YOU DECIDE: Has the population boom fizzled?

Date posted: March 15, 2013

Dr. Michael Walden is William Neal Reynolds professor of agricultural and resource economics at N.C. State University.Dr. Michael Walden is William Neal Reynolds professor of agricultural and resource economics at N.C. State University.

Media Contact: Dr. Mike Walden, 919.515.4671 or michael_walden@ncsu.edu

By Dr. Mike Walden
North Carolina Cooperative Extension

When I was in college four decades ago, one of the headline concerns was overpopulation. Worries were just beginning about what more people would mean for the food supply, the availability of clean water and the price of everything from gas to lumber to clothing. Dire predictions were made for widespread starvation and plunging living standards.

This wasn’t the first time that society had fretted about overpopulation. In the 19th century a British scholar named Thomas Malthus predicted that increased numbers of people would inevitably lead to disease, famine and a long-run trend to subsistence living.

Advances in agricultural productivity proved Malthus wrong for a large part of the world. But today another trend may be a more significant undoing of Malthus’ predictions. Instead of the world facing the continuing challenge of an increasing population, just the opposite may be emerging — a world facing depopulation, and by choice!

Birth rates (technically the term is “total fertility rate,” or the average number of babies born to each woman) are falling all around the world. And it isn’t because babies are dying shortly after birth. It’s because women are having fewer babies. Many demographers are now saying the big problem of the future will not be too many people; instead, it will be too few people.

In fact, many countries — China, Japan, Italy and Russia are examples — are already losing population. If current trends continue, each of these countries will be 20 percent to 30 percent smaller in population by the end of the century. The U.S. currently isn’t in that situation — our country now has a total fertility rate above replacement level — but that could change in the future. Demographers have noted that falling fertility rates are common across all nationalities and ethnic backgrounds.

But why? Several factors are likely at play. Many women are delaying childbirth as they stay in school longer and pursue their own work careers. Studies have shown that the longer a woman waits to have children, the fewer children she will have.

In agrarian societies, children were an asset as they helped on the farm with the planting and harvesting and in the home with cooking, canning and mending. I can remember my father entertaining me with stories about rising at 4 a.m. to milk the cows, feed the hogs and chase down stray sheep.

But those days are gone for most of our country and increasingly for the rest of the world. Family farms are disappearing, and today’s farms are big, mechanized and run like a corporation. From a purely economic point of view, children are a cost with very little financial return.

Children also used to perform another important function for their parents later in life. They supported their parents. I have vivid memories of this role from my maternal grandfather. He had three daughters (one was my mother), and in the last decade of his life, he alternated living with each daughter. His daughters were his pension!

This too has changed. Social Security, Medicare, private pensions and personal savings have allowed many — certainly not all — older adults to live separately from their children, often in different states. So the motivation to have children to ensure care and support later in one’s life just isn’t as strong today.

So what are we to make of the trend toward depopulation? Certainly there are mixed impacts. Some see pluses from reduced use of natural resources, a smaller human imprint on the environment and simply more open space and less crowding if there are fewer people on the planet. They see the potential for an increase in the quality of life for the fewer quantity of people.

But others aren’t so sure. Fewer people obviously mean not as many individuals to do work, to innovate and to make path-breaking contributions. The stock market could also suffer if older people sell stocks to finance their retirement, but there are fewer younger folks to purchase those stocks.

Most analysts agree the big federal programs that assist the elderly — Social Security and Medicare — would be severely challenged by depopulation. This is because their funding relies in part on contributions from younger workers.

Several counties, like Japan and Russia, have implemented public policies to encourage a higher birth rate, but to no avail. Apparently the forces driving societies to have fewer children are stronger than anything government can change.

The longer I live, the more examples I have seen of the conventional wisdom being turned on its head. For centuries many have worried about the impacts of a population explosion. Now the concern may be totally flipped around — to depopulation. Could the emerging demographic implosion be our greatest challenge ever? You decide.

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Dr. Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Professor and North Carolina Cooperative Extension economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics of N.C. State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He teaches and writes on personal finance, economic outlook and public policy. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences communications unit provides his You Decide column every two weeks. Previous columns are available at http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/agcomm/news-center/tag/you-decide

Related audio files are at http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/agcomm/news-center/category/economic-perspective/

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