Forget youth bulges and population bombs; lately, the population story has been all about the baby bust. The cover of this month’s Foreign Policy
features “Old World: The graying of the planet – and how it will change everything
,” by Phillip Longman, and author Ted Fishman recently appeared in The New York Times
and on NPR
to talk about his book, Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World’s Population and How It Pits Young Against Old, Child Against Parent, Worker Against Boss, Company Against Rival and Nation Against Nation
. Nicholas Eberstadt covered similar issues in Foreign Affairs
with his article, “The Demographic Future: What Population Growth – and Decline – Means for the Global Economy
To the extent that policymakers take away a sense of urgency to reform retirement institutions and potentially reevaluate military strategy, the recent spate of publications about aging is useful. But policymakers should not be misled into thinking that the population tide has turned and resources for education, development, and family planning are no longer necessary. While global population growth is slowing, it has not stopped, and the political and economic consequences of continued growth and youthful age structures across most of the Global South will be dire.
A Population Bomb…of Old People
Eberstadt, Fishman, and Longman argue for the need to prepare for a future where there are large proportions of elderly dependents and relatively few workers to support them, and they chronicle the many challenges that may result, including political resistance. The October protests in France against raising the pensionable age from 60 to 62 — which, despite the hullabaloo, fall far short of the levels needed to improve France’s long-term economic position — are but one example of the reform resistance they warn about.
The concern is that while the Global North – Europe and Japan in particular – scramble to meet the needs of their older citizens and preserve the health of their economies, their powerful positions in the international system are at risk. As Fishman states, “It now looks as if global power rests on how willing a country is to neglect its older citizens.” China, a country on the cusp of aging, has thus far chosen neglect over meaningful investment, stoking more fear that the Global North may fall behind.
Though a focus on economic health is useful, other aspects of their arguments do a disservice, particularly those that start from the premise that the days of Malthusian angst over the planet’s ability to support a rapidly growing population are long gone.
Echoing Fred Pearce in his The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet’s Surprising Future, Longman argues without reservation that dangerous population growth is a thing of the past, and instead, the world faces a “population bomb…of old people.” He even goes so far as to claim that “having too many people on the planet is no longer demographers’ chief worry; now, having too few is.”
I have to ask: what demographers did he talk to? Articles published over the last year in the field’s top journals — Demography, Population and Development Review, and Population Studies — certainly explore low fertility, but they also cover a range of youth- and growth-related issues and topics such as mortality, teen parenthood, and immigration. And within the field of political demography in particular there is still quite a lot of attention being paid to the implications of population growth and youth bulges on civil conflict and human security. Even Foreign Policy, in which Longman’s article appears, publishes an annual Failed States Index that argues there is an important relationship between demographic pressure and state collapse.
As studies like the Failed States Index and the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends project show, contrary to Pearce et al., carrying capacity arguments are not completely outmoded. Regardless of how extreme the impact of an aging population will be on developed nations in the near future (although the United States will almost certainly be less affected than others), in many parts of Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East, population growth is straining local water and land resources and creating instability — issues that will likely be exacerbated by climate change.
If there really is more attention being paid among demographers to low fertility it may well be due to institutional and geographic bias. After all, most of the funding for demography comes from Western nations concerned with their own decline. Likewise, all the top journals are American or European.
Though it is correct that most advanced industrial states are aging because of low fertility, for a large part of the world, population growth is still the number one issue. Declining fertility in most countries of the world means that populations are getting older, but this is not the same as saying they have a problem with aging. Between 1980 and 2010, the median age of the less developed countries, excluding China, rose from 19 to almost 25 and the world’s least developed countries saw a rise from 17 to 20 years. Median age in more developed countries, however, went from 32 to 40 — a level twice that of the least developed countries.
Many of the low-fertility countries Longman cites — Iran and Cuba, in particular — are exceptions among developing countries, rather than the rule. The UN Population Division estimates that sub-Saharan Africa will gain 966 million people by 2050 – more than the current population of all of Europe – and, as Richard Cincotta and I have both argued on this blog previously, the total fertility rate (TFR) projections used in those estimations are likely low. Rapid population growth in sub-Saharan Africa has already exacerbated many countries’ abilities to meet the growing needs of their populations, causing civil conflict and instability, and will continue to do so in the future.
Why is it Important to Get it Right?
Alarmism is useful when it grabs the attention of policymakers and a public that is overloaded with information, but it is also risky. Both Pearce and Longman take jabs at Paul Ehrlich because his “population bomb” never exploded. What they fail to note is that Ehrlich’s predictions could have proven right, except that he was successful at scaring a generation of policymakers into action. Funding towards population programs increased greatly in the wake of such research. If those of us who write about the dangers of aging are successful, perhaps we will be so lucky to look as foolish as Ehrlich one day.
If these warnings fall on deaf ears and policymakers do not act to reduce the burden of entitlements, certainly budgets will be strained beyond capacity and the dire future predicted by Fishman, Pearce, and Longman may well become a reality. On the other hand, if policymakers similarly disregard carrying capacity issues in the developing world, conflict and misery are sure to continue in these places and may well worsen.
Jennifer Dabbs Sciubba is the Mellon Environmental Fellow in the Department of International Studies at Rhodes College. She is also the author of a forthcoming book, The Future Faces of War: Population and National Security. Follow her on Twitter at @profsciubba for more on population-related issues.
Sources: Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, NPR, National Intelligence Council, The New York Times, Population Reference Bureau, Reuters, UN.
Photo Credit: Adapted from “Protest/Manifestation,” courtesy of flickr user lilicomanche.