March 28, 2019 | By Brian Hanson, Dina Smeltz, Darrell Bricker, John Ibbitson

Deep Dish: Why Worry about Global Population Decline?


The world is in for a shock. Global population is expected to peak and then decline this century, reshaping everything from economic growth and immigration to government spending and climate change. Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, authors of the provocative new book Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, join the Council's Brian Hanson and Dina Smeltz to discuss why it is happening and how nations can prepare for this radical shift.




Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson, and today we're exploring a strikingly contrarian argument about global population and its impact on the world to come. It's often said that demography is destiny and conventional wisdom has it that the human population is going to grow explosively throughout this century. My guests today say, "no, not only this is wrong, but this is wildly wrong." They argue that human population will top out around the middle of this century and by the year 2100, the world's population will be back down to where it is today. Their argument has profound implications for everything from economic growth to geopolitics, to immigration. To unpack their argument, I'm joined by the two authors of a provocative new book, Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline. I have with me Darrell Bricker, who is the global CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, a market research and consulting firm. Welcome to Deep Dish, Darrell.

Darrell Bricker: Thanks for having me on, Brian.

Brian Hanson: And also on today is John Ibbitson, who is a writer-at-large at the Globe and Mail newspaper in Canada. John, it's great to have you as well.

John Ibbitson: Hello, Brian.

Brian Hanson: Also joining our conversation is the Chicago Council on Global Affairs' own Senior Fellow on Public Opinion and Foreign Policy, Dina Smeltz. Welcome, Dina, it's great to have you part of the conversation as well.

Dina Smeltz: Good morning, everybody.

Brian Hanson: So Darrell and John, I want to start with a fascinating and really provocative argument in your book that the population projections of humans going forth and multiplying ad infinitum and creating a huge overpopulation boom is wrong. What do you see as the trajectory of population and what's driving it? What's different than the over population people think?

Darrell Bricker: Well, it's based on an understanding of how the UN models population, and what some of the flaws in the modeling might be. So the UN models out a scenario that says that the population is going to grow to 11.2 billion people by the year 2100, and they do that based on three variables. One of them is aging, another one is mortality, actually it's mortality, fertility and mobility. People moving would be mobility. The problem that they have with this model is even though it's been really accurate in the past, is that the culture around this model, the culture that this model is trying to predict, is changing so rapidly that the model really can't accommodate for it. What's happened ... not just us, but a series of demographers worldwide have looked at what the UN is projecting and said, "you know, based on what you've got, we don't think fertility is going to be high. And since the single biggest driver of whether or not a population grows is its level of fertility, we have serious questions about whether or not we're going to reach 11.2 billion people." The consensus on the other side of this is that we're gonna end up somewhere between eight, nine billion people by mid-century and then it's gonna start to decline to a point where we're very likely to be around the same number we are today on planet Earth. Now I should say that the point of the population peaking and declining is not a controversial point. Even the UN's modeling shows that. It's a question of how high it gets at the time that it does peak and how rapid and deep the decline is going to be. That's where the point of disagreement is. Everybody agrees that this is going to be happening, it's just a question of how high the population is gonna get, and how quickly it's gonna come down.

Brian Hanson: And what are the drivers that you see that are going to limit the extent to which population grows and will cause us to then go in the other direction?

John Ibbitson: There's only really one driver, and it's the one driver that the UN modeling fails to account for. That driver is urbanization. We became a majority urban species about a decade ago. Today, about 55% of the world's population is urban. That urbanization is taking place primarily in developing countries and rapid urbanization in developing countries is producing, in those countries, a decline in fertility that took 150 years in the developed world. We already have about two dozen countries that are losing population every year. Japan for example, lost almost 450,000 people last year. But we also see birth rates falling rapidly in places like India and China, and in Brazil. The reason for that is fourfold. Darrell, I'll do the first two, you do the next two.

Darrell Bricker: For sure.

John Ibbitson: When you urbanize a bunch of things happen. The first thing is that a child ceases to be an asset and becomes a liability. Ceases to be another pair of hands to work in the field and just becomes another mouth to feed. So there is an economic diver that says that if you're going to move into a favela or a slum in a big urban area, you no longer need or want to have kids the way you did when you were living in the countryside. The second is that when you move into an urban area, women have access to education in a way they didn't have it when they were living in a rural environment. They may have access to a state supported schools that weren't available for them. They have access to media, social media as well as conventional media. Access to other women who are great educators of each other. And when women acquire education, whether it's in the United States in the 1800s, or Brazil in this decade, women start to become more empowered and when they become more empowered they begin to make demands. One of the demands that they make is that they don't want to have as many children as their mother did. Darrell, take it away.

Darrell Bricker: And part of that is the function of a combination of the clan and religion. So, religion in every place that becomes more urban, tends to get less of a hold on the population, and if you're not having kids as a result of what you believe is God's will, and you're really just doing it for the purposes of experiencing the fullness of life, you're actually pretty full after two. In fact, we did a survey around the world in 26 countries asking people what they thought the ideal family size was, and it is two. Falling on religion is the influence of the clan. In the countryside it is much, much stronger so your family members, your aunts and uncles and others are telling you that you need to have kids as part of what you need to do on behalf of the family. In the city your coworkers aren't asking you to do the same kind of thing. Not only when women moved to the city, do they get more access to education, they become more capable of being in the workforce. We also see that their labor rates are rising, and as their labor rates rise, that means they're obviously more in the workforce so the influence of their coworkers over the influence of their clans becomes quite profound, and affects the choices that they make because they see different role models. So that's basically what we're seeing as a result of urbanization.

Brian Hanson: So we know about some of the societies which have been on the front edge of this, places like Japan, South Korea, and I wanna talk more about them in a moment. But how about, you touch on this briefly, but what do you see going on in the developing world? I mean, the stories we hear of population growth in places like, countries throughout Africa and all, is this something that you expect to see or do we already see signs of this kind of dynamic at work?

John Ibbitson: Well, this is the root of the disagreement between the United Nations Population Division and other demographers. The UN sees Sub-Saharan Africa especially as a basket case. They don't see women acquiring much education or empowerment over the course of the century. They don't see birth rates coming down. It's a pretty bleak scenario that the UN has, but if you go in and look at what's happening in many of these countries, for example, we looked at Kenya. It's a very important country in the eastern portion of Sub-Saharian Africa. Well, Kenya has a very high fertility rate but it is much lower than it used to be, and Kenyan demographers and statisticians point to what they see rapidly falling fertility rates. Well, why would that be? Kenya is urbanizing. The Kenyan government has mandated that girls and boys must have equal levels of education at the elementary level. And when you leave their equivalent of a grade eight you have to pass a graduation exam and last year ... actually, this came out after we were done the book ... last year the results of those exams showed that there were as many girls as there were boys sitting for the exam in Kenya and the girls had, on average, higher marks than boys. So, we think ... and indeed all the evidence on the ground suggests ... that fertility rates in places like Kenya are going to decline much more rapidly than the UN demographers predict.

Brian Hanson: That's very helpful. So we see this trend going on and now I wanna kind of move us to what are the consequences of this? Because I think one of the things that was so striking to me was that so many of the challenges and things that we're expecting to occur in the world are dramatically changed if you shift your expectations on what population will look like to the kinds of a future that you're outlining. Let me just start with economics. What are the economic consequences? I know that you point to countries that've already started to see this as kind of foreshadowing what is going to happen but what are the implications?

Darrell Bricker: Japan does a very good job of foreshadowing what could happen. Every new decade they basically say "another lost decade in Japan."  If you have an economy that is driven by consumption, particularly youthful consumption, this is going to be a problem for you. Because a lot of those things that you buy for the first time that tend to drive economic growth, whether it's your first house or your first refrigerator, your first car, or whatever it is that you happen to be equipping as you create your own household, all of that is being delayed because people are not getting married as fast as they were and then the kids that come out of those situations in which people get together, the children that are produced by that, it's a smaller number so every few years ... actually every year ... we're going to see a declining number of people who are gonna be able to drive the economy through consumption. We are already seeing in parts of the developed world, the middle class is obviously rising in the developing world so we're going to see some of that slack taken up by those populations, at least in the short term. But in the longer term they're gonna go through the same thing, let's say, for example, the population of Italy is going through right now. So from an economic perspective, it is going to be really challenging unless we can figure out a way to start treating older segments of the population as primary consumer markets. We have a bias mark within work in the market research industry, that everything is about youth. Somebody at some point is going to have to figure out that actually they don't have any money, and it's the older people that have all the money. Somehow somebody is going to have to build something that they're going to buy. Organizations that can figure out that point are the ones that are going to probably prosper better than other organizations but there's no doubt that one of the consequences of all of this is that it's going to have an effect on consumption.

Dina Smeltz: Some countries that are experiencing this population decline have recognized it and are trying to promote efforts, programs to increase family size and increase population growth. China has abandoned the one child policy, I think Russia has some programs to try to increase population. How effective are those efforts?

John Ibbitson: They aren't. Or the more accurate way of putting it is, they are limited effect and they are extremely expensive. So, the Nordic countries, since the 1930s, have been very worried about their fertility rates. We should say at this point there's a number that is incredibly vital to this debate, and that number is 2.1. A society that produces, on average, 2.1 children per woman is a society whose population will remain stable. So if your fertility rate is above 2.1, you're going to grow your population. If your fertility rate is below 2.1, your population is going to start to decline. By the late 1930s, Sweden was already worried that it's fertility rate was dropping below 2.1 and that it's population could set to decline, and much of the huge social safety net that the Nordic countries created was based, in fact, on efforts to get women to have more children. And they had limited success. They were able to get their births rates up to levels that were higher than they'd been in the past. In Canada, we're both Canadians, the Quebec government also put into place natalist policies that were designed to get women to have more children. They will have some effect. They might move the the fertility rate up a bit but they don't move it up much. They don't get it back to 2.1, that's for sure. And they're very, very expensive, so whenever you have a cutback ... a recession or something ... the first things to go are those policies. And there's a reason for this. It's a reason why China's efforts to switch from a one child policy to a two child policy will fail. The reason for it is something that is called the low-fertility trap. Darrell alluded to it earlier in a way. When you are not having a child because God commands it, when you're not having a child because you're family demands it, or the state demands it, why are you having a child? Well, you're having a child mostly for personal fulfillment. You and your partner have decided that you want to bring another life into the world. You want to raise someone. You want this to become part of your life's journey. When you have children for that reason, you are pretty quickly fulfilled. You tend to have one or two children. You live in a society where one or two children per couple, or maybe no child, maybe just get a dog, this becomes the norm. And once it becomes the norm, everyone's expectations adjust accordingly. Once the low-fertility trap is in place, it stays in place and no amount of government subsidies will convince people to have a child they don't basically want.

Dina Smeltz: And this is where immigration comes in, right?

Brian Hanson: Yeah. And I wanna get to responses and immigration as one of those. Before we get there though, I wanna talk about one other consequence of this, which, living inside and working inside a global affairs think tank, one of the things that grabbed my attention is when you played out the geopolitical implications of this trend. What does this mean for the distribution of power? Everybody's concerned about China ... well, many people are concerned about the implications that arise in China and shifts in power in the world, how does this play into our understanding and our expectations of what's coming?

Darrell Bricker: Well, I'll actually let John answer because he gets asked this question a lot. So John, why don't you take this one, too?

John Ibbitson: Well sure. So everyone expects that, as you said, China is about to become the world's largest economy. It is growing its economy rapidly, it's also growing its military rapidly. It's becoming very aggressive geopolitically, but sometime toward the end of the next decade, the Chinese population is going to start to decline and this is a shocking fact that we do not take into account. China's population will, within a very few years, start going down. And once it starts to go down, it's going to keep going down. It is going to suddenly have all the challenges and problems that some eastern European countries, Japan has. It is going to have a steadily shrinking population of young people and very large population of old people who will need healthcare, and pensions, and other supports and it will become progressively harder every year for those young people to pay the costs of those old people. So we don't see one of the big challenges of this century as the rise of China and accommodating that rise. We see the twenty-first century as one in which we have to accommodate the problems associated with the declining China, because there is nothing more dangerous, as you know, than an empire that's in decline.

Darrell Bricker: I'll just add in one other part of this. So, one of the things that happened over the last, I think it's about two and a half years ago, was the Chinese government recognized some of this and decided to get rid of their one child policy. Well, they've had a couple years experience and there's been no significant second child baby boom for all the reasons that John mentioned. But not only that, even if China did decide to turn on the tap in a really aggressive way, they have two problems. It has one of the highest sterilization rates in the world. So, people have ... the UN publishes statistics on birth control. China has one of the highest rates of sterilization, both female and male in the world. And another thing is that there's 60 million women missing from the Chinese population as a result of the culture of wanting to have sons and basically aborting female children. So as a result of that, even if they want to turn it on, they don't really have the fertility power in their population to be able to do it.

Brian Hanson: Yeah, that's fascinating. So, one of the things ... as Canadians you know this well ... one of the things that we spend time thinking about in the US is our own role in the world and we play a very strong role geopolitically. What are the implications of these changes for these United States and its demographic position?

John Ibbitson: Well potentially they're very positive, but it's up to the United States. One of the things that the United States and Canada have in common is a long, rich tradition of immigration and the only way that you can counter the effects of population decline within your society is through immigration. In the long term it's the only way out. Canada, because we're cold and perched on the northern part of the continent, we've always had a challenge to get people to come to our country, so we have a very long tradition of going out and aggressively recruiting immigrants. That policy continues today. We import about 1% of our population annually and we have very strong programs in place to make sure that that happens. For example, by recruiting foreign students and automatically granting them citizenship if they want it. The United States hasn't had to work that hard. You are a highly desirable country, and you have always had a great many people who want to come to your country. And even though your immigration rates aren't anywhere like Canada's, you still bring in a million people a year and that's a lot of people. So the United States population should continue to grow, even as China's population is declining and Russia's population is declining. The US population should continue to rise through the course of the century, which is hugely favorable to you in terms of balance of power, if you don't close the door. The real debate about Donald Trump and the policies surrounding his administration is, is this a part of a longer trend in the United States toward nativism, towards isolationism, towards a blocking of the arrival of new immigrants? It's not just from Latin America, but from around the world because literally your future as a great power depends on your willingness to continue to bring in new people, because your fertility rate is also well below replacement rate and going down.

Brian Hanson: Yeah, I wanna bring Dina in on this point. She runs our public opinion work here at the Council, and we've actually done some work. What do you see in terms of public opinion trends when it comes to immigration in the US?

Dina Smeltz: I think it's an interesting comparison with Canada too, because our immigrant populations are a little bit different. The people that Canada, as you kind of described it, recruits is different from the family-based kind of immigration that's prevalent in the United States. But it's funny ... I was at a dinner last night with John Mearsheimer who is a professor at University of Chicago and he said, "you know it's really interesting immigration is our ace in the hole" ... people don't always realize that, but that's how we get a leg up as these changes that you guys are talking about happen in societies, especially aging societies, and he compared us to Germany, for example. They're another country that's going to be losing population rapidly.

Brian Hanson: Will the public support it? John Mearsheimer thinks it, but how about the US public?

Dina Smeltz: Yeah, so the public ... it's interesting. You would think, given the high visibility of immigration in the last election ... and we find in our surveys that views of immigrants are highly correlated with support for Donald Trump ... you would think maybe there'd be an impact on American public opinion as a whole and that people would be becoming less positive toward immigration, but in fact we have found that the opposite. It's get very buried in the headlines, but a growing majority of Americans are not threatened by immigration. They do not see it as a critical threat. They support granting, even undocumented immigrants that are here, a path to citizenship. But there are -

Brian Hanson: Is that a majority of Americans who take that position?

Dina Smeltz: Yes, there are. It is a majority, but there are really big differences in partisan divides, and I'd be curious if it's similar in Canada as well. The Republicans are much more likely to follow the President Trump's lead and are majority negative, but even among Republicans, they are divided evenly on whether undocumented immigrants should be granted a path to citizenship, so that's sort of surprising. I think it's important to realize that those voices that are the loudest tend to take over the story on this in terms of American public opinion, but also that those people who are really against immigration, especially undocumented immigration, feel much more intensely about their views than those who support it but so do passively.

Brian Hanson: So, Darrell and John, I want to bring you in on this and particularly in the context of your previous book, The Big Shift, in which you looked at this issue of immigration and the patterns of political support in Canada and actually found that, in many ways, that there were incentives for Conservatives to be in favor of immigration. What did you find? Share that with us.

Darrell Bricker: Well, if you take a look at the pattern of Canadian politics, what's happened over the space of the last few decades is that massive immigration has changed the balance of power in the country, which used to be predominantly about reconciling the French and English difference in the country and winning elections by bringing the French faction and particularly in Ontario, our largest state or province here in Canada, together with Quebec in order to dominate election campaigns. What's happened of late, because of the growth of the suburbs where immigrants have disproportionately moved to, is that they've become a powerful influence in terms of elections outcomes. In fact, you cannot win an election campaign in this country without winning the new Canadian vote. The interesting part of that is it's really not a partisan vote. It's one that, depending on how the Liberal Party, which is our more progressive centrist party, or the Conservative Party, our more conservative centrist part, how they position themselves on major issues other than identity, interestingly enough. It usually relates to middle-class prosperity, how would they identify themselves with those issues, they can win that group or lose that group. They've become the power block in Canadian politics and all of the political parties are really trying to win them in order to win election campaigns. The interesting thing for me is that immigration, to this point, hasn't really played an important role in terms of winning or losing that particular part of the population. The real problem that's happening, and by the way, this isn't just a Canadian phenomena, it's a fairly global phenomena, you see the same kind of thing where it tends to be cities and suburbs that tend to be strongest in terms of immigration is that the right has really gone in this direction, you see this in the United States exactly as Dina was saying, where it's a very partisan, tribal kind of reaction to immigration. The left has also gone in another direction that isn't particularly productive in which it's really made this an argument about compassion and how big your heart is. That doesn't really swing hearts and minds other than the most partisan people. The things that really swings people on this issue, and frankly it's not just Canada or the United States, but it tends to be more of a global phenomena, is that if you can convince people that this actually is to the benefit of the country, and particularly the citizens that that live within that country. So immigration has a positive effect on economic growth, for example, or on stabilizing the population and allowing you to be able to deliver public services into the future. Those kinds of arguments tend to work a lot better than the ones that are all about compassion.

Dina Smeltz: I think the big difference too is that the Canadian immigration system's based on the highly skilled, versus in the US where it's much more of a mix. Because the majority of Americans do support bringing in highly skilled immigrants, which is easier to make that argument, although at the same time it also brings up competition for jobs.

Brian Hanson: So does that resonate with you, John and Darrell about the reason for some of the differences between the US reaction and the Canadian reaction?

John Ibbitson: Not a lot, I don't think. Traditionally, the United States has welcomed large numbers of people, traditionally Canada has welcomed large numbers of people. Traditionally Canada has had to recruit aggressively to get them, where the United States simply has to keep its doors open and they will come to you. But the result has been the same. You call it a melting pot, we call it multiculturalism, but each country in its own way has found ways to accommodate wave after wave of new arrivals from different parts of the world, and they very quickly blend in to the mainstream of the culture, whether it's Latinos crossing on your southern border or it's Filipinos and Indians coming into Canada, so the result is the same. And the challenge is the same, as well. If you are a country that does not accept immigration because you place high value on cultural integrity, then you just can't say "alright, we're going to start bringing in immigrants." That's the Pollyanna way of viewing things. We have to respect and understand that many societies would rather decline than dilute ... if that's not too blunt a word ... that they would ... places like, right now, Hungary, which really needs immigrants, is closing their door to them because Hungary would rather be Hungarian than what it sees as the alternative.

Brian Hanson: Yeah. Fascinating.

Darrell Bricker: And I should also add in on this. Even though you can spend a lot of time talking about immigration, it's a short-to-medium term solution. And the reason it's a short-to-medium term solution is that most of the places that are producing the biggest diaspora, the largest numbers of immigrants, places like India, for example, which has the largest diaspora in the world, are all very rapidly becoming middle-class. They're also populations that are increasingly low birth rate populations, and immigration is a young person's game. In certain a period of time in the not-to-distant future, the actual access to flow of immigrants is going to get more and more restrictive, because the source countries aren't going to be producing as many. Short-to-medium term it's going to help a country, but longer term, we're all probably going to have to get used to the idea that our populations are gonna be potentially declining and certainly aging.

John Ibbitson: There is one other thing, though, that we need to bring up just quickly, 

Brian Hanson: Please.

John Ibbitson: Because people are going to be screaming at whatever it is that they're listening to this on right now which is, there is third tremendous impact to population decline, and it is environmental. And it is entirely to the good. So if you believe that global warming the greatest challenge facing the future of humanity, and you're probably right to believe it, this is good news. A population that tops out at around nine billion and then starts to go down, will be hugely beneficial in fighting rising temperatures, both in and of itself.

Brian Hanson: That's a great lead to where I want to bring our interview to a close, which is, we've been talking about how your vision of a population decline, how it's upending conventional wisdom and practice on so many different issues from state's relationships to its citizens to geopolitical competition in the world. I'd like to get your view on, in the end of the day, as you look at this phenomenon, is this a moment for optimism, or a moment for concern about the future?

Darrell Bricker: I think we say in the book, and we may even conclude it, I don't remember what the last sentence of the book is, is it's not a good thing, it's not a bad thing, depends on how you look at it, but it's a really important thing. We need to start working it into our conversations about what the future is going to look like, because at this point, this idea that global population is out of control and will get to over 11 billion people and possibly larger by the end of the century, is the dominant meme out there. It is, when John and I discuss it, what we call vertical knowledge, that thing that everybody knows that just is not true. We're going to have to introduce the fact that it is going to be a smaller, older, more urban population that's going to populate this Earth and increasingly so as we go through the century, and we're going to have to just adjust our expectations accordingly.

Brian Hanson: Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, authors of a fascinating new book, The Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, and Dina Smeltz, right here at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, thank you all for coming on. I think this is an enormously important argument that you've made Darrell, and John with big implications and I'm happy to have had you help us understand both what you see the future as being and it's implications. Thanks so much for being on Deep Dish. And thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish. If you like the show, do me a favor and tap the subscribe button on your Podcast app. You can find our show under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to Podcasts, and if you think you know someone who would enjoy today's episode, please take a moment, tap the share button and send it to them as well. I'd like to invite you to join our Facebook Group, Deep Dish on Global Affairs, where you can ask our guests follow-up questions about anything you've heard today, or submit questions for upcoming guests and episodes. That's Deep Dish on Global Affairs, on Facebook. As a reminder the opinions you heard today belong to the people expressed them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio, our audio engineer is Andy Czarnecki, I'm Brian Hanson and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish. ..


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