Population Pyramid Schemes

And speaking of Spengler, those who are familiar with David Goldman’s work know his particular obsession is demography and its manifold impacts on history and geopolitics. And on that topic, I thought I’d bring attention to this article on new estimates of global population from the Wilson Quarterly, which has been making the rounds.

Some comments thereon:

- From 20,000 feet, the two factors that correlate best with a country’s fertility rate are the percent of the female population that is literate and the percent of the population that lives in cities. Those two factors matter more than the country’s religion, overall level of wealth, or family planning policies, though these obviously all matter as well.

- I am unsurprised that Northern Europe is trending back towards replacement-level fertility. Fertility in Scandinavia, France and Britain never dropped to the levels observed in, say, Italy or Ukraine, and there was plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the view that part of what looked like a drop in total fertility rates was actually a delay in fertility. The panic in some quarters about a “loss of faith in the future” reflected in low fertility rates never accorded with the actual experiences of anybody I know in talking with men and women they knew, who generally continued to show considerable interest in the future, and specifically in marriage and children. Relatedly, the panic about running out of workers to support a swelling population of retirees is entirely an artifact of our refusal to raise the typical age of retirement. But a trend that is unsustainable will not be sustained, and so the retirement age will generally go up, and the pensions crisis will vanish.

- What we’ll probably see in another generation is the following pattern in developed countries: where the cost of family formation remains relatively low (whether because of relatively low housing prices or substantial state support for families – the former being the traditional American approach, the latter being the modern European approach), fertility will fluctuate around or just below replacement levels based on economic and cultural trends. Where the cost of family formation is stuck at a high level (as will be the case in places like Italy, Hong Kong, New York where housing costs are very high and there is weak government support for family formation), fertility will be well below replacement. And only where there are political drivers of high fertility (Northern Ireland, Israel) will there be notably above-replacement fertility levels. When we look back over the last few decades in particular, Germany is going to turn out to be an outlier, as fertility trends will turn out to be driven by the uniquely wrenching economic consequences of reunification. Absent reunification, I would bet that Germany would look much more like the rest of northern Europe; as it is, Germany will look like the rest of northern Europe, but with a time lag.

- While I think Westerners are probably wrong in worrying about the pensions crisis (well, Italians aren’t wrong, but most Western countries are), fretting about the social consequences of millions of unmarried Chinese men is very worth doing. Particularly when you realize that East Asian women already do much better than men on the global marriage market, the potential for some very ugly cultural consequences is real. Whether those consequences include ugly geopolitical events is more questionable; every one of those only sons will have a mother who really doesn’t want to see him get hurt. India is, I think, a very different situation, though it will be interesting to see how a shortage of women affects the marriage market there, in particular the willingness of men to “marry down” caste-wise.

- Similarly, I think the situation in sub-Saharan Africa is about as awful as can be imagined. This is already a region with extremely high infant and adult mortality rates relative to the global average. If fertility trends do not change radically in a short time – and there’s little reason to expect them to – Africa is going to way overshoot its carrying capacity, and face a Malthusian catastrophe the likes of which the world has never seen.

- Finally, the most interesting question is what happens to a host of countries currently undergoing rapid demographic transition, countries that range across Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The last batch of countries that went through this transition experienced rapid economic growth and significant cultural and political change. Obviously, the diversity among the countries now undergoing this transition is huge, in terms of political situation, base state of economic development, and human capital. But my bet is: these countries are going to be the most dramatic stories in terms of both economic and political development in the next generation, and I’ve already picked my top candidate among them.