A recent article in The New York Times, “Long Slide Looms for World Population, with Sweeping Ramifications”, would seem to indicate that concern about falling fertility has finally gone mainstream. We have a looming global fertility crisis.
The popular view is that China is the coming superpower and that the United States is a nation in decline. However, The New York Times warns that, among other challenges, “the ageing demographics of China, casts a sobering picture for the future of the People’s Republic of China”.
“The study’s authors… project that global population will peak at 9.73 billion in 2064 and drop to 8.79 billion by 2100. They also project an almost 50 per cent drop in China’s population by century’s end (from 1.4 billion to 732 million)… and that 183 of 195 countries and territories will have fewer people by 2100.”
The National Interest, meanwhile, writes that population decline is a serious issue for China: “Currently, there are 1.4 billion people in China. The population in China declined for the first time in 2020. According to The Lancet, the Chinese population will drop to 732 million people by 2100. This is coupled with the fact that the majority of the Chinese population will be middle aged or elderly.”
After having scrapped its decades-old one-child policy in 2016, replacing it with a two-child limit, which has failed to lead to a sustained upsurge in births, China has just announced that it will allow couples to have up to three children.
According to the worldometer website, Russian demographics are also trending downward: “A total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1 represents replacement-level fertility, or the average number of children per woman needed for each generation to replace itself. The TFR for Russia is 1.8.”
A United Nations report states that the Russian population is projected to fall from 145,934,462 in 2020 to 83.7 million by 2100.
On July 14, 2020, The Lancet published a groundbreaking study, “Fertility, mortality, migration and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: a forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study”. The study’s authors characterised their findings as “jaw-dropping”: they project that global population will peak at 9.73 billion in 2064 and drop to 8.79 billion by 2100. They also project an almost 50 per cent drop in China’s population by century’s end (from 1.4 billion to 732 million). The study projects that 183 of 195 countries and territories will have fewer people by 2100.
“The longer an older person can maintain reasonable independence, the less strain there will be on the smaller number of younger people to care for them.”
In the face of these sobering predictions of population decline and increasingly ageing populations, opportunities for intergenerational interaction are signs of hope. The concept of intergenerational learning is delightfully explored in the television series, Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds. The benefits for both young and old were obvious.
Another interactive intergenerational initiative is Umbrella Dementia Cafes. Recently, they have had Grade-5 students in a Melbourne school learn about brain health and the benefits of an active lifestyle by attending one of the cafes and actively socialising with people experiencing dementia.
These intergenerational interaction initiatives, although small beginnings, are already exploring ways to provide opportunities for young and old to benefit from interaction at these different stages of life.
For the children it provides the experience of communicating with and being sensitive to the needs of older people. With a demographic decline looming, more sensitive carers for the older population are something to be invested in. The experience also benefits the children who otherwise do not have contact with older people.
For the older people, interaction with the young can provide much-needed social and mental and physical engagement, which isolation robs them of. As seen in Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds, it also benefits their physical and mental activity, mood, mobility and confidence, as well as simple enjoyment of life. It promotes healthy and independent life.
All these benefits will become even more important as the imbalance between the number of older and younger people grows. The longer an older person can maintain reasonable independence, the less strain there will be on the smaller number of younger people to care for them.
As important, if not more important than these pragmatic considerations, we need to care for all from cradle to grave to promote human thriving. Government policy needs to support families to allow young couples to exercise the choice to have the number of children they would like to have; and to have a choice in how they care for their children rather than both of them being effectively forced to work and to put their children into out-of-home childcare.
Families need economic support and the Australian Family Association campaign for Fair Family Funding is directed to achieving exactly this: a parenting payment for each child rather than out-of-home childcare subsidies; equal paid parental leave for a parent working at home caring for children; income splitting for single-income families.
Such interactions will also engender respect for older people. “Ageism” is unlawful in Australia as discrimination.
Interaction between young and old will provide young people with the opportunity to experience the wisdom of older people and to be more open to advice, and to develop compassion in dealing with older people as they become frail and vulnerable.