A world without children

We shouldn't worry about overpopulation, argues Mark Leonard. The real problem is quite different

On Tuesday 12 October, the six-billionth world citizen will be born somewhere - in Aberdeen, or Abidjan or Anchorage. That, at least, is the United Nations' official line. Even if most scientists believe global population passed that milestone a few months back, "six billion day" will be a chance for UN officials to warn of the dangers of more and more people sharing fewer and fewer resources.

At first glance the figures seem frightening. It took all of time for world population to reach one billion in 1804. Then 123 years for it to grow to two billion in 1927 and 33 years to reach three billion in 1960. Fourteen years later, in 1974, it had reached four billion; by 1987 we were five billion and the latest billion were born in the past 12 years.

However, maybe we should use the occasion to bury Malthusian predictions. Thomas Malthus was the economist who, in 1799, said that the human race would soon die of starvation. Populations, he argued, grow exponentially - 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 - while the availability of resources grows only arithmetically - 2, 4, 6, 8, 10. Result: the world must run out of food and starve. In fact, for most of the globe, successive generations since Malthus have been better nourished. But the reason to bury rather than praise Malthus is not because of his unwarranted pessimism but because his analysis is diametrically wrong. It is not overpopulation that is most likely to kill off humanity, but underpopulation.

While India and China will continue to grow in the medium term, the developed world is shrinking before our eyes. The Japanese government has predicted that its population will have fallen from 126 million today to just 500 by the end of the next millennium - and to a single person in AD3500. However absurd that may be, it is at least a scare in the right direction.

Instead of crystal-ball gazing about the fourth millennium, we should look at how societies are already changing. Britain is just one of 61 countries where insufficient babies are being born to replace the population. For a population to remain stable, women must have an average of 2.1 babies each. In the UK, women are having just 1.7. In Japan it is 1.4. In Spain it is just 1.15 (in some parts of Spain it has dropped below one). The unexpectedly sharp decline in fertility around the world has forced all forecasters - including the UN - to revise their predictions of when world population will peak before falling back. The UN's best guess is nine billion by 2050, but it admits the total could peak at 7.5 billion by 2040. But whether in 2040 or 2050, fall back it certainly will.

The increasing status of women around the world is to blame. Malthus's generation never considered the possibility that women would go to work or choose the size of their families. But since the trend is unlikely to be reversed, we have to consider the consequences of a shrinking world.

They are as dramatic as those of a population explosion - and make a mockery of our current preoccupation with scarcity. In advanced industrial societies such as Britain, a smaller population would mean an end to soaring property prices, gazumping, vendor chains and homelessness. The building trade would disappear, and green belts would be safe. A family outing might include a visit along empty roads to a genuine ghost town. Public transport systems would suffer from overcapacity, rather than overcrowding. Class sizes would shrink and schools would have to merge or close, or reinvent themselves as lifelong learning centres.

The impact on pensions of a diminishing workforce and changing age structure are well-known. Other impacts include the continuing disappearance of extended families. People will be lonelier and more dependent on institutionalised long-term care. Someone will have to pay for this, as the pension organisations have warned. On the plus side, fewer polluters may mean an end to global warming, while acid rain, poisoned seas and rivers would become things of the past.

But a shrinking population also brings new problems. At a time when developed countries are once again relying on labour, as economies move from production to knowledge or service industries, their workforces will contract severely. By the end of this year the population of working age in Germany, Italy and Japan will have started to decline by 1 per cent annually. Initially this will end unemployment but then it will create chronic labour shortages. Businesses will enter permanent recession as demand collapses due to an ever-contracting consumer base.

The consequences in the developing world will be equally dramatic. In 1950 two-thirds of the world's population lived in developing countries. By 2050, it will be nine-tenths. This will upset the geopolitical apple-cart. In the past three decades South Korea, Malaysia and China have developed faster than any other country, and the next millennium has, with reason, been dubbed the Asian millennium. At the same time, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria are laying claim to the next hundred years, which they have both called "Africa's century". India is making strident demands for a seat at the top table of world decision-making, while the US is obsessed that China may one day challenge its hegemony. The west has not yet found a way to deal with these demands.

The depopulation of the north and the misbalanced age structures of both north and south will change the balance of global power.

For Britain, this means totally reassessing its value system. At the Labour Party conference Tony Blair said: "In the 18th century land was our resource. In the 19th and 20th century, it was plant and capital. Today it is people." He meant that in a knowledge-based economy Britain must invest in its citizens' education if it is to prosper. The problem may be having enough citizens to educate.

Sweden is one country that has seen the warning signs and is introducing taxation policies to make parenting more attractive. The idea of a dowry for young families (once mooted by Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle) is another way to bribe people into parenthood. A government that is serious about population must also try to rebalance work and family life, and look beyond the usual panacea of parental leave.

One key to economic and social success will be a reappraisal of the immigration system. Ownership of the best land or natural resources will become less important than who has the best population, and European countries may find that "managing borders" will be crucial to their success. Instead of trying desperately to keep people from the developing world out, the west will have to encourage immigration. Countries such as Ireland and Canada have already shown the way in attracting the rich and the skilled from around the world with tax breaks. In such a world, Jorg Haider's prescriptions for Austria would be disastrous because countries that tried to keep out immigrants, rather than encouraging them, would stagnate.

The most powerful means of attracting good-quality immigrations would be to create a country that was worth living in. Just as the Statue of Liberty inspired and attracted generations of the brightest and most entrepreneurial immigrants to the US in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is the countries that offer an attractive way of life that will thrive in the next. Here Britain is peculiarly well placed. Not only does it have an amazing infrastructure for cultural diplomacy (the British Council, BBC World Service and so on), but it already stands for creativity, hybridity and openness to the world.

This may turn out to be as much about lifestyle as culture, so the "long hours" cultures of countries such as Singapore will lose out to more laid-back cultures such as Britain's.

Education will be specially important in the battle for skills and people. Excellent universities will attract fine minds to study (and hopefully work). But, ultimately, if Britain depends on people from around the world to make up its workforce, it must be as interested in their education systems as it is in its own. British companies could invest in, say, the University of Bangalore as a way of improving its domestic skills. Portugal should be as interested in Brazilian education as in its own.

There are implications, too, for national identity. France, with a fixed and fairly impenetrable culture, will have to choose between maintaining cultural "purity" and surviving in the depleted first world of the next century and beyond.

Finally, and most ominously, there are implications for personal taxation. Just as countries have slashed their rates of corporation tax over the past few years to attract inward investment, we might see countries cutting income tax to attract skilled workers. The implications for welfare states and public services could be very damaging.

The developed world's immigration policies have always been based on its own needs - opening up postwar to get the people without whom the welfare state could never have been staffed and then closing down and looking after its own in the stagnating seventies. The developing world already suffers from a brain and skills drain thanks to such policies in the industrialised world. Frank Dobson, the health secretary, has spoken memorably of the disastrous consequences for the Philippines of recruitment policies that attract foreign labour while giving nothing in return. It is not just that it is unfair to offer countries such as India a choice between losing all of its best people or opting out of the global economy by creating a prison nation on the old East German model. In a world where we make up only a tiny percentage of the population and where our continued prosperity and security depends on making deals with others - from nuclear security to free trade - it will not be in our interests to be hypocritical or selfish about immigration.

We must stop being in two minds about population. We need a sensible global policy that replaces our fears about there being too many people and concentrates on whether we have the skills to compete. We have to stop fussing about single mothers, immigration and asylum and recognise that in an interdependent world it is in all our interests to give the six-billionth member of the human race a world worth living in.

Mark Leonard is director of the Foreign Policy Centre.
Additional research by Rachel Briggs

This article first appeared in the 11 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A world without children