Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Lowest of the Low

I have been talking about demographics for a long time, and see that it seems to be a topic of growing interest in the world. Why? Since at least 1970 all projections from the UN on future population growth have been too high, including projections of peak population. When I first wrote about demographics in 2004 the average global TFR was 2.78, in 2005 it was about 2.65, now it is no higher than 2.59. If the current rate of descent slows to half of what we have seen over the last 3 years (which, I might add, is unlikely – it will probably stay the same or even increase) then global TFR will hit 2.3 in 2010. This is an important number because the replacement birthrate for the developing world is 2.4, sort of a symbolic number. And, of course, at that rate the world’s average TFR will hit 2.0 – sub-replacement for everyone – by 2016.

I see comments online everywhere from Amazon book reviews to other blogs to my email account arguing “So what? With increases in food productions, efficiency, and automation if the population drops the world will be better off! Less pollution, everyone left will be well-off. Sounds great!” And I must admit, in the long run this might be the case. But that will be a very long-run scenario. In the meantime, there will be a severe shortage of everything from highly-skilled workers (the engineers and programmers needed to invent, design, create, deploy, and maintain all that automation the rosy scenario counts on) to unskilled labor (who keep things going until the automation is in place and, I hate to point out, have been, are, and always will be needed). A particular crisis will occur in the earliest years. This is because of ‘population momentum’ – the much larger previous generations that decided to have very few kids are getting old, now. They need doctors, nurses, pharmacists, gardeners, aides, etc. just to care for them. Just as importantly, in most developed nations they expect to enjoy pensions and social security benefits. Yet these programs are paid for by taxes on people working right now. Since the current generation is smaller than the retiree’s generation, they have to pay for their own livelihood and the benefits of retirees. This will become a serious issue in Japan and Europe in about, oh, now. Japan has had problems finding enough workers since the late 1980’s due to population decline, and the problem of not enough people for existing jobs is spreading. The EU and Japan are already in serious discussions about what they can do to reduce the social and economic impact of rapid population decline – and it is almost certainly too late. The only solutions they can see are to increase retirement age, increase public spending on geriatric research (who is going to pay the taxes for that?), use more elderly workers, and use more immigrants.

Which brings us to immigration. Not only various on-line commenters look to immigration as the magic bullet, but so do most think-tanks and UN groups. Unfortunately, the developing world doesn’t look like a magic bullet for the problem of decreasing population. Beyond the issues of political instability which I have covered before, there may not be enough immigrants! The largest population with sub-replacement fertility is not in Europe, it is in Asia, with a TFR of about 1.7 for China and 1.3 for South Korea, with the rest of the Asian Tigers also below replacement, giving East Asia an overall TFR of 1.5. China is aware of the potential impact of declining population and they recently discussed a plan to shift their economy from manufacturing to a service-based economy. Even India, which still has above-replacement fertility, has a rapidly-dropping TFR (from 5.4 in 1975 to 2.7 now to an estimated 2.1 overall by 2011, and continuing to drop after that).

In short, Asia will have a greater total need for manpower than Europe. Japan and Europe cannot look to Asia to solve their looming problem. Australia and Oceania have an aggregate TFR of 2.1, just barely replacement – and dropping. The TFR of South America as a whole is 2.4, which is just barely above replacement level for the developing world and, you guessed it – its dropping. So South America is out, too.

The only place in the world with large numbers of nations with above-replacement fertility is sub-Saharan Africa. Ignoring concerns about education and skills, forgetting any questions of cultural assimilation, politics, or racial strife, there still remains the same bugbear – the TFRs of sub-Saharan Africa are dropping, and dropping faster than anyone believed possible just 5 years ago. While the UN estimated that Kenya’s TFR was 6.2 in 1990, more accurate research shows that it was actually “only” 5.4. Much more of a shock to demographers, however, was the amazing TFR drop from about 5.2 in 1995 to less than 3.7 today; in other words, the nation once seen as ‘a population nightmare has experienced a drop in TFR of 60% in 15 years. This is an unforeseen drop in population growth that is spread throughout the region (although not quite so dramatic as Kenya in most cases). Overall, sub-Saharan Africa’s TFR has been dropping by 20% per decade and, researchers predict, will continue to do so for at least 20 more years.

The truly stunning thing about the 60% drop in fertility in Kenya, or the 60% drop in TFR in Tunisia, is that these two nations are poor. The majority of women in them are poor, and many are illiterate. These were seen as barriers to reducing TFRs; the campaigns against overpopulation that began in the 1960’s focused on education and wealth as the tools that ‘allowed’ women to have fewer children. The last 25 years, however, have shown that all of our theories on what keeps TFR high (high mortality rates, low life expectancy, illiteracy, poverty) are wrong, or at least no longer valid.

Because of the declines in births much of the attempts to generate new demographic theories are focused on what is called “Lowest-low Fertility”, which means ‘any TFR of 1.3 or lower’. Currently there are no less than 16 nations with lowest-low fertility (including Russia, Spain, Italy, Poland, South Korea, and Ukraine) and at least another dozen between 1.4 and 1.31 with TFR’s trending down (including Japan, Germany, Bulgaria, Austria, Greece, and Hungary). Since there are so many industrialized nations already in this range and so many more nations set to enter it – with the trend repeating itself throughout the world – researchers are focusing on understanding it. This is seen in urgent terms for very practical reasons; nations want the trends to stop. A nation with a TFR of 1.3 faces the prospect that each new generation will be only half the size of the one before, and its population as a whole will be halved every 45 years. A nation with a TFR of 1.0 will face a 50% reduction in population every 30 years.

Lowest-low fertility was seen as an aberration, the result of major wars, famines, and plagues, until about 1993 when lowest-low fertility became the norm in some European nations. Since then, it has spread and continues to do so. Unfortunately, so far all the theories boil down to “women are waiting longer to have kids, it is not a big deal”. Unfortunately, this does not explain how lowest-low fertility is not just persisting, but going lower and spreading. If it truly were a matter of tempo only, then at some point the TFRs would go back up and stay up. Instead, any positive gains are not just temporary, but offset by larger losses soon after. Another theory is that the absence of day care in causing women to delay having children. This ludicrous claim may have much to do with the concerns of Social Democrats in Germany, but little to do with the TFR of 0.8 seen in Hong Kong – with virtually no day care, or the rapid decline of birthrates in nations with universal day care; the existence of either would cast a shadow over the theory, the existence of both dooms it. More importantly, research in the last 5 years shows that delaying having a first child doesn’t ‘push back’ TFR to another year – it reduces it. Put simply, the very logical idea that waiting longer to have any children means that you will have fewer children has been proven true in the field.

The best that some researchers hope for is; if there is massive social spending on programs like high-quality day care, if parents are given generous amounts of (paid) paternity and maternity leave, if there are tax breaks and cash incentives provided to parents, and if single mothers are paid full-time wages for part-time work, TFRs may recover to be as high as those in Sweden - a blistering TFR of 1.66. In short, if we adhere to the existing demographic concepts and Liberal social paradigms we can drag out the halving of population from 45 years to 55 years, and only at the cost of our economies.

So, to sum up; in a world where human population has been increasing since before the invention of written language, a decreasing population will almost certainly be a fact within our own lifetimes. The nations that are on the ‘leading edge’ of population reduction cannot depend upon immigration to soften the hammer-blows of decreased numbers of workers and increased numbers of elderly. Average Muslim birthrates are starting to slowly match secular birth rates. There seems to be no way to purposefully increase TFRs through governmental action. There is no theory to explain what is happening nor to predict what will happen next.

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