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Stefano Gennarini

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Dire population predictions are not just for China

Stefano Gennarini

NEW YORK, January 15, 2016 (C-Fam) Low-fertility and graying populations are looming problems globally, not just in China. But few understand or even know it.

The UN population division’s latest work on low-fertility and aging is eye popping, and is meant to inform policymakers about their options. It includes ominous predictions about economic and social ills and shows how the crisis is most acute in countries that are poorest.

“Population aging must be understood and addressed by all countries,” John Wilmoth, the lead demographer at the UN Population Division, said at a gathering at UN headquarters in November.

He warned about extreme demographic events like “rapid aging,” explaining how it is now a “demographic constant,” even as he called for countries to stay calm.

China provides the worst-case scenario.

The elderly dependency ratio in China will jump from 12% today to over 50% by 2050, according to the UN population division. The Communist party cited aging as the reason for replacing the one-child policy with a two-child policy in October. Their fertility has been so low for so long that even the new policy that went into effect on January 1 could only change the elderly dependency ratio by 5%, at best.

The UN population division data shows the rest of the world is not that far behind and governments are only just beginning to notice.

By 2030, according to the population division, 97 countries in the world will be experiencing fertility below replacement level, or less than two children per woman.

The social and economic challenges of this are unprecedented, unforeseen, and on a scale that is difficult to imagine.

Even countries, like South Korea, which have experienced rapid economic development in recent decades are facing huge challenges because they do not have the fiscal and welfare capacity to take care of their elderly populations.

Moreover, the global economic consequences of aging could be dire.

“Aging is going to be a drag on global growth,” according to Syud Amer Ahmed, who presented the findings of the latest “Global Monitoring Report,” the biannual flagship publication of the World Bank, at the November meeting. The co-author of the report cited issues like labor supply, increased demand for health-care and other fiscal burdens, as well as a decline in savings and investments.

Moreover, aging will have an “outsize impact on the economic engines” of the world where fertility has been low for the longest time, Ahmed explained. These developed countries account for roughly 80% of global GDP.

Developing countries will be unable to pick up the slack, and will experience their own demographic woes, including low-fertility and the brain drain to plug the shortage of professionals in the developed world.

The experts appeared skeptical that fertility could be affected by public policy, especially what they called “pro-natalist policies.”

To boost fertility, some experts proposed de-stigmatizing out-of-wedlock births, wider availability of artificial reproduction technologies, and recognition of same-sex relationships. But the only real hope some saw for improving fertility is in long-term policies that are not subject to political changes.

Mainly they recommend increasing participation of women in the labor-force, gender equality, immigration, work-life balance, generous housing policy, and a range of other entitlements, social services, and government handouts. None encouraged policies to incentivize family formation and stability.

Briefs and presentations on “Policy Responses to Low Fertility” are available on the UN population division website.

Reprinted with permission from C-Fam.

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