ANALYSIS: We Have Seen the Future and It Is Old

The plummeting birth rates around the world promise a future of overtaxed workers and underfunded seniors.

By Published on May 3, 2015

Claims the West is declining due to low fertility rates are exaggerated according to a new study by the University of Oxford.  It is a hopeful finding.  Although, on closer inspection I’m not sure how comforting it is that the study seems to simply identify that non-Western countries are in an even worse position, rather than finding that the West is in a good one.

According to the study published in the journal Population Studies the fate of the West is manageable “with effort and some pain.”  That doesn’t sound exactly reassuring either.

A recent McKinsey Global Institute study concluded that over the next 50 years population growth will decline to 0.3 per cent annually. Financial analysts consider that the implications of this slowdown on global changes in the standard of living and investment opportunities could be enormous.

The authors of the Oxford study argue that things are “manageable” for the West because birth rates in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have crept closer to replacement in recent years, Western countries can attract immigrants to help them cope with population decline, and many countries are trying to adjust to population aging by raising retirement ages and lowering pension costs. The encouragement of higher productivity per worker and innovation could be added to this list. The West also has democracy, the rule of law and civil society on its side making it more adaptable to necessary change.

On the other hand, the study finds that the future of the developing world is not so “manageable,” and things are in fact worse than the common narrative would have us believe.  It argues that the impact of political and social instability is understated and that, while some developing countries have consistent population growth, others are experiencing rapid fertility decline leading to severe levels of population aging. Different political and social systems mean that developing countries will find it more difficult to react to demographic change than the West, and “traditional patriarchal and familist cultures may depress fertility rates to unhelpfully low levels.”

Half the world’s populations now live in countries where the birth rate is below replacement, including Brazil, Iran, Turkey and the southern half of India. The study suggests that Brazil, Iran, Thailand and Indonesia may face decades of below replacement fertility, and China already does. As Marcus Roberts also discussed recently, the study authors emphasise that China will be severely limited economically by its demography in coming years because of now engrained attitudes towards family and children caused by the one child policy. The study abstract comments that “China risks falling into a low-fertility trap, reinforced by urban working conditions unfriendly to family formation,” meaning that it may be hindered from becoming the global ‘superpower’ some believed it would.

Is it enough for the West to sit back and say “don’t worry, we’re winning” as some reports of the study seem to be?  The findings are a moral dilemma for those who have pushed lower fertility rates on developing countries in the guise of “liberating” contraception and abortion rights for women.  It is the places with higher fertility rates like sub-Saharan Africa that, if managed carefully, are set to gain from recent population growth that means a working population much larger than other countries and less elderly to support (even though fertility rates are now actually declining there too).

Emphasising that no one is really winning from our lack of children, study co-author and Associate Professor Stuart Basten comments that “both East and West have their separate different challenges which may mean painful periods of adjustment for everyone concerned.”


This essay originally appeared at, and is reprinted with that site’s kind permission.

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