John Ibbitson is writer at large at The Globe and Mail. Darrell Bricker is CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs. They are the authors of Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida had a grim message. The country’s extremely low birth rate had placed the nation’s future in peril.
“Japan is standing on the verge of whether we can continue to function as a society,” he declared in a speech in January to the country’s national legislature, the Diet.
“Focusing attention on policies regarding children and child-rearing is an issue that cannot wait and cannot be postponed.”
Japan is not alone. Using United Nations data, we have identified 36 countries that are losing population right now, with more set to join them. The population explosion is ending, to be replaced by a global implosion.
More than 30 countries, from China to Italy to Japan, are expected to lose half their population, or close to it, over the course of this century. That number will likely increase as the years go by.
When our book Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline came out in 2019, we were derided in some quarters for predicting that the challenges of population decline, not population growth, would dominate this century.
Today, though different analysts offer different projections, the best-researched studies predict that the planet’s population will start to decline some time around or soon after mid-century.
The revelation that China, the world’s most populous nation, started losing people last year brought the issue into sharper focus.
In Empty Planet we wrote: “Population decline is not a good thing or a bad thing. But it is a big thing.” Four years on, we’ve changed our minds. We believe that population decline is a very bad thing, one that could define our future. If, that is, we have much of a future left.
How bad is it?
In the past few years, a number of countries have posted shocking population data. South Korea now has the world’s lowest total fertility rate – 0.8, more than one full baby shy of the 2.1 children per woman, known as the replacement rate, needed to sustain its population. China’s fertility rate has declined from 1.8 in 2017 to 1.0 or 1.1 last year. The total fertility rate (TFR) in the Philippines has plummeted from 2.7 in 2017 to 1.9 in 2022, the equivalent of almost one full baby. Italy, with the fastest shrinking population in Europe, has so many old people and so few young people that Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has warned “Italy is destined to disappear.”
Many people celebrate the environmental benefits of declining fertility. Fewer people on this Earth will ease the stress on the planet, helping to reduce carbon emissions and promote biodiversity. We celebrate this, too.
But a society in which fewer children are born each year than were born the year before, even as people overall are living longer, suffers the economic consequences of aging: fewer and fewer workers whose taxes support pension and health care systems; fewer young consumers to purchase the cars and houses and appliances and clothing that drive economic growth; fewer creative young minds to help us innovate our way out of pressing problems.
As societies age, problems multiply. They become collectively more vulnerable to infectious diseases, because immune systems are, on average, weaker. Infrastructure must be rebuilt to accommodate a frail population.
As older people seek to preserve their quality of life, younger people – especially younger women – struggle to meet the needs of their own families while looking after older relatives, even as they seek to preserve and advance their careers. “It’s a mental-health issue. It’s an infectious disease issue. It’s an aging-in-place issue. It’s a geriatric care issue,” Ellie Graeden, research professor with the Georgetown University Center for Global Health Science and Security, told us.
Facing the prospect of losing more than half its population over the next 70 years, Mr. Kishida announced the creation of a new agency tasked with arresting, or at least slowing, the loss of Japan’s population. That agency will confront three possible solutions, none of which offers long-term relief from population decline.
The Canadian solution
Countries that don’t have enough babies to sustain their population can turn to immigrants. Canada leads the Group of Seven in population growth despite having a fertility rate of only 1.4 because, since 1990, both Conservative and Liberal governments have recruited immigrants aggressively, with 465,000 expected to arrive this year and a target of 500,000 set for 2025.
Many countries, including Japan, don’t permit widespread immigration, preferring to preserve their cultural homogeneity. But immigration is an imperfect solution even for countries that welcome large numbers of them.
For one thing, we may soon start to run out. In 2001, China was the No. 1 source country for immigrants to Canada, and had been for a decade. Today it is a distant second thanks to declining fertility and a rising standard of living. India, which will overtake China this year as the world’s most populous country, now accounts for almost 30 per cent of all immigrants to Canada. But India’s fertility has been dropping rapidly and now sits at 2.0, below replacement level. The Indian government now expects that in about 30 years the country will be losing population.
Apart from sub-Saharan Africa, there are few places on Earth with fertility rates well above replacement rate, and even in that region birth rates are coming down faster than just about anyone expected. Kenya, for example, has gone from eight births per woman in 1973 to 3.3 last year, as African society urbanizes, girls receive more education and women have greater access to birth control. In the country’s capital, Nairobi, the total fertility rate is now down to 2.5, which is at or close to replacement rate for countries with higher levels of infant and child mortality.
And robust immigration comes with its own challenges. While they sustain economic growth and fill job shortages, the 500,000 immigrants who will arrive in Canada in 2025 will need somewhere to live, contributing to the shortage of affordable and available housing in the cities where they tend to congregate. They will also need a family doctor, increasing pressure on overburdened health care systems.
Thus far, Canada has integrated hundreds of thousands of new arrivals every year with little social strain. But if resources fail to meet demand, the strain could increase.
The Hungarian solution
A few countries with low birth rates and an aversion to immigrants are trying to pay women to stay home and have more babies. Hungary is the best-known example.
To reverse four decades of population decline brought on by low fertility, outmigration and anti-immigrant policies, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has greatly expanded financial supports for large families.
A woman with four children pays no income tax for life. There are also housing supports, child-care supports, SUV subsidies and other incentives. In January, the government unveiled a new program that would offer a lifetime income tax exemption for any woman who has a child in her 20s.
The program is hugely expensive: Five per cent of Hungary’s GDP goes to supporting families with children. And although the fertility rate ticked up in the past decade as the measures were introduced, last year it fell back from 1.6 to 1.5.
The most important reason, by far, not to emulate Hungary’s example is that it seeks to reverse decades of effort by women to achieve greater equality.
The Orban government has been steadily imposing limits on abortion. One recent report by the State Audit Office, titled Signs of Pink Education in Hungary? warned that highly-educated women had trouble attracting men, thus reducing fertility, and a preponderance of female teachers might be feminizing society, leaving people ill-equipped to deal with “a frozen computer, a dripping tap, or furniture that has arrived flat-packed and there is no one to put it together.”
The Hungarian Solution might better be called The Handmaid’s Tale solution.
The Swedish solution
Sweden offers the flip-side of Hungary’s approach. As with a number of other European countries, the Swedish government offers strong support for women who wish to have children without sacrificing their career.
Parents receive 480 days of parental leave. In a traditional arrangement, the father must take at least 90 of those days. Parents are paid 80 per cent of their salary to look after a sick child. Almost all children age 1 and older are in preschool. As a result of these and other supports, few Swedish parents say affordability is an issue when choosing how many children to have.
The downside? These policies are expensive, contributing to a personal income tax rate of more than 50 per cent. And they are only partly effective. While Sweden’s total fertility rate peaked at 2.0 in 2010, by 2020 it had dipped to 1.7 and the pandemic pushed it down to around 1.5 or 1.6.
The lesson is clear: Spending a great deal of money to support couples with children is partly effective, but not sufficient to create enough babies annually to sustain a population without immigrants, although Sweden accepts a large number of immigrants.
So how can countries increase fertility rates and reverse their population decline without relying on dwindling sources of immigrants? The short answer is: they can’t.
The low fertility trap
Simply put, once a society gets used to low fertility, it becomes irreversible. The phenomenon is known as the low fertility trap. A Pew Research study reported that between 2018 and 2021, the share of childless adults under 50 who said they were likely to remain childless increased from 37 per cent to 44 per cent.
Those surveyed cited medical concerns, financial concerns, environmental concerns and the lack of a partner as reasons they were childless. But 56 per cent said they “just don’t want to have children.” A large number of young people today enjoy the freedom of remaining childless and plan to keep it that way.
China has moved so far from its Draconian one-child policy, abandoned in 2016, that men are now encouraged to donate semen and women to give birth even if they are not married, which still carries a deep stigma in Chinese society. But the experience of other countries suggests these and other methods will fail.
There could also be an environmental component to the dearth of births. The environmental and reproductive epidemiologist Shanna Swan has been chronicling a steady decline in the sperm count of men – 1 per cent per year since 1972 – and an increase in miscarriages in women – 1 per cent per year over the past five decades – which she attributes in large part to an “alphabet soup” of chemicals in products used in everyday life that are impairing reproductive ability.
The latest research of her team, which includes data on sperm counts in men in developing as well as developed countries, reveals that the rate of decrease in sperm counts has increased to 2 per cent a year.
“We are seeing an acceleration in the decline,” Dr. Swan said in an interview. “The data is more alarming rather than less alarming.”
In the Pew study, of the 43 per cent of childless adults who cited a reason other than simply not wanting to have kids, one-fifth cited “medical reasons.” This is most likely due to the medical challenges resulting from the increasing trend among couples to delay childbirth until women are in their 30s and 40s. But it could also allude to chemically influenced declines in male fertility.
For all these reasons, then, we need to prepare for a future in which the elderly will steadily grow as a percentage of the population even as the percentage who are young steadily shrinks.
To address workplace shortages and protect pension funds, governments could raise the retirement age and introduce mandatory long-term-care insurance, with workers and employers contributing to funds that would sustain the elderly in their final, frailest years.
We might also need to start means-testing public pensions, with the affluent obliged to contribute to, but not eligible to receive, the Canada Pension Plan and other supports.
Some contemplate more drastic solutions. Yusuke Narita, an economics professor at Yale University who is of Japanese descent, has caused a furor by suggesting that mass suicide or mandatory euthanasia might be the best solution to societal aging in Japan. “I feel like the only solution is pretty clear,” he said in 2021. “In the end, isn’t it mass suicide and mass ‘seppuku’ (ritual disembowelment) of the elderly?” Prof. Narita later told The New York Times that his remarks had been taken out context, but he has repeatedly spoken of mandatory euthanasia as a possible solution to Japan’s large cohort of elderly citizens.
While that may seem shocking, Canada’s Parliament is examining legislation that would expand the grounds for medical assistance in dying (MAID). The Quebec government is planning legislation that would permit people who have been diagnosed with conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias to provide advanced consent for MAID when their condition deteriorates to a certain point. In Canada, being able to provide prior consent to be euthanized is only a matter of time.
The long-term solution might be even more drastic: adopting policies of degrowth. This economic and social philosophy, which has been growing in popularity since the early 2000s, seeks to respond to global warming and other environmental challenges by abandoning growth-oriented policies.
In the introduction to a recently released book, Degrowth and Strategy, several of the book’s contributors defined their movement as one that “strives to reorganize societies to make them ecologically sustainable and socially just,” through “a deliberate reduction of material and energy throughput.”
In terms of personal lifestyle, that could mean anything from adopting veganism to eating only locally grown food to avoiding air travel.
In terms of economic and political systems, it could mean an end to capitalism, although such an outcome is not inevitable.
It does mean “addressing the growth dependency of contemporary economies, understanding those dependencies and then understanding how we can manage and reduce them,” Anders Hayden, a political scientist at Dalhousie University who researches growth and sustainability issues, told us.
This must mean “much more equity in distribution, more equity in ownership, so that people have enough to live on and states have adequate revenues to fund necessary programs,” Prof. Hayden said.
“It would require a radically reformed capitalism, and then we can question whether we would call it capitalism or not.”
This is not our way. We believe any shift to degrowth would be socially destabilizing, at the very least.
Yet some version of degrowth may be inevitable, as low levels of fertility start to undermine the foundations of growth. The massive population explosion between the end of the Second World War and today was unpredictable and disruptive; the implosion is bound to be unpredictable and disruptive as well.
We are confronted with this truth: Most societies are no longer able to sustain their population level, and the remainder are headed quickly in that direction. Unless and until future generations choose to reverse that trend, decline will define us.
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