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20 February 2019updated 27 Jul 2021 6:25am

When the human tide ebbs

Global population boom may now be turning to population bust. The consequences, for better or worse, will shape our future.

By Anjana Ahuja

Sex: what is it good for? Building economies, inflating nationalist pride and winning wars, it seems. Demography is the hidden hand controlling the large-scale ebbs and flows of modern human history, from the spread of empire and the First World War, to the rise of China and the imminent demise of Japan as an economic superpower.

As the University of London demographer Paul Morland argues arithmetically but convincingly in The Human Tide, a society’s rise or downfall is mirrored in its numbers. Babies become, among other things, colonisers, cannon fodder and consumers. Luxembourg might be one of the world’s richest countries, but with just 600,000 citizens on roll, it barely registers on the world stage. The fledgling economies of the Bric countries, with their combined population of more than three billion, command attention through sheer people power.

At root, the thesis is a familiar one: demography is destiny, partially at least. “There has been a revolution of population over the past 200 years or so, and that revolution has changed the world,” Morland contends. “The demographic whirlwind – the ever-accelerating pace of change in population – has rattled through the globe from one region to another… [making a] vast and too often overlooked or underplayed contribution to the course of history.” He draws a link, for example, between youth and turmoil: the average age of a Yemeni citizen is under 20 years old. The Middle East boasts a comparatively young population, fertile soil for uprisings such as the Arab Spring.

Morland’s modern world begins in the 1800s, when the global population was on the brink of a billion and the warnings of Thomas Malthus were ringing loudly. The cleric’s 1798 treatise, An Essay on the Principle of Population, suggested that population growth would always outstrip any increase in food supply.

The 19th century saw the population shoot up as sanitation and infection control cut premature deaths. England’s royal matriarchy showcases the changes: Queen Victoria, who came to the throne in 1837, bore nine babies who all survived to become adults; her predecessor, Queen Anne, who died in 1714, endured 18 pregnancies but not a single child outlived her. The two major trends between the Victorian age and today were the stunning decline in child mortality and, when survival became the norm, a fall in the average number of children born per woman.

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At the beginning of the 20th century the shrinking birth rate and the increasing survival of the poor became strangely allied to the eugenics movement, as recruiters for the Boer War complained about inner-city boys with rickets and asthma. In 1895 the eugenicist Dr John Berry Haycraft even cautioned against eradicating tuberculosis, arguing: “If we stamp out infectious diseases we perpetuate these poor types.”

But the bigger picture is this: within the space of two centuries, the world population rose from one billion to seven billion. Every bawling newcomer is a rebuke to Malthus, and to his heirs, such as Paul Ehrlich, who warned in 1968 in The Population Bomb that food production had reached maximum capacity and that hundreds of millions would starve. Yes, the 20th and 21st centuries have been punctuated by famines that have killed millions, usually a result of mismanagement or malice, but our number keeps growing. The agricultural and industrial revolutions have allowed us to keep feeding ourselves, even if we are destroying the climate at the same time.

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For demographers, the key measure is fertility rate, or how many children are born, on average, per woman. In developed countries the replacement level, which a nation needs to maintain its population without migration, is 2.1 (the two to replace the parents, with an added 0.1 to compensate for infant mortality and premature female deaths). Births obviously add to population, while deaths at all ages subtract from it. An ever-changing balance of hatches and dispatches, plus migration, are the three fundamentals of population statistics.

Most major nations have tried at some point to massage these fundamentals up or down, with mixed success. Hitler longed to out-reproduce America, viewing high birth rates as a tool for power. China’s heinous one-child policy, abandoned in 2015, has led to a fertility rate of around 1.2, well below replacement rate. It also created a shocking gender imbalance of 120 males for every 100 females, which will further impact on future baby-making. The outlook for the country is uncertain, with “one of the motors of Chinese economic growth [an expanding workforce] close to shutting down”.

Israel, initially with an eye to renewal after the Holocaust and then for self-preservation among Arab neighbours, takes a more pro-natalist line, offering couples eight free IVF cycles until a woman reaches 42. Israeli citizens living abroad also qualify. Its fertility rate of around three children per couple is high for a developed nation. Even in Britain, in the run-up to the First World War, the National Birth-Rate Commission was established to investigate the dearth of babies, especially among the affluent. The commission’s champions included Beatrice Webb, co-founder of the New Statesman. More recently, Vladimir Putin has voiced concern at Russia’s fertility rate, which is below two.

Government intrusion in the bedroom, though, rarely works. In the absence of the one-child policy, Chinese couples would have had smaller families anyway, judging by their uncoerced peers in Korea and Taiwan. A falling fertility rate is the natural consequence of urbanisation and female education and empowerment. In the countryside, children are useful extra labour; in the city, they become expensive liabilities.

When it comes to the bigger picture, we are moving to a world with greyer hair and darker skin. In the UK men have a life expectancy of 80, while for women it is 83. In 1960, the world’s median age was 20; by 2100, it will be 40 (already the median age in the UK). Africa is still in a population boom. In sub-Saharan Africa, the population has quintupled from 180 million in the 1950s to close to a billion today. The median age there is 18 (less than half the age of the median European) and life expectancy is lengthening, which means that this continent, too, will age.

But fertility rates in Africa are also falling – and there is no evidence that this continent will buck the low-fertility endpoints already seen elsewhere. In South Africa, the rate has fallen to 2.5. Kenya has halved its rate from 8 to 4 children per woman since the 1960s. Nigeria is an uncertainty: the most populous African country produces closer to six babies per woman. This, though, is expected to drop as the country urbanises. As Morland concludes: “Demographic development is like a film playing at different times in different cinemas… We know how it ends.”

But do we, really? As Empty Planet cleverly identifies, the denouement of this demographic blockbuster could hold a plot twist. The United Nations forecasts a rise from our current seven billion to 11 billion this century, followed by a levelling off after 2100. Many, however, think the UN numbers are excessive, bloated by a baked-in failure to recognise how quickly attitudes to reproduction are changing, particularly in the developing world. The revisionists predict a peak of around nine billion between 2040 and 2060, before things go downhill.

The middle of this century could, according to the pollster Darrell Bricker and the journalist John Ibbitson, see not a population bomb but “a population bust – a relentless, generation-after-generation culling of the human herd. Nothing like this has ever happened before.” Prosperous nations such as Japan, South Korea, Spain and Italy already have declining numbers, while the big beasts such as China and Brazil will follow suit by 2050. 

The reversal of the human tide is likely to shape the future in profound ways. The authors speculate: “The defining geopolitical challenge in the coming decades could involve accommodating and containing an angry, frustrated China as it con-fronts the consequences of its disastrous one-child policy.” But there are other implications for humanity: contrary to what many believe, the fertility rate among indigenous peoples such as the Aborigine is also falling. The dwindling of a native people can also mean the permanent loss of culture and language.

The beauty of this book is that it links hard-to-grasp global trends to the easy-to-understand individual choices being made all over the world today. The authors roam the globe eavesdropping on conversations with young women contemplating having their own families. Whether in impoverished Delhi slums or smart European drawing rooms, women are prizing their education and economic independence. Today, child-rearing is less a familial duty than an act of personal fulfilment, and a more feminist outlook is disconnecting the need to have a child from the concept of womanhood.

Female education and aspirations, delayed marriage and, of course, contraception are all changing the status quo. The individual choice to have fewer offspring is being multiplied millions of times across continents. Having one or two children is, if not the norm, then the new global aspiration: a “low-fertility trap” from which is it is impossible to escape. In England and Wales, the fertility rate has been declining for five years and is currently around 1.8 children per woman.

The failure of a population to breed sufficiently to replace itself opens the door to the third fundamental in population statistics: migration. Empty Planet, already a gripping narrative of a world on the cusp of profound change, is even better for having been written by two Canadians, whose country remains a model of international integration. Justin Trudeau’s openness bodes well for Canada’s future, even if it runs against the current populist backlash against migrants.

As Bricker and Ibbitson write: “With populations ageing and declining almost everywhere, countries may one day be competing for immigrants… If America is to remain great, it must remain a nation that welcomes immigrants.”

Whether or not migration becomes more acceptable to nationalist leaders such as Donald Trump and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, both these books are timely offerings about how demography will shape our future. China’s millions of unhappy, brideless young men could cause internal unrest and external economic ripples.

Or a greying globe may be accompanied by a new world order: geriatric peace, to borrow the soothing phrase of the political scientist Mark Haas. If there is any chance of the latter, let us hope that demography really is destiny. 

Anjana Ahuja is a Financial Times contributing writer

The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World
Paul Morland
John Murray, 352pp, £25

Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline
Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson
Robinson, 304pp, £20

This article appears in the 14 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy