To make matters worse, once the decline starts, it spirals exponentially downward. Low fertility produces an age structure that creates a momentum for future population decline, a situation that must be stopped at some point if the population is to be demographically sustainable. The New York Times recently wrote
“With fewer births, fewer girls grow up to have children, and if they have smaller families than their parents did — which is happening in dozens of countries — the drop starts to look like a rock thrown off a cliff.”
It is believed the decline in births was prefaced by the introduction of birth control measures and economic advantages for women who do not have children, then accelerated by fear and anxiety that ramped up during the Coronavirus pandemic. As a result, a new civilization is predicted to rise, one geared more toward the elderly than the young. A world where funerals become commonplace and births an event celebrated by the entire town. In this new society, the strain on a younger population will grow worse as they find themselves unable to take care of the burgeoning population of geriatrics.
As the population spirals downward, fewer consumers means lower GDP, and a lower GDP means economic recession. During a sustained worldwide recession, we can expect infrastructure to degrade as funds run out, youth-related facilities (e.g. playgrounds, nurseries) to shutter as demand wanes, and with pension systems crumbling, elderly skilled workers will be asked to delay retirement, possibly by several years. Those too old to work may recognize they are burdens on the economy and wellbeing of the younger population. They may feel obligated to reduce their burden by any means possible. Pope Francis recently called the plight a “demographic winter” and noted that it will be “cold and dark”.
Proponents claim a declining population will lower carbon emissions and increase wages. Opponents, however, note that the demographic will be unique and the outcome unproven. The only country known to experience a population decline in recent times in Japan where labor shortages erupted, and health and pension systems collapsed.
The predicted replacement rate for a society is 2.1 children per woman. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the global birth rate hovered around 5.0 (which quickly doubled the planet’s population). Today the replacement rate is less than 2.0 – and falling.