7 Population Trends That Will Determine Our Future

7 Population Trends That Will Determine Our Future

  • The coronavirus pandemic continues to take a toll on the world’s population, and China and the US are facing demographic declines.
  • These dynamics, and the seven explored below, will have dramatic and large-scale effects on the way we live in the decades to come.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to take its toll on the world’s population, two of the world’s most powerful countries, China and the United States, have released troubling new census data.

Both countries, it seems, are facing national demographic declines that may soon threaten their economic prosperity — though the former will be much more affected than the latter.

In April, the US Census Bureau reported the slowest population growth — 7.7% in a decade — since the 1930s. The nosedive was due to a combination of a declining birth rate, decreased immigration flows and significant mortality amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the US population, which was 331 million in April 2020, grew by just 900,000 in 2019.

Meanwhile, in China, the government announced in May that couples would henceforth be allowed to have a third child, amending the country’s infamous One-Child Policy for a second time.

The impetus for this policy shift became clear weeks later, when Beijing published the results of its own 2020 Census. Though China’s population had grown by 11 million since 2010 to hit 1.41 billion, the data also revealed that the country’s birth rate is in free fall.

These headlines are significant domestically in the US and China, but they also allude to the fact that the first two decades of the 21st century were a turning point for the population of the world as a whole. Millions flocked to cities, global birth rates fell and each continent experienced its own demographic shifts.

These dynamics, including the seven explored below, will have dramatic and large-scale impacts on the way we live in the decades to come.

Elderly people exercise on Japan’s “Respect for the Aged Day.” Yuya Shino/Getty Images

East Asia is falling over a cliff. In the 20th century, industrializing countries went through what’s known as a “demographic transition,” in which a decrease in mortality, brought on by improvements in economic prosperity and governance, was followed by a decrease in the number of births. East Asia is undergoing its own similar transition now, but at a much faster pace.

Births in Japan and South Korea are at record lows, even as citizens of these countries have little appetite for policies that would encourage immigration. Researchers in both states have even launched studies to predict when their “last person” would die. Tohoku University’s 2012 investigation determined that the “last Japanese” would die in 3011 — a few decades after the “last South Korean” in 2750, according to a 2014 study by the National Assembly Research Service.

In China, falling birth rates have often been blamed on the One-Child Policy, instituted in 1979 by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. In fact, the Chinese predicament is not a result of Maoist ideology. The decline started in the late 1960s, and China has mostly been following the East Asian trend, albeit at a faster clip.

China is doubly affected by a traditional “preference for males,” also found in other societies — notably in India and the Caucasus — that leads some parents to terminate pregnancies when the fetuses are known to be female, an unwanted result of the large-scale availability of ultrasound scanning. China’s recent census revealed that there are 35 million more men than women in the country — a gender ratio of roughly 1.1 male births per 1 female birth. At a local level, the disparity can increase, reaching 1.3 or 1.4.

A skewed gender ratio has durable consequences, especially when the number of girls is further reduced by infanticides or deliberate neglect. Throughout history, it has often led to social instability and an increased criminality.

The problem for Beijing is that lifting the single-child restriction in 2015 has not slowed the national population decline. The number of births has decreased for four consecutive years, collapsing to 12 million as of the 2020 census, with a fertility rate of just 1.3 children per women. China now risks being stuck in the “low-fertility trap,” from which it is difficult to escape. As a result, in less than two decades, 30% of its population will be over 60 years old.

Because it is so rapid, China’s aging will undoubtedly have consequences on its economic performance, as well on its ability to sustain its elderly.

Today, China’s retirees depend on family assistance for roughly half of their income, but the average Chinese household size now has fewer than three members for the first time in recorded history. By 2060, nearly one in five men over 70 years of age will lack descendants, leaving them dependent on the state for support.

People inside an abandoned sports hall in a former Soviet military radar station near Skrunda, Latvia, April 9, 2016. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

Europe is only growing through immigration. For 30 years, Eastern Europe has been suffering what can be called a “population triple whammy”: a decrease in births, an increase in deaths and an increase in emigration. Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina have lost more than 20% of their populations since 1990.

This might explain the prevalent fears in these countries and in other parts of Europe that nationals are being “replaced” by immigrants and refugees. Russia is experiencing a similar trend, though it has been welcoming an increasing number of immigrants from Central Asia.

Some on the Old Continent fear that the population growth in African countries could lead to a “scramble for Europe.” Indeed, a recent book with that title, authored by Duke University professor Stephen Smith, claimed that Africa will be to Europe what Mexico was to the United States until recently: a large source of labor immigration, both legal and illegal.

But the direst projections made by Smith and others like him don’t hold up on close scrutiny. It is certainly true that as their countries develop, Africans will be increasingly able to afford a transcontinental journey. But for now these economies remain far below the level of wealth that would make that possible, and geographical constraints are more prohibitive between North African states and Southern Europe than on the American landmass. Whereas Smith claims that 150 million Africans will come to Europe between now and 2050, the EU’s own projections, based on more solid analysis, suggest that approximately 800,000 to 1 million would immigrate each year by midcentury.

On the other hand, some have argued that immigration from Africa could balance out demographic downticks in Europe and elsewhere. Not so fast. In 2019, there were 272 million migrants in the world. According to a 2000 study by the UN Population Division, aging countries in Europe would need 1.3 billion immigrants over a period of 50 years to maintain their current ratio of working age to non-working age populations. In South Korea, the number was 5.1 billion.

Bidemi Aye receives a pre-paid debit card for cash and food provided by World Food Programme in the Makoko riverine slum settlement in Lagos, Nigeria, November 27, 2020. Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images

Nigeria, India and America are the future. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region that has yet to experience its demographic transition. Niger actually holds the world record for fertility. In the region of Maradi, in the country’s south, each woman will on average have 8 children.


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