By Kevin Andrews - Australian Polity - Volume 3 (Number 1)
For the past three decades a number of exponents of apocalyptic outcomes have suggested that the world faces a population explosion. Their thesis has been that the human race is breeding itself to a point of unsustainability. But, as the demographer Nicholas Eberstat has observed:
The modern population explosion was sparked not because people suddenly started breeding like rabbits, but rather because they finally stopped dying like flies… it wasn’t that fertility rates soared; rather, mortality rates plummeted. Since the start of our century, the average life expectancy at birth for a human being has probably doubled, it may have more than doubled.
In fact, the western world is facing a population implosion. The Economist magazine summarised the trends:
In 50 or 100 years’ time, however, most countries are more likely to worry about the lack of babies than the excess. For there is now a serious possibility. . . that world population growth will stabilise by around 2040 at about 7.5 billion – and then start to decline. . . Repeatedly, the UN’s demographers have revised down their population projections. . . the number of babies born into the world will fall below the number needed for replacement. . . with fertility rates in rapid decline, the debate about the global birth rate is now over when, not whether, it will fall below replacement level.
The UN Population Division has estimated that half of the world’s people live in nations where the fertility rate has already fallen below the replacement rate. For the population to remain stable, women must have an average of 2.1 babies each. In 61 countries, there are insufficient births to replace the population. To take just a few examples: In the US, women are having just 2 children; in the UK, just 1.7; in Japan, 1.4; in Italy, 1.2; in Spain, just 1.15. While the global fertility rate is above replacement levels, and the overall world population will continue to grow, the variation between nations is significant.
In a study of global fertility rates, the Australian demographer Peter McDonald concluded that if the current levels of fertility were maintained in many western nations, they are so low that they would threaten the future existence of the nations concerned:
In an era in which we have come to understand the momentum of population increase, it is remarkable that we are yet to appreciate that the same momentum applies to population decrease.
The concentration in media headlines and elsewhere on the total size of the global population continues to mask the depopulation momentum in many nations. “Perhaps people used to living for the here and now may have difficulty appreciating the long-term consequences beyond their immediate horizon,” noted the Australian demographers, John Caldwell and Thomas Schindlmayr, in their study of 28 countries where the fertility rate has fallen to less than 1.4. One of the most rapidly ageing societies in the world, Japan, provides a glimpse of the demographic decline underway. While the Japanese are living longer, the number of young people never marrying has also increased significantly. The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research forecasts that the population will decline from 127.7 million to 86.7 million by 2060, and fall again to 42.9 million by 2110 “If conditions remain unchanged.”
As Eberstadt noted in a recent article, the situation in Japan is a foretaste of what is likely to occur in many nations over the next few decades, with major reverberations for social life, economic performance and foreign relations. The consequences of what the Germans term schrumpfende Gesellschaft – a shrinking society – include a looming old-age burden, a struggle to maintain economic growth and diminishing international influence for the Japanese.
Peter Costello’s first Intergenerational Report stimulated a debate about some of these issues in Australia. We need to revisit that discussion to ensure that Australia avoids the demographic, social and economic decline facing Japan in coming decades.