Falling population will bring challenges
Last updated 7/19/2022 at Noon
Elon Musk recently tweeted, “At risk of stating the obvious, unless something changes to cause the birth rate to exceed the death rate, Japan will eventually cease to exist. This would be a great loss for the world.”
That’s probably not true. Japan will not disappear. But Musk is not alone in his concern. On June 22, 2022 there was a story in Bloomberg about Japan’s falling birthrate. The author wrote it’s hard to know why: “All fertile societies are alike; each infertile society is infertile in its own way.”
Which is probably not true, either. There are consistencies.
A common explanation used to be that birth rates declined as people “moved off the land,” that babies were the result of needing farmhands. More machinery, fewer hands needed. More recently, women in the workforce, overtime in a post-industrial age, changing structures of families, etc. have been blamed, with birth rates falling faster in richer countries than poorer.
It is complicated. Bloomberg quotes Mikko Myrskyla, director of the Rostock, Germany-based Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. “Economic conditions are not so helpful in explaining persistent trends… Scientists are somewhat helpless in explaining what then drives the long-term change.”
Let me try.
There seems to be an assumption that larger families are “preferred,” that growing populations are “normal.” But is this true? What does “normal” really mean? Are we forgetting that description is not explanation?
We all know how powerful the sex drive can be. Genetic commands to procreate have upended lives, if not civilizations. What if higher birth rates in the past were simply biology asserting itself, and not the result of intent?
What if the power of the sex drive was simply, until recently, greater than the power to live an easier life without children?
What if contraception has allowed our species to find a new normal, more in line with what people really want?
If this speculation is true, then all the fertility programs, state-supported kindergartens, and reduced overtime hours might have little effect on birth rates. In such a world, populations will continue to fall because people may simply not want to raise children.
Regardless of the cause, there will be consequences.
The pyramid scheme of social security, where an increasing population of productive younger people sustains a population of now-less-productive oldsters, will be threatened. Where would you invest resources? Who eats at the dinner table, on a societal level? Now there’s an ugly Thanksgiving!
Capitalism, dependent on growing markets, might be upended. Battles for market share could become even more aggressive as we discover new limits on how many cars are needed per person, how many cell phones one can actually use.
Fascists in places like Russia and China might run short of human cannon fodder, a primary source of their strength and influence.
Okay, all this is pure speculation. But if population decrease is in fact “natural,” perhaps we need to be thinking about developing new economic and social models besides capitalism, communism, and fascism.
Perhaps there’s a healthy economic model that recognizes that humanity will continue to exist in the future, in Japan and elsewhere, people who must be fed and housed, even as there will be fewer of us to both produce and consume.
That could be a great place, you know, with greater individual freedom because of fewer conflicts in less crowded conditions; with wealth from advanced productivity shared more equally in recognition of the value of each consumer; with less competition for not-as-scarce resources.
Perhaps smaller populations, with fewer people fighting viciously over smaller scraps of leftover productivity, are not that hard to understand and not a bad thing. Perhaps the future could be one with much less harm to our beautiful blue marble of a planet.
Nah. It’s far more likely we’ll continue our ape-like ways, with power-hungry autocrats fanning flames of white versus brown, Christian versus Muslim, with northern-hemispherions challenging the humanity of those from the south.
With turmoil erupting as cities along coasts drown in rising seas, with deserts creeping over once-fertile heartlands, all because until recently the drive for sex overwhelmed the ability to avoid having babies.
That’s our history as a species. So it’s more likely, but maybe not inevitable.
Mr. Musk, Japan will not cease to exist. Japan could even become more like it used to be. Europe and North America could even evolve into regions with more of the characteristics you so admire. Poorer places in the world could actually begin to catch up, move away from subsistence and starvation, and add even more to their contribution to human existence.
But first, we need to be honest with ourselves about a future with fewer people.
For more from Erik Dolson, see erikdolson.substack.com.