World population declining?

The New York Times ran an article (paywall warning) on Sunday last week (“World Is Facing First Long Slide in Its Population”, May 23, 2021) about how the world population is in the middle of a long slide downward with many countries having birthrates of less than 2.1 children per family, which is the rate at which the population remains stable. It says China might be at 730 million people in 2100 (down from 1.41 billion now). Even in India and Mexico (which have had rapid population growth) people are having smaller families. The article talks about South Korea, where there are less than one child per woman, so it’s shrinking more than just about any other industrialized country.

The article focuses on the downside of this change but as someone who grew up with dire predictions of the world population exploding, I’m excited by this.

What do you think?

BTW, if you can’t get past the paywall, you might be able to read the article on Yahoo News here.

On one hand, it is a good thing, because many of the nations with declining populations are those that also have (or aspire to have) the largest carbon footprints and resource-use metrics. It is also an evident consequence of wealth and education; as a nation increases in personal wealth, the costs and downsides of having children become more manifest (and of course people in developed nations wait significant longer on average to have children, resulting in a shorter period of practical fertility even if they do want multiple children). Of course, even at projected declines, the global population will still be far above the unaugmented carrying capacity of the Earth (somewhere around 1 billion people), and thus requiring intensive agriculture and extraction of nonrenewable resources unless technological solutions for resources like fresh water and natural fertilizers can be found; currently about half of all nitrogenous compounds used in agriculture are produces via the Haber-Bosch process, using more than 3% of natural gas production, and resulting in a surfeit of environmental nitrogen that has manifest environmental impacts on wetlands and marine life.

On the other hand, reducing population is a challenge for conventional economic models and systems; growth is an inherent predicate for health in essentially all market economics, and a declining population makes it difficult to maintain growth. (Gillette can only get you to buy so many five-bladed razors regardless of how aggressively they advertise). It also means that aging populations needing health and elder care will not have a domestic labor source to perform what is generally viewed as unskilled and undesirable employment, which means that immigration to provide care workers is an inevitable conclusion, a fact that has been evident for several decades in developed nations. This is also necessary because nations in equatorial and low-lying regions are going to be progressively affected by global climate change, creating refugees seeking the ability to live elsewhere.

So, an economic challenge that is fiscally necessary and provides at least some mitigation to overuse of resources (albeit offset by the increase in per-capita consumption of wealthy nations), but a political problem for those who believe that everyone should stay in their place and that the celebration of national sovereignty and cultural and racial ‘sanctity’ trumps humanitarian needs. The one thing we can say with assurance is that this century is not going to get less interesting as it goes along.


On the one hand, we need to get the population down to a level that’s long-term sustainable.

On the other hand, if it drops too fast, there’ll be a fair chunk of time during which there won’t be enough people of healthy working age to take much care of older people – and this may further discourage some of them from producing more new people, because it’s hard to take care of multiple grandparents plus toddlers at the same time.

And on the wrong foot, we’ve got an entire planetary economy based on the theory that Everything Should Expand Every Year, Forever.

This is necessary. But it’s also likely to get ugly.

The world population is not declining. The amount of increase in the world population is less each year. The world population is not expected to actually decline until 2055, plus or minus 15 years.

Damn. I go to all that trouble to describe the article and include a few details without violating copyright and you focus on the relatively minor error in the topic title. Thank you for that. I really appreciate it.

Long term, humanity needs to have fewer people alive at any one time rather than more. 1-2 billion is probably closer to ideal than what we currently have. The question is how we get there.

However disruptive the falling birth rates from people choosing, of their own free will, to postpone or entirely forego reproduction might be they beat the hell out of warfare or decimating disease or famine or various other ways the population might be chopped down to 1/2 or 1/4 of current levels.

One problem I seldom see mentioned is that in nations with falling birthrates, at least in some cases, the people who ARE reproducing in replacement-level or better numbers are in some cases highly conservative, highly religious people who are not known for their tolerance of others. That could become a problem if they become a sufficiently large group to tip the balance in things like elections and law-making.

Fascinating subject and some good observations already made in here, particularly the ones noting that we’ll need to seriously re-think how the future economy should evolve. Which naturally ties into politics as well.

Here in the US I wonder if we’ll somewhat follow the patterns forming in Japan. Our population is already drifting towards the job markets in urban areas; what happens to our rural areas if that trend accelerates? We’ll need a plan for that diminishing group to manage through the birth dearth until a new era of stabilization arrives, long about the end of the current century maybe.

The two things that need to be balanced are the facts that the world can only sustain over the long term a certain maximum population and the population must include a certain proportion of younger people. So what needs to happen is that the average number of children should be just a little less than the rate of sustainability of 2.1 per family. This will cause the world population to slowly decrease over the next few centuries (not over the next few years or even the next few decades). The proportion of older people to younger people will stay fairly stable though.

Maybe such things are inevitable and cyclical.

I read something once about a small island in a fast-running stream. No animals could reach it except birds. One winter it got cold enough that the stream actually froze and some deer walked across the ice to the island. Later the thaw came and some were stranded. For awhile they thrived because there were no predators on the island. But their population grew to a size that the food supply couldn’t support them and they overgrazed the land, causing many to starve. Finally it got cold enough one year to freeze the stream again, and this time some wolves crossed the ice. They culled the herd, the grass grew back, and a much better equilibrium was achieved.

So thriving is great but all bubbles burst. I’ve read different estimates about how many humans earth could support and the slant seemed to be along the lines of the deer on the island…like the upward growth was inevitable, but when would we have too many mouths to feed? Soylent Green for dinner! :grimacing:

From the OP’s article:

Anna Parolini tells a common story. She left her small hometown in northern Italy to find better job opportunities . Now 37, she lives with her boyfriend in Milan and has put her desire to have children on hold.

She is afraid her salary of less than 2,000 euros a month would not be enough for a family, and her parents still live where she grew up.

At age 37 how much longer can she wait? My assumption has always been that back in the day people got married younger and started families early because life expectancy was lower and college was out of reach for most. I thought poor folks (and there are many immigrants in that group) had big families as a form of social security. They have about ten kids, five of them survive, and when the parents get old the kids take care of them, Waltons style.

In contrast it seems more young people today are failing to launch from home. A term from Japan: parasite single.

A growing number of young women are remaining unmarried in Japan today, a development often viewed as a rebellion against the traditional confines of women’s restrictive roles as wives and mothers. The number of Japanese women still single in their twenties was 30.6% in 1985 and 54% in 2004.[[1]]

(Parasite single - Wikipedia)

So the reasons for not having kids varies but the effect is the same. And even if a parasite single (or the 37 year old in the article or a garden variety slacker) does have a child, she won’t have as many as she might have if she’d started earlier. And of course birth defects rise with maternal age.

But it seems noteworthy that Anna left to pursue a job. Everybody’s moving to the city, which in turn drives up the rent. The notion of working on a family farm or in a little village is out the window. Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town.

Urbanization rapidly spread across the Western world and, since the 1950s, it has begun to take hold in the developing world as well. At the turn of the 20th century, just 15% of the world population lived in cities.[18] According to the UN, the year 2007 witnessed the turning point when more than 50% of the world population were living in cities, for the first time in human history.[17]

Urbanization in Wikipedia

Homo sapiens won’t be on the endangered species list any time soon of course. There could be a decline in population without a decline in quality. People are adapting to their wants and needs.

Just to be accurate, every single one of those dire predictions (at least that I’m aware of) was based on Malthusian thinking.

The biggest downside of a shrinking population is that there are fewer people to dream up solutions to various problems. Human ingenuity is the biggest, strongest, most important natural resource that humanity has.

Oddly enough, however, this is very seldom mentioned.

Global population is now expected to actually decline around 2065. By 2100 China and Japan could be at something like 55% of current population totals if things don’t change.

Meanwhile, the African continent is on pace to triple its numbers to about three billion, or almost half of the global total. Nigeria could become the second most populous country on earth by 2100 and the political ramifications of these changes are almost beyond my ability to imagine.

I saw that article in the NYT and read it with a bit of eye rolling. There’s no topic that the news can’t turn into sour predictions.

This is my thinking, too. I don’t think a reduction in population is a bad thing but it does reduce our most important resource.

On the other hand, the remaining population will probably be better educated in general and have another 2-3 generations of knowledge to build upon. That might easily offset the smaller raw numbers.

I believe that a declining global can be managed with creativity and foresight. One thing that we’re seeing, however, is that this is an issue that is flying under the radar with the uninformed public, who largely continues to believe that population gain is the imminent threat. They’ll have to be smacked in the face by something that personally affects them before understanding the numbers.

What you see as “sour predictions” is the same thing as looking at a story from another angle.

I was born in the mid-1960s and the big fears growing up included a nuclear war between the USSR and the USA, or the world population growing beyond control or mass starvation (perhaps related to one of the previous two). Now of course, the USSR doesn’t exist and a nuclear conflict seems less likely (though not out of the question). This story is about how the population is eventually going to decline. And starvation isn’t the problem we once feared. There’s enough food, although corruption, war or mismanagement means that some do starve. On the other hand, in many countries, many people consume too many calories so that obesity and diseases like diabetes are frequent.

One of the big problems with the declining population is fewer people paying into pension and social security schemes compared to the number collecting from them. And with fewer young people, who is going to be the home health and nursing home aides? That’s difficult, low-paying work. Countries that welcome immigrants might be able get them from countries that have populations that are still growing. (Which is an argument against the nationalism and hostility to immigrants that’s been growing lately.)

And remember Asimo, the bipedal humanoid robot that was being developed by Honda? As I remember, it was the product of a Japanese government project researching technologies that might be useful for assisting homebound elderly, as Japan has had declining population for a long time. I have relatives who need help getting from a bed to a wheelchair, or from the wheelchair to the toilet. In one house, they have a hydraulic lift for this. But perhaps a robot might be able to assist with this and other home care tasks?

The percentage of growth of population is going down everywhere, although it’s not going down as fast in some countries. The biggest factor in determining the percentage of growth of a country is how well off it is. Rich countries grow slowest (or even decrease in population). To slow growth around the world, it’s necessary to make the poorer countries richer.

Regarding population growth in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa, the article says, “By the end of the century, Nigeria could surpass China in population; across sub-Saharan Africa, families are still having four or five children.”

If the human population did not slowly decline but crashed, from human-caused climate change and resulting famines, plagues, and rains of blood, that would be the very best outcome for the rest of the living planet. Millions, not billions, of people

Everything in my entire life (I was born in 1956, three billion by then) has solidified my belief that humans are the worst thing to happen to this planet’s biome since the Meteor. The fewer there are, the better.

The number of children per family in Nigeria has dropped since the late 1970s/early 1980s. Nigeria is still relatively poor. If it’s like every other country that became relatively well off, the birth rate will drop considerably.