It is generally accepted that the global population will begin an irreversible decline within the next 20 to 80 years, in fact it has started in many countries already. What are both the positive and negative implications?
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- Many countries have already seen a decline in population.
- Replacement rates falling below 2.1 is an indicator.
- Economies may suffer, but individuals may not suffer economically.
- The environment may benefit as a result.
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By Craig Brown.
The UN predicts that the global population will level off toward the end of this century, while other credible sources put it much earlier at 2040, seeing an overall decline in the world’s population after that.
In fact, a number of countries have already begun the decline. For example, Italy hit a peak population of 60.8million in 2015. It now stands at 60.5 million and is projected to fall to 54.4million by 2050. Japan saw a peak population of 128.1million in 2008 which has fallen to 126.5 today. There are predicted to be 107million Japanese by 2040. There are many other examples including Russia, Germany and Venezuela.
While there can be simple explanations for short-term population decline, such as war, famine or seeking economic opportunities elsewhere, long-term population decline seems a more general and lasting trend.
Can we predict when a country’s population will begin to decline? Maybe. The population replacement rate is the average number of children each woman must have for the population of a country to remain stable. This number is generally accepted to be 2.1 (the additional 0.1 takes into account children who themselves do not survive to childbearing age).
Japan’s replacement rate fell below 2.1 in 1974. 41 years later the population began to fall. Italy’s replacement rate fell under 2.1 in the late 1940’s, with the population beginning to fall some 65 years later. It would seem that the population of a country declines once the generation with the sub 2.1 fertility rate begins to pass away. The United Kingdom’s fertility rate fell below the 2.1 threshold in 1973, while for the Republic of Ireland, it was in 1990.
Why does this happen? Families begin to have fewer children for a couple of main reasons; the urbanization of a nation means that there is less pressure from extended family on women to have more children. It also means that children are no longer a financial asset on the farm, but a financial liability in the towns and cities. Wide access to birth control also allows women to decide when and how many children to have.
But are falling populations a good or bad thing? Like many things in life, this is a complicated matter.
- An obvious negative would be a potentially failing economy with fewer potential ‘customers’. But a declining population would like also mean fewer competitors as well.
- As people are generally living longer, this will put pressure on a shrinking workforce to support the aged.
- We may also see a decline in innovation as innovation generally comes from younger adults.
- Fewer people may put less pressure on the environment for resources.
- GDP per capita (as opposed to national GDP) seems to actually rise once a population begins to decline, as experienced in Russia, Japan, Germany and many eastern European countries. While declining population may not be good for government coffers, it seems to work well for the individual.
Is there anything we can do to reverse global population decline? Is it even a good idea to try?