The 20th Century was the era of massive population growth, with its attendant pressures on the world’s capacity to feed, clothe, educate and gainfully employ six billion people, demands on resources and the environment, and the inevitable social challenges arising from rapidly growing population.
In contrast, the 21st Century is shaping up as the era of depopulation, with mounting evidence that within a few years, the population of Europe will begin to fall, followed by Latin America, Africa and Asia. Finally, if present trends continue, China’s population, which is still growing at the rate of one Australia a year, will cease to rise, and will begin a massive decline – unleashing a completely different set of social problems.
A paper given at the recent World Congress of Families in Geneva by Dr Viktor Medkov of Moscow University highlighted the problem.
He said that since the collapse of communism, Russia’s birth rate – previously very low – had plummeted, and now Russia’s population is falling by about one million a year, due to an ageing population and a dearth of babies.
Undoubtedly the collapse of the Russian economy and the decay of the ‘welfare state’ and Russia’s medical and hospital systems have contributed to the problem; but as he pointed out, Russia is merely ahead of most of Western Europe, which will face the same crisis within a decade or two.
In fact, the technical literature among demographers is now peppered with references to ‘depopulation’. From Russia, the Czech Republic and Ukraine, where the process is now well advanced, new studies predict the imminent decline in population in Western European countries whose present fertility rate is far below replacement levels.
The causes of this change are complex. Improved sanitation, health and food throughout the 20th Century has led to a steady reduction in family size, as infant mortality rates have declined sharply, and life expectancy has increased.
Despite growing populations, the second half of the 20th Century has seen tremendous increases in living standards throughout the world. Improved diets and medical advances mean that people are living longer, healthier lives than ever before.
These factors alone have encouraged smaller family size, but are not enough to explain the collapse of fertility.
Powerful social forces are also at work. Contraceptive technologies, the widespread use of abortion, the emergence of the cult of individualism, an indifference to marriage and families, plus social pressure on married women into career paths in the workforce, have all accelerated the trend.
Economic uncertainty, long recognised as a cause of delaying children, is a factor which, in recent years, has prompted the steep decline of fertility in Russia and other states which belonged to the Soviet empire, but is also present in the West.
On top of this, social policies, often articulated by radical feminists, have undermined the division of labour between men and women which have characterised family life. This division of labour, which is conducive to a growing population, assists children to grow up in a stable and loving environment.
The UN’s Population Division, in its annual survey, World Population Prospects, has predicted that the world’s population will begin to decline within 40 years.
Its low growth projection – with the best record of prediction – suggests that between 2040 and 2050, the world’s population will decrease by about 85 million. Thereafter, if present trends continue, world population will decrease by roughly 25 percent (almost 2 billion) in the following generation. A substantial part of this will occur in China.
The economic consequences of the ageing of the population can best be seen today in Japan, a country which in the post-war period was an engine of Asia’s economic growth, but today, with almost zero population growth and an ageing population, is trapped into a zero growth economy.
The effect of an ageing population will be serious in the developed world, where the number of older people, defined as being 65 and older, currently numbers 226 million. In 50 years’ time, the number of elderly people will rise to 376 million.
Whatever the effects in developed countries, the consequences of ageing in the developing world will be far more dramatic. In the developing world, the elderly currently number 171 million. By 2050, older people will number 1,594 million (a 932% increase).
Almost incomprehensibly, the policies of some United Nations agencies, particularly the UN Population Fund, are still blindly committed to the anti-natalist policies put forward a generation ago by Dr Paul Ehrlich – policies which have been shown to be wrong in the past, and potentially will make the population problem far worse in the future.
If there is to be a reversal of this disastrous trend, which could well endanger the high standard of living which most people in Australia enjoy, at least by world standards, there will need to be changes in public sentiment towards the family, and additionally, changed public policies to support larger families, children, and parenthood.
We must work for a society in which babies are welcomed, not destroyed; children are regarded as a blessing, not an inconvenience; and motherhood is treasured as an honourable vocation.
.c1.- Peter Westmore is National President of the National Civic Council