We have lots of reasons to look to a changing demographic future with curiosity and optimism.
While many of us fret about unaffordable housing or traffic jams caused in part by population pressures, a trending chorus of depopulation doomsaying laments that there are too few people—or will be shortly.
Underneath this lament lies something that is factually true. Birthrates are dropping, and people are living longer. Human population ballooned in the 20th Century and is projected to grow by billions more in coming decades. But sometime late in this century, or early in the next, it likely will flatten and begin to curve back. Over time, fewer births and longer lives will slim the bulge and create a “grayer” populace, one with fewer babies and more elders. This will require societies to adapt and innovate. Some old ways of doing things won’t work anymore, and we don’t know what the new configurations will be.
This transition is happening already in much of Asia and the West. Some people see that as threatening. A stable or declining population may be good for the environment, they say, and less unsought pregnancy may be good for women, but economic wellbeing depends on an ever-swelling population of human innovators, producers and consumers.
Does it? Cutting edge economic models developed at Cambridge and elsewhere call this “growth assumption” into question or discuss alternatives. So do futurists who are focused on AI and robotics. Much recent research finds a negative correlation between population growth and growth in per capita prosperity. A powerful economy may no longer require legions of metaphorical foot solders any more than a powerful military does. Technology changes the equation.
But we don’t have to dive deep into economic theory or the future of technology to glimpse some potential benefits of a slimmer, grayer population. We have only to consider what ordinary people care about right now, prioritize per capita prosperity rather than GDP, check our assumptions about aging, and then add some non-monetized goods into the mix. Even setting aside implications for the environment and gender equality, here are ten ways a smaller and older populace may be better.
- Better educated young people. Around the world hundreds of studies like this one from Indonesia have shown that children tend to be better educated in families with fewer children. Parents invest disproportionately in the first child, especially if he is a boy, but parents run out of resources and energy, so later kids get less. Education correlates with per capita productivity and income, so more highly skilled and educated workers both produce more and receive a bigger part of the economic pie.
In the global south, each additional year of education has an outsized benefit. In Pakistan, for example, one additional year of schooling increases a woman’s earnings by 10 percent. More broadly, children born to literate mothers are 50 percent more likely to live to age five. Delayed voluntary childbearing, a lower birth rate, and more investment in each child create a virtuous cycle of greater health and prosperity and more education and intentional parenthood that spirals across generations.
- Higher wages. Some economists argue that a pyramid-shaped age structure (more young people than old people) is necessary to keep labor costs low relative to the cost of capital. Older employees are more expensive, so the idea goes. But keeping wages low is advantageous only to those doing the hiring, not to those being hired. For people who have few assets and only their labor to sell, fewer workers competing for more jobs is a positive. It means their labor, all other things being equal, is more valuable.
- Lower price of goods. Just as less competition in the job market is a bonus for workers, so less competition for goods and commodities is a bonus for the people doing the purchasing. Many of us love bargain hunting; when surplus merchandise goes on after the holidays we treat ourselves to little luxuries we might otherwise pass by. But for people living hardscrabble lives, less competition for scarce resources can mean a little protein to go with the rice and vegetables. This is particularly true for finite resources like forestry products, wild-caught fish, minerals, and fertile land, where bumping up production in the short run can reduce supply in the long run.
- Longer productive lives. Some economists fret that “dependency ratios”—meaning the ratio of dependent children and elders to workers will grow as birthrates drop and people live longer. Traditional dependency metrics assume that people start working at age 15 or 20 and retire at 65, dropping out of the economy. They ignore the complexities around categorizing women who have been excluded from the workplace and thus “economic dependents” in many places, but also ignore the economic value of female unpaid labor, which often changes little at age 65. Because traditional assumptions align poorly with reality, some analysts have suggested alternatives that better reflect how we live.
The nature of work is changing, and there is no reason to assume that future generations of people—either men or women—in their 60s, 70s or even 80s will be worn out and “dependent” rather than generative, creative, contributing members of society. In some countries including South Korea, Mexico and the Philippines, a majority of 60 to 80 year olds regularly contribute to the financial support of other family members. And the ability of elders to contribute is likely to grow. For example, researchers in Germany project that by 2050 the average German man will be in good health for 80 percent of his life as compared with 60% today. Around the world living longer doesn’t merely mean a longer and more drawn out phase of disability and dependency; what we’re all after—and what we are achieving—is a higher degree of health, vigor and generativity in each decade.
- More intergenerational caretaking within families. When parents put their children in daycare rather than caring for them at home during the workday, GDP goes up, regardless of what the family might have preferred and regardless of whether children and parents are happier or healthier. The traditional at-home work of parents and grandparents is not monetized, so it doesn’t get considered as an economic good. This is just one of many kinds of non-monetized good that is likely to increase with healthier grandparents and smaller families. Already a quarter of US children under the age of five receives regular caretaking by grandparents. Around the world, grandparents have been described as “increasingly indispensable.” But caretaking by elders isn’t simply a matter of need; it is also a matter of joy. In fact, model programs now house childcare centers within retirement homes, improving quality of life for both elders and children.
- Retirees building community. In the heyday of the two-parent family, women who were excluded from the workplace often volunteered through churches, aid societies, and ladies’ guilds or clubs. These social networks were part of the fabric that created a strong sense of community. With employment now divided more along age than gender lines in many places, older people are stepping into these roles. A recent study cited in Age International examined community work by elders in Asia. They found that a sizeable percent of people in their 60s and 70s regularly helped in their communities – more than 20 percent of Filipinos and Chinese, and more than 25 percent of Indians and Taiwanese.
- More inheritance per capita. Most parents when they die leave something to their kids—or at least aspire to. These “intergenerational transfers” as economists call them may be as large as a house or farm or corporate holdings or as small as a set of tea cups. Either way, a child’s share is larger when the inheritance is divided among fewer offspring.
I once met a young man in Palenque, Mexico who desperately hoped to get to the US to make a new life for himself. Why? Because his father was a farmer and he was the youngest of six sons. In the past, many cultures developed traditions of inheritance that left landholdings to the oldest son. Primogeniture seems cruel, but it ensured that accumulated wealth and means of production remained intact and added meaningfully to the prosperity of subsequent generations. The same benefit accrues—and durable parts of this inheritance become sustainable—when parents have one or two children.
- Bigger per-person shares of the commons. Was your family one of those who waited in a line of cars for hours to see bison in Yellowstone Park or who squeezed into the last spot at a crowded state park? Local parks, state parks, national parks—each of these belongs to all of us. The same is true of other public commons and shared assets. More people can of course build more infrastructure. But some parts of the commons return more value with less crowding.
- More bountiful, beautiful housing. Many years ago, I had a friend in New York who was able to purchase the condo adjoining hers and turn the two units into one. Contrast that with Seattle today, where rapid growth means even well-employed young people can’t afford to live in the neighborhood they grew up in. We all know that rich people tend to prefer larger homes with more privacy and often more green space around them. But today doctors live in townhouses that might have served factory workers three generations ago; young workers squeeze themselves into “apodments” in Seattle and even middle-aged workers cram into bunk-rooms in Shenzhen. Modest rents and house valuations are bad for owners (most typically older, more prosperous adults) but they make life better for young people and those trying to work their way up from the bottom. For everyone not in the real estate sector, lower housing costs are a change for the better.
- Shorter commutes. The happiest communities in the US appear to be towns with fewer people, cheaper housing and shorter commutes. In 2017, British researchers made a startling proclamation based on a huge longitudinal data set, “An additional 20 minutes commuting each day lowers job satisfaction equivalent to a 19% pay cut.” Every extra minute spent commuting also measurably increased stress, decreased mental health, and decreased satisfaction with leisure time. Around the world, commute times grow with population. By 2017, the average US commute had inched close to half an hour. During early COVID shut-downs when familiar streets were virtually empty, those who did have to venture out often described the experience as easier, more predictable, and less stressful. Most of us would welcome lighter traffic and a shortened drive time if we could get them without a pandemic.
- Breathing room. Tokyo’s tube hotels. Hour-long line-ups at Disneyland. Outdoor markets on top of train tracks in Bangkok. Body-to-body riders in New York’s subway. The last century’s population growth has pressed us up against each other to an unprecedented degree. Sometimes we love being crowded together—say at a party or rock concert or convention. Often, though, we don’t, and ordinary people sometimes resent the fact that those with more money get more leg room. This suggests that breathing space has economic value—and with reason! But, except for paid VIP options, the value of not-being-crowded rarely gets measured in money. Quite the opposite in fact. Crowding (think long lines at Disneyland) can boost the black ink on economic spreadsheets regardless of what it means for quality of life.
- More and better leisure time. Leisure time gets whittled away by commuting, which in turn is affected by housing costs, so as these factors change, one might expect a corresponding increase in leisure. But fewer children and longer lifespan may improve leisure in other ways as well. Smaller family size means less housework, which falls disproportionately on women but affects all parents. More education means more people may have sufficient income with part-time pay. In Germany, time spent working is projected to fall almost 20 percent by 2060, while leisure time is projecting to slightly increase. A more extended period of health means more years in which to explore, create or socialize once children are grown, but smaller family size also improves the quality of leisure time during the childrearing years. My parents used to pack five children and a dog into a Chevy Carryall for a week of backpacking each summer. No question, those trips would have been less stressful for them with two kids in the back seat instead of five.
Measure what matters.
A Seattle think tank, Sightline Institute, used to publish this motto: Measure what matters. That is because analysts and decision makers are more likely to care about things they can measure. The challenge is that quality of life is shaped by factors that standard economic indicators fail to capture. When it comes to population questions, that can create a disconnect between economists and ordinary people.
In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy expressed the problem clearly:
“Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
And yet, Gross National Product continues to dictate policy and economic priorities.
Some governments are trying to change that. The small kingdom of Bhutan made headlines in the 1990s when the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck restructured the kingdom’s economy around an index of Gross National Happiness. In 2010, Britain launched a program to measure wellbeing. The aim was to ““start measuring our progress as a country, not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving; not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life.”
In this big picture, if we measure what matters to us, a future with fewer babies and longer lives looks less scary and more intriguing. Without a doubt, as the 20th Century population bulge starts slimming we will face adaptive challenges; some existing social programs and economic assumptions have been optimized around unending population growth. But there are lots of reasons to look to a changing demographic future with curiosity and optimism.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.