The global number of people is going to start shrinking within a century, and not for reasons of disease or disaster. The key driver is women. Female empowerment gave women greater opportunity to work and have fewer children if they wished.
Christopher Murray, the director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, and the lead author of the Lancet study, explained, “We’ve realised there’s something different about our species, namely that women can control their fertility,” he says. “And as they get more educated and have access to jobs and careers they choose to have fewer children than replacement requires.”
As educational opportunities for women have grown and contraceptives have improved in quality and become more easily available, the same trend has been observed from the suburbs of America to the cities of Iran and villages of India. “I have always believed education is the best contraceptive pill,” says Poonam Muttreja, the executive director of the Delhi-based Population Foundation of India. “It is the magic contraceptive pill for fertility rates going down.” She points out “If you look at the body language of young people in the villages, and especially girls who have gone to school, they look more confident; when you talk to them they have more determination, and many of them are convincing their families not to get them married early, to allow them to study.” Too much Indian birth control happens through sterilisation or unsafe abortions, she says, and the termination of female foetuses is still a scourge. But people are also absorbing messages to use contraception, space out pregnancies and delay marriage until adulthood. “There are still young girls who have no control over their lives: they get married early, go through violence,” she adds. “But I am looking at girls who are stepping out. And also young boys who relate more to the values of their peers and not necessarily the family values of tradition and patriarchy.”
The populations of Japan, Thailand, Spain and 19 other countries will have declined by 50% or more; there will be nearly half as many Chinese citizens as the present day. India’s population could peak at 1.6 billion in less than two decades.
It will be a significantly older world, the study says. Working-age populations will have declined by several hundred million in India and China.
Murray observes, “Who pays taxes? How do we afford health insurance and social security? Who’s respected in society? When there’s tons of people over 80 and very few under 30, everything gets totally scrambled and I think nobody’s really coming to grips just how different societies will be within an inverted age structure.”
Derek Hoff, an associate professor of University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business, who has written a book on the US population debate, says “The argument is that if you don’t have steadily rising populations you can’t have economic growth, and there there is this crisis for social support systems of too many old people and not enough young people to pay for them,” he says. Hoff does not deny that ageing population throws up challenges, “but I don’t think it’s as big a crisis as is being suggested”, he says. “Look at Japan. Everyone say it’s in a demographic downward spiral. But it’s a very rich society and continues to get richer.”
Many nations will only keep the size of their workforces stable only by keeping anti-migrant politics in check. Many of those new arrivals would come from Sub-Saharan Africa, whose population will have tripled in size. Nigeria’s population is projected to be 791 million.
Far from a future of governments failing to feed their populations, as some feared, such projections are driving many to find ways to persuade their citizens to procreate. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, promised last year that women who had four or more children would never pay income tax again. Iran’s state hospitals and clinics are no longer performing vasectomies or handing out contraceptives.
Nevertheless, the erosion of the welfare state and stagnating wages in many countries, have reduced the opportunity to choose to spend more time at home and raise a large family. The expected deep recessions caused by the coronavirus lockdown may lead to even fewer children born in the years ahead. Sweden is one of the few countries that used a package of policies including childcare, flexible working conditions and generous maternity and paternity leave packages. But the increase to the fertility rate was marginal – just 0.2 children per woman, he says – and the same policy suite failed to nudge birthrates upwards when applied in countries such as Singapore, Japan and Taiwan. UN research say other pro-family policies such as cash payments or subsidised access to IVF appear to be less effective.