The coming Population Implosion

I used to worry about three things – Solar flares, Antibiotic resistance and meteorites destroying the earth. Now, my main concern for the future of humanity is a remarkable one: Population Implosion.

Since the 1950s, there has been an ongoing concern that our population would exceed the limits of the planet. The projections saw the population growing to over 13 billion people and consuming all of our resources, like a horde of locusts descending on Egypt. We were told by the UN and others that this growing population would lead to a variety of disasters. One proponent of this theory was Paul Ehrlich, an evolutionary biologist who had a lot of charisma and would go on mainstream television to promote the concept of a “Population Bomb”. He explained that the population would continue to grow until there were no resources left for it and it would then implode. This theory appealed to the general public because it had a certain algorithmic clarity. You could, on a graph, just extend the line of population growth from 1800-1950 and conclude we would keep growing at the same rate. But, everything he proposed with regards to population growth turned out to be completely wrong. 

Interestingly the projections have proven stubbornly wrong and we are now faced with the inverse problem – a declining and aging population. What in fact happened is that with women’s education, easy access to contraception, general material prosperity and mass migration into cities – women just stopped having lots of kids. Despite the massive evidence, the general public still thinks the world is overpopulated and that it is getting worse. In fact, we face the exact opposite problem – way, way too few babies.

The book Empty Planet outlines how almost no country on earth is currently having more than 2.1 children per woman (the replacement rate) and most countries are well under that mark. Some demographers believe China may have a birth rate as low as 0.9 children per woman and in fact, China registered less than 10 million births in 2021. Despite lifting the one child policy, China has entered into a downward spiral that is likely impossible to reverse. In fact, this was recently recognized at the 2022 Communist Party of China Congress where the goals of China were shifted away from becoming the world’s largest economy per capita and only general GDP goals were proposed. 

The reason we are entering into a depopulation spiral is a bit unclear to the general public who sees the population continuing to increase. The main reason the population has continued to increase for the past few decades is not because of babies per se, but rather because people live longer (or die less). However, as birth rates plummet and we have less children, there are less children who will ultimately have their own children. Your “birthing” population is decreasing, which enters you into a spiral that is nearly impossible to escape. 

This issue is not specific to China and is visible in numerous other countries such as Japan, Korea, Italy and other places. Even developing countries are having far fewer babies per woman than any time in history. In short, a declining population is almost a self fulfilling prophecy. This means that population will likely peak very soon and we will be left with an old and declining population for the next couple hundred years. 

To my knowledge, there is no robust analysis of this coming societal change. Certain countries such as Japan, Korea and Italy are already dealing with a population decline and an elderly population, but what are the impacts of such a demographic change on the entire world? Countries such as Canada (with over 400,000 immigrants per year for a population of 35 million) and the United States with over 1 million immigrants per year avoid population declines by bringing in people from other countries. This works, but only while there are immigrants. The other impact of immigration, is that the countries these people leave are losing some of their brightest and best minds and their young population – hardly a winning proposition for those countries. Even African countries have rapidly declining birth rates and almost no country on earth has a birth rate above 3.3 children per woman. Unless something dramatically changes (which seems unlikely) Earth will see a lot of old humans and then fewer and fewer of us. The current projections for working population decline in Japan, China, Europe, and the US are rather staggering. 

What does a society with a declining population and many elderly people look like?

A population that is demographically dominated by one group will inevitably be politically dominated by that group – especially in a democracy. Therefore a country that is dominated by older people will lean more conservative, be more adverse to change and progress. They will allocate resources to preserve the status quo. Politically, older people tend to vote in a more conservative manner, they tend to innovate and change less. How many 60 year old people are starting companies or proposing to overturn cultural norms? Some, but few. 

As the working population ages, more and more resources will be required to support them. With many countries already spending 30-40% of their budgets on healthcare, we can only imagine what it could look like in 20-30 years. If we thought COVID was bad in 2020, imagine a similar outbreak when 10-15% of the population is much older and more susceptible to a pandemic. To protect these people more cautious policies, more resources and more protection will need to be allocated. As a consequence it seems self-evident that a society that leans towards older people will have less innovation, more conservative policies and be able to produce less goods and services. 

China is perhaps the country where this gigantic wave is hitting first. China, due to its one child policy, already has a declining working population. Travelling through China in 2015 I was already thinking to myself that this was peak China. In a sense, China will never have more freedom, activity and buzz than around 2015. It is likely that part of the economic boom in China between 1980-2020 was due to smaller family size and the concentration of resources in fewer children. There are studies that correlated the rise of Ireland and the “Celtic Tiger” to the dramatic reduction in birth rates in Ireland in the 1960-70s. As Irish families went from 8 kids to 2 kids, more resources could be allocated to those children and they were able to pursue higher education and contribute to society. Having those types of demographics temporarily places your economy on steroids as the young generation is coming up through the workforce, and the older, more populous generation, is still active. Eventually you start hitting a wall where the older generation moves into retirement and now the young generation is stuck footing the bill and dealing with high property prices and more conservative decision making. 

In China, their period of insane expansion is at an end due simply to the fact the population is now shrinking. Because, as of 2015 the population is getting older and older and older with less workers, less activity and less creation of new ideas and eventually higher labour costs. Despite some government efforts, the birth rate in China remains somewhere between 0.8 and 1.3 children per woman (or maybe even lower) – which will lead China to HALVE its population in about 40-60 years. This is going to be wild – and by wild, I mean boring and depressing!

An aging population is a very big problem – a declining population is an even bigger problem. While there are obvious economic problems with a declining population – more resources going to support older people, healthcare costs, transport costs, and reduced consumption – the problem that worries me the most is the political impact. What does a society run by old people for old people look like? Japan may be the best current example of this and if there is one word that encapsulates its situation it is stagnation. Japan is just not innovating like it used to and one principal explanation is that more and more of the society is controlled by the elderly and devoted to servicing the elderly. 

Interestingly I find very little concern for this issue among the people I speak with. Maybe that is why no action is being taken. When I raise this concern most people usually brush it off saying that less people may be a good thing – better for the planet, more space available, less social issues. The challenge is to understand that a declining population will not solve our environmental problems. Most people live their lives using the law of expanding gases. This law of physics explains that a gaseous substance will expand until it fills the space it has. The parallel is that people expand their consumption of goods and services to the limits of their financial capacity. Less people will just expand their consumption as much as they can. If housing prices collapse due to a declining population, people will buy bigger houses. If SUV prices decrease as they have over the past 20 years, people will get bigger cars. However, the ultimate limitation on quality of life is our ability to purchase or produce the goods and services we want. With less workers and more retirees, we are very likely to see continued inflation, supply chain problems and less purchasing power for the average worker. This will (and is already) leading to frustration which will turn into political problems (see Italy as a case in point).

Population implosion is going to be the biggest problem of our lives. Like Global Warming, which is a communal problem that no individual can meaningfully affect, demographics is a society level issue that has far reaching consequences and is out of any one person’s control. Having or not having children is contagious. When you are surrounded by families with many children, it becomes the norm and the expectation. Additionally, as people have children, countries must invest in the infrastructure – schools, daycare, … etc. It is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Between 1850-1970 we saw this trend of growing population and infrastructure for children. However, the inverse is also true – if your entourage is remaining single and not having children, you are less likely to have kids. Ultimately, demographics is an issue that has been creeping up on the world for over thirty years, but no one really noticed. It will have cataclysmic impacts. 


The Sex Recession – The Atlantic

Empty Planet – book by John Ibbitson 

Sex is going out of fashion – Thread

Published on October 20, 2022