How will we cope when there are too few young people in the world?

Scholars, philosophers, and political leaders like Thomas Malthus, Jawaharlal Nehru, Bertrand Russell, Paul Ehrlich, and others long warned about the dire consequences of the impending population explosion. Now that we know the planet is not headed for mass overcrowding and famine and will actually only see a modest increase in population over the next 80 years, our concerns are much different—the consequences of a decline.

In the early 20th century, global population grew more rapidly than ever before. Then came a dramatic reversal as population growth began to slow. It appears very likely that the human population will soon stabilize and may even start to decline. Fertility rates are dropping as women become more educated and gain better access to birth control. As fewer babies are born, the average age of the population increases; thus, our planet’s human population is getting older. Today some populations are already declining while others are rising. But soon, populations in most countries will begin to decline.

The United Nations Population Division (UNPD), the World Bank, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), and others have studied and addressed issues related to population slowdown and its companion issue, the aging of the populace. Figure 1 shows the median of the UNPD and IIASA projections of the projections for global population.

Figure 1: Global population projections

edan_figure1Source: Author’s calculations based on U.N. World Population Prospects and IIASA

The current world population is about 7.5 billion people, up from just 2.5 billion in 1950, a threefold increase in less than 70 years. If the trend continues, by the end of the century there will be 22 billion people on the planet, likely stretching resources beyond sustainability. But that is not going to happen.  The UNPD projects just over 11 billion people by the year 2100; the IIASA projections show lower numbers, with the population peaking at around 9 billion in 2070 and declining to slightly above 8 billion in 2100.  We will use UNPD projections for the remaining charts realizing that the IIASA projections, if they happen, would make the below scenario even more severe.

Figure 2 shows UNPD projections for major world regions. Today’s giant, Asia, is slowing down and will peak around 2050, after which it will decline. Europe will slowly decline and the Americas will grow slowly and then stabilize. Africa will continue to increase to the point where its population rivals Asia by the end of the century. The world of tomorrow will be mostly Asian and African.

Figure 2: Population projections for major world regions

edan_figure2Source: Author’s calculations based on U.N. World Population Prospects

What about countries that caused the biggest fears of overpopulation? Figure 3 shows UNPD projections for the two countries with the largest populations, China and India. China’s population grew rapidly, but its population growth has slowed and will peak in the next 10 to 15 years, after which it will decline. By the year 2100 China’s population will be just over 1 billion people. India’s population is now about 1.3 billion and India will soon surpass China. But India’s population too will plateau and in the next 30 to 40 years will begin to decline.

Figure 3: Population projections for China and India

edan_figure3Source: Author’s calculations based on U.N. World Population Prospects

What is happening in China and India is happening all over the planet. Female fertility rates are plunging in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Brazil. Even in Africa, though its population is rising today, fertility rates in all countries are dropping.

As fewer babies are being born and population stabilizes, people on our planet will keep getting older.  How will this change our society?

Let’s look at Japan, a country that is set to shrink to 85 million people by 2100, down from its current peak of 128 million in 2010.

The median age in Japan today is now 46 years old and is expected to increase to 55 years by 2100.  Because it has very little immigration, Japan is like a microcosm of the world itself. We know that its economy has been sluggish, its schools are closing, and more and more elderly people are looking after each other because there are no longer young people for those tasks. The economies of China and India, with large numbers of young, educated people, are growing rapidly. But the slowdown in Japan looms over these nations as well as their populations get older. 

Much of Japan’s current economy depends on exports. But the planet as a whole doesn’t have imports or exports. When we use Japan as a model for global population slowdown, we have to find a way to neutralize the impact of its imports and exports. How would Japan fare without exports? Or without outsourcing much of its manufacturing to places with young labor forces that have higher dexterity and lower wage rates?

Much of our economic theory and economic growth has been predicated on expansion, on new markets, and on new territories. Every company’s business plan includes expansion. We will soon face contraction, a shrinking of markets.  How will corporations survive?

A lot of today’s innovation comes from young people, creating new and wonderful technologies such as the internet, smart phones, social media, and automation. Older people have difficulty adapting to these new technologies. What will happen to innovation as we all grow older?

When we are getting older, our health care costs rise. At the same time, with fewer people in the workforce our tax collections decline. Houses go empty. Schools close. Our need for roads, bridges, dams, and airports declines. How will governments cope with declining revenues as tax bases no longer increase and new short-term expenses supplant capital expenses?

When growth and expansion are no longer automatic, when we are all growing older, and whenever larger numbers of us are no longer productive but instead need constant care, what happens to our social structures and our economic theory and our well-being?