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With even countries like India on a path to population decline, we can expect political shifts, environmental benefits and economic uncertainty – and we can expect it very soon

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A baby sleeps in a makeshift hammock this past fall in Kyataganacharulu village in India's Karnataka state. India's population growth is now below the rate of replacement.Abhishek Chinnappa/Getty Images

John Ibbitson is writer at large at The Globe and Mail. Darrell Bricker is CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs. They are the co-authors of Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, which has been published in nine languages.

In the midst of the global pandemic and other alarms, few of us noted a milestone that will influence the shape of the world to come. India is no longer making enough babies to sustain its population.

The National Family Health Survey, conducted every five years, revealed that the total fertility rate for the world’s second-most populous country had fallen to 2.0, below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman.

A generation from now, once the current cohort of young women has stopped having babies, India will join the ranks of countries around the world whose populations are in decline.

In our book Empty Planet, published in 2019, we predicted that our global population would peak at a much lower level, and begin to decline much sooner, than United Nations projections. That prediction is coming true. Now we have to prepare for the consequences.

An aging and declining global population will have many environmental benefits – easing pressure on the food supply and contributing to the effort to contain global warming. But it comes with major consequences for Canada and other countries that have low fertility rates and rapidly aging populations.

How rapid? By 2030, every member of the Baby Boom generation will be 65 or older. All the boomers will be seniors. The oldest of them will be in their 80s, growing frail and needing help.

These demographic realities are locked in and can’t be changed. Political leaders and public servants need to get ready now for the reality of societal aging, or face a future of increasing stress for many older people and growing intergenerational conflict.

“We will be severely disadvantaged and disabled as a society unless we get ahead of this,” warns Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Toronto’s Mount Sinai and University Health Network hospitals. “But there are things we can do.”

Declining fertility and the greying of society will dominate our politics, our economics, our health care system, our neighbourhoods, our families. It’s time to face the future.

A smaller world

Between them, China and India account for 37 per cent of the world’s population. China’s fertility rate has fallen so low many researchers believe that the country’s population will start to decline in the next year or two, if it isn’t declining already.

Of the seven countries that account for half of the world’s population, only Pakistan (3.4) and Nigeria (5.1) have fertility rates above replacement rate, according to a global study of fertility funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And fertility rates are declining in both countries.

Africa still features high fertility rates, but the numbers are coming down, dramatically – from 6.6 in 1980 to 4.5 a few years ago – as urbanization leads to the education and empowerment of women, who invariably choose to have fewer children.

Although they have finally begun to revise their projections downward, the United Nations Population Division still predicts the world’s population will reach almost 11 billion by 2100.

But a study published in the medical journal The Lancet anticipates the global population will peak at just over 9.7 billion in 2064, and then start to decline.

By the end of the century, 23 countries will have lost more than half their population. The population of China will have declined by about half, to somewhere between 600 million and 700 million people. Other researchers believe the peak could be even lower and arrive even sooner.

Meanwhile, back at home...

In Canada, according to Statistics Canada, many couples have delayed having children during the pandemic.

Since such couples rarely compensate afterward by having more children, those lost babies are likely to contribute to a permanent decline in Canada’s total fertility rate, which dropped dramatically to a record low of 1.4 last year.

Canada’s population will still grow, provided we continue the current practice of adding about 1 per cent of our population annually through immigration.

Without immigration, Canada would join the 20 or more countries – from Bulgaria to South Korea to Cuba – that are already losing population every year.

Lower birth rates bring on societal aging. In Canada, there are more people over 65 than under 15. Ten years ago, 14 per cent of the population were seniors. By the 2030s it will be 23 per cent.

That’s a lot of people. That’s also a lot of clout.

Grey power

As societies grow older, the older will grow more powerful. Because there are so many of them, and because older voters are more likely to cast ballots than younger voters, they will demand and get more of the services they want, from paratransit to pension supports.

That, at least, is the opinion among many political scientists and economists, who talk about the rise of gerontocracy – society dominated by the old. But Patrik Marier, a political scientist at Concordia University who specializes in the politics of aging, says these predictions often clash with observations of social gerontologists, who argue seniors are neglected by governments in favour of younger voters.

“I think the reality is somewhere in between,” Prof. Marier says. One key priority, he says, is to reduce intergenerational tensions by ensuring that social supports are in place for older citizens so that family members aren’t forced to curtail their own lives and careers in order to care for older relatives.

Another priority is to combat ageist assumptions that older people are less healthy, less creative, less able than those who are younger, when in fact “the broadest variation within a cohort is with older adults,” Prof. Marier says. “I think that is something we tend to underestimate. We tend to characterize people and put them in a few boxes and attach stereotypes to them.”

Older people will remain important consumers to whom marketers and manufacturers must pay heed. They will be asked to work longer, to fill job shortages. They will both complement and compete with younger workers and consumers. “The friction points have increased,” says David Cravit, at CARP, which advocates for older citizens.

The key, says Prof. Marier, is for younger workers to remember that a time will come when they need to be supported as well.

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An elderly woman holds an 'Omas [grannies] for future' sign at a Berlin climate protest this past fall. Population decline in the developed world, where per-capita greenhouse gas emissions are highest, could have an impact on efforts to combat climate change.Christian Mang/Reuters

Breathe easy

Population decline will have tremendous benefits for the environment.

People in the developed world generate far more carbon through their activities and consumption than people in the developing world. So as populations in Europe and the richer countries in Eastern Asia dwindle, the carbon saving will be proportionately greater, helping in the fight against global warming.

Another important benefit results from urbanization. For most of human history, most of us lived in villages and on farms. But in 2007 for the first time in history, more people lived in cities than anywhere else. Today the figure is 56 per cent. By 2050 it is expected to be more than two thirds.

As people abandon the countryside for the city, marginal farmland reverts to bush, which captures carbon and contributes to the fight against global warming.

Food production accounts for a third of all planet-heating gases, and meat use accounts for 60 per cent of those emissions. One important way to reduce greenhouse gases is to have fewer people eating meat, or at least everyone eating less of it. Population decline contributes to that reduction.

A smaller, aging population would ease the strain on both oceanic and land-based food systems. Environmentally, population decline and societal aging are good-news stories.

Living longer, but not better

There are more than twice as many centenarians in Canada as there were at the turn of the century. They represent the fastest growing age group, and their numbers are expected to swell from 8,000 in 2016 to nearly 40,000 by midcentury.

But living older does not always mean living better. There has been little progress in preventing or treating dementia, while heart disease, cancer and chronic afflictions such as arthritis continue to limit the quality of life for many older seniors.

Dr. Sinha identifies three core priorities governments should embrace as they plan for a greyer future.

The first is to encourage exercise, healthy eating, the wearing of hearing aids and other habits that can prevent or delay the onset of mental and physical frailty by keeping people healthy and engaged with society.

The second is to shift funding away from creating beds in hospitals and nursing homes and instead to supporting people in their homes, which is both cheaper and what most people want.

The third is to increase the financial security of older Canadians. That’s easier said than done, since only 37 per cent of workers have a workplace pension plan, and uninsured workers approaching retirement have only saved, on average, $3,000.

“When it comes to financial planning, people really can’t think long-term,” says Bonnie-Jeanne MacDonald, who researches financial security issues at the National Institute on Ageing, a think tank associated with Ryerson University. “We are hard wired to be optimistic and to react to short-term problems.“

There are several ways to increase the financial security of seniors, she says.

One is to encourage them not to access their Canada Pension Plan benefits until they turn 70, which then provides a substantially higher monthly benefit.

Another is for governments to facilitate dynamic pensions pools, in which retirees have the option to pool their retirement savings, with the funds of those who die earlier remaining in the pool to subsidize those who live longer.

And she points to publicly supported long-term-care insurance, financed by employee and employer contributions, which pays for home or institutional care for people later in life. Several countries and the U.S. state of Washington have state-supported programs in place.

When it comes to financing retirement, “we can’t make it a more expensive system,” Ms. MacDonald says. “We have to make it a smarter system.”

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A 96-year-old Navy veteran adjusts his medals at a Dec. 7 ceremony in Washington marking the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. As the world's superpowers grow older, experts wonder whether 'geriatric peace' will affect their chances of fighting in the future.JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

The geriatric peace

Mark Haas, a political scientist at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, believes that older societies are less likely to make war, because there are fewer young people available to fight, and governments must divert funding away from the military to provide social programs for older citizens. He calls this the geriatric peace.

Statistical evidence, he says, shows that when countries reach a median age of 30 and a fertility level of 2.0, the likelihood of war is significantly reduced.

As well, any society with fewer young men now than in the past has less crime, which is why crime rates have declined in tandem with fertility rates in Western societies over the past 30 years.

But like all demographic trends, the geriatric peace is a long-term phenomenon. In the short term, societal aging can increase instability, as governments seek to distract, through foreign adventurism, overworked and overtaxed young people, and underserved older people, from protesting their lot. This may explain China’s increasingly confrontational approach to its adversaries and its threatening stand toward Taiwan.

“The next 10 years with China could be difficult because it may be faced with a now-or-never situation,” he says. “China’s leaders are aware that they have a closing window of opportunity due to the challenges of an aging and shrinking population.”

The United States should prosper in comparison to its geopolitical rivals, provided it continues to maintain reasonably high levels of immigration and a fertility rate that, while falling, is likely to remain higher than those of its strategic competitors.

Steadily declining fertility rates and declining populations will not bring peace in our time. But in the long term, a shrinking population should reduce violence at home and abroad.

The pandemic baby bust: More on The Decibel

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, many speculated that lockdowns would lead couples to have more babies – but statistics showed the opposite happened. The Globe and Mail's Zosia Bielski explains why. Subscribe for more episodes.

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