How worried should we be about global depopulation? Some East Asian countries have fertility rates near or even below 1.0, while much of the core population of Europe is shrinking. In the U.S., fertility rates have fallen below replacement rates, hitting a historic low of 1.7 in 2019, and will likely fall even further in 2020 in part due to COVID-19. Many of the world’s poorer countries are seeing their birth rates plunge at unprecedented rates. By the year 2100, according to one projection, world population growth will be practically zero.

If you think the world is overpopulated and has serious environmental problems, you might welcome this news. But dwindling populations create their own inexorable logic. If the Japanese population shrinks by half, to 65 million or so, what’s to stop it from declining to 30 million? Or 20 million?

There is some evidence that shrinking populations are bad for the global economy. To me, however, the greater tragedy would be a failure to take full advantage of the planet’s capacity to sustain human life. No kind of family policy should be mandatory. But there should be policies that make larger families a more appealing option, both economically and otherwise.

One possibility is that a shrinking population itself will bring self-reversing mechanisms. For instance, a Japanese population half its current size would make Japan an emptier place, presumably lowering land prices. Some families would find it easier to afford a larger apartment in central Tokyo and perhaps decide to have more children.

But that mechanism seems more likely to reduce population decline than to reverse it. Living space is only one of many factors behind decisions about family size. And as population declines, the stock of houses and apartments will decline too, so in the longer run the amount of space per family may not increase by very much.

Population trends depend on how permanent are the causes of fertility decline. In many cases women prefer to pursue careers, or to start having children later, and that means lower birth rates. This same logic would apply in a much less populous Japan or Italy.

Another factor in declining fertility, especially in the U.S., is single parenthood. If a potential mother is facing a fertility decision without another full-time parent on the scene, she is more likely to choose to have fewer children. As population falls, will single-parent families become less common? It is hard to see why. Whether the issue is a lack of marriageable men, unstable family norms or women who simply prefer to go it alone, there is no particular reason to think those factors will disappear in an era of population decline.

If anything, the impetus toward smaller family size might continue or even accelerate. Job opportunities for women may keep improving in quality, which increases the opportunity costs of having a large family. Furthermore, many countries around the world are becoming wealthier. As wealth increases, religiosity tends to decline, and religiosity also tends to boost family size.

What might be some other intervening factors to restore fertility? Perhaps tender and loving robots will make it much easier to raise young children. Or maybe, as populations fall to much lower levels, a sense of moral panic will set in. Families might decide to have more children, feeling that the very survival of their country is at stake. A more elaborate and dystopian scenario would be that corporations take over empty parts of the globe and pay for the raising of children there, in return for a share of their future income.

Undoubtedly there are other unusual (and more utopian) scenarios. Whatever their likelihood, it would not be wise to count on them. It is already the case that in many places, such as Singapore, governments have embarked on aggressive yet ineffective pro-family subsidy policies.

Depopulation is a major problem that the world in general, and its wealthier countries in particular, are failing even to discuss, much less address. In any given year, in any given country, a shrinking population may not be much of an issue, and it may even be welcomed. But make no mistake: Over time, collectively, we are choosing a very different future for humanity.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”

Locations

(6) comments

gary4books

It is difficult to adjust to the unexpected. However, many years ago they had a meeting of former Presidential Science Advisors and they ranged from those who served Eisenhower on. And three or four said depopulation was their serious concern for the future. I do know we have heard a lot about overpopulation. But in the last few years declining fertility and other population trends has changed what we know and what we expect. I have no doubt that science can fix this problem. But right now it is real and we can expect a time of denial. Just as we faced when we feared overpopulation. It is difficult to change minds and attitudes.

Just stay tuned. This will be a slow process and a long term concern.

Dwasserba

“Perhaps tender and loving robots will make it much easier to raise young children.” Wow. Way to devalue parenting.

shiftless88

Wow! At first I assumed this was some local Jim D. disciple ranting in some uneducated manner, but this person is actually PAID to rant in an uneducated manner. Even a little logic will indicate that if the population decreases due to whatever reason, it will inexorably continue to increase if possible. One only needs to look at past history when the populations took large hits due to war and disease. Or even simpler; the conditions he describes existed already in our past (lower population) yet the population increased with those conditions. But most arrogant was the phrase, "take full advantage of the planet’s capacity to sustain human life". What it ignores is the cost to the ecosystem and the assumption that we are the only thing that matters in this world.

threecents

Depopulation is a major problem? Are you joking? Overpopulation has been and still is one of the biggest threats to the human race. We are closing in on 8 billion now and projected to hit 10 billion around 2060.

Greg F

No, we do not need more humans. We are already nearing a breaking point with more people than the earth can sustain, especially in any means remotely where people have equal and fair opportunities. Sure, places like Japan are seeing population declines. One major reason is the completely ridiculous costs of raising a child these days, especially there. Far fewer want to saddle themselves with the high costs of childcare and don't have options for a stay at home parent either like past generations have had. Also, many cultures do not adhere to the grandma/grandpa daycare option like here in the US. In Japan, that rarely exists. We may like to think it does, but it doesn't. I know enough folks from there who have said that and also read enough articles on the subject. Want to make up for dwindling populations? Take in people from places where people want to leave that can fill in the gaps. Sure, you're going to change your make-up of the population as a whole, but....it's an option. Why we build nations and policy on the necessity for growth is something that needs to change. The political will has to exist for that to happen. It's nowhere near that in most places. Like around here...just bulldoze and put up cookie cutter homes and spread out and "grow" the economy. Don't bother fixing or upgrading what's already in use and obsolete. Just shove people you don't like in to there, right? That's the way it seems these days. Don't want to live in poverty? Stop spitting out 5 or 7 or 9 kids then. We don't need more people. We need better humans that can work with what we have.

Dwasserba

One of the albatross specters looming over young parent candidates is paying off their education loans, which is a responsible choice. There is no reason to get certain degrees from an ivy, ten years out the first question isn’t “where did you go to school?”, and bringing it up out of context is weird. Focus. Debt delays everything in its turn.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it clean. No vulgar, racist, sexist or sexually-oriented language.
Engage ideas. This forum is for the exchange of ideas, not personal attacks or ad hominem criticisms.
TURN OFF CAPS LOCK.
Be civil. Don't threaten. Don't lie. Don't bait. Don't degrade others.
No trolling. Stay on topic.
No spamming. This is not the place to sell miracle cures.
No deceptive names. Apparently misleading usernames are not allowed.
Say it once. No repetitive posts, please.
Help us. Use the 'Report' link for abusive posts.

Thank you for reading!

Already a member?

Login Now
Click Here!

Currently a News-Post subscriber?

Activate your membership at no additional charge.
Click Here!

Need more information?

Learn about the benefits of membership.
Click Here!

Ready to join?

Choose the membership plan that fits your needs.
Click Here!