A New Take on the Population Bomb

  • September 6, 2018
  • The Topic: A New Take on the Population Bomb
  • The News Story: South Korea’s Fertility Rate Set to Hit Record Low of 0.96
  • The New Research: The European Welfare State—Strained by Infertility

In 1968, American biologist Paul Erlich published his highly controversial The Population Bomb, in which he predicted that in the coming decades, “overpopulation” would bring about global famines, climate change, and a host of other ills.

Fifty years later, even Erlich himself admits that several of his predictions have not come true. The latest evidence of such miscalculations comes out of South Korea, where experts estimate that fertility will hit a global low of 0.96—well below the required replacement level of 2.1. The Guardian reports that this decline will set “the country up for a host of problems including underfunded pensions, expanding debt and economic decline,” also observing that “such a low fertility rate is normally only seen during wartime.” The story blames South Korea’s patriarchal society, as well as the rising age of first marriage. Government efforts such as “free childcare until the age of five, cash payouts to pregnant women and supporting youth clubs” have had little effect.

In Europe, researchers take their cues from the countries of Asia to discuss what such plummeting fertility will mean for their continent’s strapped welfare states. 

(Source: Benjamin Haas, “South Korea’s fertility rate set to hit record low of 0.96,” The Guardian, September 3, 2018)

The New Research: The European Welfare State—Strained by Infertility

When European policymakers designed their welfare states in the decades after World War II, they assumed that female citizens would bear enough children to maintain a viable balance between the financially dependent old and the financially productive young. But the dramatic retreat from childbearing in recent decades is rapidly creating an imbalance that threatens to bankrupt these states. Clarifying just how severe this problem has become, a new study published by a team of scholars from Israel and four European countries should intensify concerns about how these welfare states can survive without a resurgence in fertility. 

Affiliated with research institutions in Israel, Germany, Hungary, Serbia, and Malta, the authors of the new study focus their demographic investigation on the European Union and its mostly Slavic neighbors to the East and its Berber, Arab, and Jewish neighbors to the south.  However, they take their historical context from a problematic demographic pattern that first emerged in the industrialized nations of Asia, such as Japan, nations that “began to age rapidly in the post-WWII period,” so raising urgent questions about “the sustainability of national social- and health-support funds and long-term home care.” Because the Asian demographic pattern has replicated itself in other areas of the world, the researchers see “other nations. . . approaching this issue with a vivid concern and difficulties.” With the “acceleration of demographic aging in leading developing nations, such as . . . B[razil,]R[ussia,]I[ndia,]C[hina, and]S[outh Africa],” the researchers discern “additional challenge . . . [to] health-care reforms in the majority of of these economies as [they] approach 2025.”     

Explaining the “vivid concern” among policymakers and social scientists tracking demographic patterns in the affluent West, the authors of this new study acknowledge that the “entire social-support and health-insurance systems of modern day welfare society were built up on a ‘demographic growth model.’” But in an era of depressed fertility, that growth model looks increasingly irrelevant. Social scientists now see “demographic pyramids . . . changing . . . with younger, resource-generating levels of societies shrinking and higher upper floors of resource-consuming elderly citizens . . . growing and adding more weight each year.” No wonder the researchers see a demographic environment that puts policymakers in a “very difficult” circumstance. 

The difficulty in Europe’s demographic circumstance stands out starkly in the researchers’ own analysis of European trends appearing in the United Nations’ population data. The researchers calculate that the median age in the 28 European Union countries, which stood at just 31.4 years in 1950, will rise to 48.0 years in 2050. Parallel calculations predict that completed fertility in these countries, which stood at 2.53 births per woman living in the European Union countries in 1950, will have fallen to 1.77 in  2050. The percentage of the total population age 65 and older living in these countries is expected to more than triple, rising from 8.8% in 1950 to 29.8% in 2050. Meanwhile, the average annual rate of population change will drop from +0.72% in 1950 to -0.19% in 2050.

As they survey their deeply troubling findings, the researchers discern only one pattern they regard as even slightly reassuring—a pattern that may mean less trouble in the future in dealing with immigration.  The researchers note that in recent years Europe has “experienced . . . enormous demographic pressure from high net immigration rates mostly driven by refugees coming from Middle Eastern civil-war-affected areas.” These “ongoing migrations with fluctuating pace,” remark the researchers, “have revealed Europe’s key demographic vulnerabilities.” However, those vulnerabilities may not appear so pronounced in the years ahead when Europe witnesses “significant release of the migratory pressure towards European Union countries” as fertility tumbles in Middle Eastern and North African lands. The authors of the new study explain that “the Third Demographic Transition is taking its toll in modern day Middle Eastern and North African societies,” pushing completed fertility to below-replacement levels in these societies, levels that are already seen in the European Union. Indeed, the astonished researchers regard it as “probably the most remarkable feature of the evolving [demographic] landscape” that completed fertility in the European Union’s Arab League  has already plummeted from seven to three lifetime births per woman, with trends indicating a likely further drop. 

Perhaps, as the researchers suggest, declining fertility in the Middle East and North Africa will diminish “migratory pressure” on the European Union. But since these researchers anticipate policy-makers in the European Union being compelled to raise the issue of  “accelerated aging . . . [to] the front line of setting up national policy priorities,” the disappearance of youthful migrants looks like—at best—a dubious development. If Europe is not to become one large bankrupt museum adjoined to a rapidly filling mausoleum, someone there will need to rediscover what it means to bear and rear children. ‘

(Source: Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King, forthcoming in “New Research.” Study: Mihajlo Michael Jakovljevic et al., “Population Aging and Migration—History and UN Forecasts in the EU-28 and Its East and South Near Neighborhood—One Century Perspective 1950-2050,” Globalization and Health 14 [2018]: 30, Web)