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Demographics and More Demographics

As we’ve discussed before, the world, except for Africa, is aging. A consequence of these trends is that both the world and U.S. populations are projected to peak before the end of the century, after which demographers predict a steep decline in the human population on Earth.

A lot of these predictions depend on fertility rates which create either a vicious circle or a virtuous one depending on your point of view. Historically, as countries have developed, fertility rates have declined. This has occurred in Europe, North America, and Asia. As countries produce fewer babies, the average age of their citizens increases. As a result, the proportion of those in their child-bearing years declines, resulting in a further decline in the number of babies relative to the country’s overall population. The result, eventually, is a decline in the overall population.

Fertility and Immigration

This is now happening in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the U.S. population, which is 334 million today, will peak at 370 million in 2080 and then begin to decline. These are, of course, just projections, which depend on fertility and mortality rates, as well as immigration. The Census Bureau also provides projections based on what it views as less likely scenarios, under which the U.S. population could decline to as low as 319 million or grow to as high as 435 million by the end of the century. The main variable in these different projections is the rate of immigration since fertility and, especially, mortality rates are less variable than immigration rates, which can be changed by Congressional action.

At current rates of immigration, the Census Bureau projects that deaths will begin outpacing births in the United States in 2038. Interestingly, the rate of immigration also affects the number of births in the country because immigrants are both younger and have more children than native-born Americans. As a result, the rate of immigration also affects the ratios of young and old in the United States. Under its most likely assumptions, the Census Bureau projects that the number of residents 65 and older will exceed those under 18 in just a few years, in 2029, and by the end of the century the older cohort will constitute 29 percent of population and under-18 youth just over 16 percent.

The “Dependency” Ratio

This change will have obvious effects on the structure of the nation with our need for senior housing and elder care growing and our need for schools and day care remaining more static. It will also change the need for types of workers, elder care as opposed to child care, but perhaps not as much on the proportion of workers to non-workers as may appear at first. While the ratio of workers to retirees will drop, the so-called “dependency” ratio, the number of workers to dependents will be more stable. It’s just that the nature of the dependents will change from children to seniors. These ratios can also be ameliorated if older Americans keep working longer, whether full-time or part-time.

Looking Beyond the United States

The changes going on in the United States are exaggerated in Europe and China. As this graphic from The New York Times illustrates, by 2050 Europe, China and Japan’s populations will be old, India and Indonesia will be in a sweet spot economically of having large working-age populations, and Africa will still be dominated by its youth. Whether India and Indonesia can capitalize on their large number of potential workers, as the United States, Europe, Japan and China have did, and how the latter countries and regions will respond to their aging populations, are all open to question.

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The current world population is estimated to be 8 billion people. The United Nations projects that it will peak at 10.4 billion in 2086. Other organizations that predict a quicker decline in fertility rates foresee a peak population of as low as 9.4 billion occurring as early as 2064, with one study projecting a peak in 2050 and a decline in the world population to 6 billion by the end of the century.

OC The World in 2100 Oct 16

When Will the Global Population Reach Its Peak?

What Will a Declining Population Mean?

Whether or not the most pessimistic (or optimistic) prediction of population decline occurs in this century, most projections of world population foresee a rapid decline beginning in the next century if current fertility trends continue. This is due to the virtuous or vicious circle described above, that fewer young people mean fewer births which leads to even fewer young people and even fewer births.

To some extent, this all may be a good trend — climate change is in large part a result of the huge growth in the world population from just one billion in 1800 to our 8 billion today — but it will cause huge global changes. It will be much easier to bring down carbon emissions if there are fewer people in the world. But, unfortunately, the decline will be too late to prevent the changes already beginning due to the carbon we’ve already spewed into the atmosphere.

A smaller population, or one that’s growing more slowly over the next several decades, can allow us to catch up on our housing shortage and other longstanding needs. But at some point, we may have too much housing for our number of people. Or, more likely, we’ll have housing in the wrong places. This has already occurred in much of the developed and developing world as people have followed jobs to the cities, leaving villages and smaller towns underpopulated. In the United States, we see the growth of the cities on the coasts and the Sun Belt and the decline of cities and towns in the upper Midwest, with consequent sharp increase in housing values in some locations and their stagnation or decline in others.

While migration within nations is largely organic, that between nations depends more on immigration policy. In the United States and Europe we see the rise of anti-immigration politicians who capitalize on nativist fears about an “invasion” of people from other countries, often of other races and religions. The policies they are supporting will prove short-sighted as the populations of these countries age. Without a large number of immigrants, they won’t have enough workers, for all jobs, but especially for elder care.

Further, the continuing growth of the population in Africa will be a pressure cooker exacerbated by the effects of climate change (to which Africans contributed very little). Legal migration, as opposed to the great risks of crossing either the Mediterranean or the Darien Gap, could allow for a release of some of those explosive pressures.

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