Does prosperity lead to human extinction?
Recently I’ve attended a Geopolitical conference put on by the Danube Institute in Hungary. While this is a bit outside of my usual wheelhouse, geopolitical tensions seem to be at quite a high as of late (always?) and more than worthy of paying attention to, especially so from a multitude of perspectives.
One of the panels I listened to dealt with the shifting demographics around the globe.
I’ve often found myself in conversations with people who insist that we have an overpopulation crisis and would do well to avoid contributing to it (eg. having kids). There are concerns about the environment and that having too many humans on this planet are simply unsustainable. Of course 100% of those holding those opinions have already been born.
Nonetheless, if there’s indeed an overpopulation problem, we would be wise to form policies in line with such findings.
Meanwhile, there are those who are ringing the alarm about population collapse.
Not an expert in this area, I’ve always found myself in the middle of this debate.
In truth, both parties are correct. There are indeed parts of the world where population growth is an issue. And there are others where these numbers have fallen to potentially problematic levels.
Europe, North America, and countries like Japan, Taiwan and South Korea are struggling. (According to the National Institute for Social Security and Population Research in Japan, Korea will reach extinction by 2750 ad Japan will be down to its last Japanese by 3000).
According to Dr. David Coleman, Emeritus Professor of Demography at the Department of Social Policy, University of Oxford, U.K.—who spoke at the event—the dependants to producers ratio, with an aging population, is concerning. There are contributing factors like systemic job insecurity, economic crises related to 2008 financial collapse, the pandemic response over the last few years, and the Russia/Ukraine war. There’s been more emphasis on work following the economic slowdowns. And those who are tied up with caregiving for the elderly may have a decreased desire for having children.
There’s also been a shift in values, he says, with fewer people wanting children—with some of that owed to concern over climate change and a more pessimistic outlook in regards to children’s future.
The economic aspect is not insignificant. Housing and childcare costs are not so approachable for many. In many cities, particularly more urban ones where work is more plentiful, housing costs have soared. How can one even have a single child, let alone several, if they are barely affording a studio apartment? Add to that the high costs and decreased availability of childcare, and later, education costs, and it’s clear that many people are struggling.
There’s some data to indicate that such economic aspects are not insignificant. More family-forward policies by countries by countries like Romania, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, and Czech Republic have led to birth rates going up in recent years, says Dr. Coleman. Not to replacement levels, but a notable improvement.
Following a suggestion from a reader, I watched a podcast with data scientist Stephen J. Shaw. Over the past 7 years, he had visited 24 counties and looked at data pertaining to global birth rates. What’s interesting is that according to his findings, in the U.S., for example, amongst those having children, rates haven’t actually fallen that much. He claims that those wanting two kids, will likely have two. Those desiring 3-4 will also have that number.
However, what has changed is that far more people are not having any children at all. And according to him, that’s not entirely by choice.
While there are women and men who do not desire to have kids, there are many more who do but haven’t been able to. Why? Well, economics certainly do play a role and of course birth control methods have had an impact on choice and timing. But for many, it’s either that they’ve waited too long to ensure they are better set up for it, or because they haven’t found someone to have kids with. That accounts for about 80% of childless individuals. They didn’t have kids, says Shaw, “due to pure circumstances. The biggest circumstance being not having the right partner at the right time—the right time being the fertility window.
This brings us to my own findings. Some time ago, on X (formerly Twitter), I had posted a survey inquiring about how many people have dated someone within the last six month or are married, have remained single. Shockingly, 42.5% of the 6,612 people responding have indicated that they haven’t gone on a single date in over two years.
Some have grown to accept their fate, others seemed more unhappy based on the comments.
The question is: What’s behind that?
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For many, the answer seems to revolve around the dating culture. It’s not just that there’s a lower tendency towards commitment and higher pressure towards sexualization, which does play a role, but it has also become very difficult for people to meet each other for the purposes of dating—outside dating apps.
The apps themselves have contributed a fair bit to the decay of dating culture given the superficial criteria they incorporate. Arguably, looks and apparent status play a much larger role than in real life meetings where someone humor or chemistry might endear one to give them a shot.
We’re told that on such apps, women tend to go for 10% of the “top” men, leaving the rest behind. But since there’s only so many appealing men to go around, it means that women don’t fare well either.
The “meet cute” days of yesteryear are behind us now, it seems. Both men and women have increased anxiety about approaching strangers that have caught their eye in public. It’s much easier on an app, so they are presumably out of practice. Besides, it’s easier to handle rejection from a safe digital distance than in person.
The pandemic didn’t help matters much, given all the social distancing. Even on dating apps many were concerned about meeting those not in their safe orbit, and they weren’t meeting much at all during those few years where social gatherings were cancelled or frowned upon. It’s also highly difficult to orchestrate that “meet cute” moment while wearing a mask.
As our world drifts further into remote work environments, the odds of meeting new people in person have also decreased. You’re not likely to go out for after-work drinks with colleagues these days and have their cute friend drop by. Our circles have gotten more narrow.
I’ve looked at some numbers when it comes to ideological leanings and birth rates. In the U.S., Republicans tend to have more children than Democrats (approximately 25-30% more) and will eventually outgun them by a significant number—which will likely lead to particular election outcomes. Interestingly, the gap in fertility rates prior to 1995 was not significant.
There are some socio-political reasons for the disparity. Republicans tend to be more concentrated in rural or suburban areas, whereas Democrats tend to live in more urban cities with more expensive real estate and small apartments. Republicans also are more likely to have religious beliefs that don’t support birth control or abortions.
But in the many conversations I’ve had with both Democrats and Republicans—though only an anecdotal sample—I’ve found that many are struggling with relationships.
Of course the countries with the highest birth rates tend to have less education, tools for birth control, and…financial means. As much as the economic aspects contribute to the decline of fertility rates in the West, for example, they are also based on decision for a particular standard of living.
Many years ago, even the most poor people had numerous children and didn’t think so much about whether they can give them a good life. Partially, this was because no birth control or other preventatives were available. A big family could also take care of the farmland. But also our expectations were quite different.
Today, we want to give children their own rooms, the latest toys, extracurricular activities, an iPhone, and an education. Maybe even a family trip every so often. Our standards are higher.
In places like Niger, Angola, Mali, Uganda, Benin, Chad, Congo, South Sudan, and Somalia, I suspect that expectations are quite different.
In addition to better family planning tools and resources, women in countries like Canada, France, or South Korea are an integral part of the workforce, so they have children later than before—sometimes missing their chance in favour of careers—though not usually when in a strong, long-term relationship.
Of course, declining birth rates mean that an aging population is likely to strain social welfare systems and also lead to a decline in population grow.
Some countries are trying to address population collapse through increased immigration, to slow down the growth of the age dependency ratio, however, of course this changes the culture of such countries and can lead to political and social frictions, as well as an impacts on job availability and wages. An overly large influx of immigrants can also strain the country’s infrastructure. (In 2001, the percent of population of England and Wales born outside the UK was 8.9% (4.6M). By 2011, it reached 13.4% (7.5M) and in 2021 it was up to 16.8% (10M)).
Ultimately, global population changes present a number of challenges and opportunities to solve them. However we tackle them, the demographic shifts cannot be ignored. High birth rates in some countries doesn’t mean that it makes sense to ignore low ones in other parts of the world given the tremendous impact it would have on societal structures and aging populations.
Economic factors clearly play a role in family planning decisions and we can see that policies encouraging family growth have had some impact, but ultimately in developed societies we will never go back to old growth rates, and frankly, that may not be so desirable. Some people will never want to have kids and individual choices are important to allow for in a healthy society. The key is addressing the issues faced by those who DO want to have children but find it prohibitive for some reason—whether that’s financial, or social and cultural—like overcoming the challenges of finding a suitable partner, building back community structures, and even shyness.
Global demographics continue to be dynamic and shaped by a multitude of factors, and therefore our response must be equally multifaceted. According to many, the fate of humanity depends on it.
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