The Population Implosion

I was born in 1957, the peak year of the American “baby boom.” I grew up in a world where families routinely had three, four, five, or more children, and where population growth was a huge concern for some futurists, giving rise to scary depictions of future Earth in grim movies like Soylent Green and books like The Population Bomb.

As a result, it’s very weird to see people expressing the opposite view now. Social scientists and politicians are worried about population shrinkage, not growth–because in many parts of the world human beings simply aren’t reproducing at a rate that would even replace those who are dying. The signs of the issue are everywhere. In 2020, for example, Michigan had more deaths than births. In China, the world’s most populous country–right now, at least–the fertility rate fell in 2021, for the fifth straight year. China’s population issues are so significant that the country reversed its long-standing “one child” policy in 2016 and is now encouraging families to have more children, as well as restricting the ability of Chinese men to receive vasectomies, which once were mandated. (The Chinese about-face on children obviously is a pretty strong indictment of large-scale governmental planning of modern societies, but that’s a blog post for another day.)

China and Michigan aren’t alone. Across the world, many countries are falling far below the fetility rate needed to simply replace their current population, which is 2.1 births per woman. In America, the fertility rate in 2020 was 1.64, well below the replacement line. Many countries are so far below that rate that they will commonly see years like Michigan in 2020, where deaths outnumber births. And that trend will create clear social and economic problems in those counties, going far beyond the presence of “ghost cities” in China–like the one shown above–because there just aren’t enough people to fill them. The problems are very basic. If most of your population is aging and retired, who is going to work and produce the income that produce the taxes that support the retirement social apparatus? And who is going to care for all of those older people?

The “why” of this development is impossible to figure out. Are people having fewer children because they are concerned about bringing new lives into a troubled world? Or do they think that having a large family will be an impediment to their lifestyles? Or are they more focused on living virtual lives through their computers, or concerned at the impact that humans have had on the world and its environment? Deciding whether to have a family is an intensely personal decision, and there are undoubtedly a huge range of reasons for the decline in birth rates, but what’s interesting is that it seems to be happening everywhere, in virtually every culture, at the same time.

What does it mean for us? It means immigration becomes a lot more important as a means to fill the worker gap caused by the falling birth rates. It means that states like Michigan are going to have to figure out how to lure workers from other states if it wants to survive long term. And it means that robotics are going to become an increasingly common way of replacing the human workers who just aren’t available. Over the next few years it seems likely that we’ll see a shift to a much more automated, machine-oriented world because there just won’t be any choice. That’s not exactly the future people were expecting.

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