Long-term trends eventually catch up to the short term. For example, the risk of a global pandemic became a reality over the past eighteen months. Another long-term trend that is becoming less remote is the affect of climate change. Ask anyone living the Western US or Canada this summer.
The long-term trend detailed below is demographic. (See this UN study for details.) The world, especially the developed world is rapidly aging. This has many implications. Some of which we are getting a peak at now.
The 20th century saw the greatest population surge in human history, rising globally from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000. That trend is over. The majority of demographic data suggest that, despite previous concerns about overpopulation crises, the bigger problem for most parts of the planet will be too few babies.
Like an avalanche, the demographic forces — pushing toward more deaths than births — seem to be expanding and accelerating. Though some countries continue to see their populations grow, especially in Africa, fertility rates are falling nearly everywhere else. Demographers now predict that by the latter half of the century or possibly earlier, the global population will enter a sustained decline for the first time.
The truth is we don’t know all the implications of this demographic transition.* The world has been on a different trajectory for so long that this is new territory. Countries like Japan can still benefit from global population growth, but what happens when overall growth rolls over? Stephanie H. Meyer at FiveThirtyEight notes:
Others point out that the problems of low fertility may get thornier when the overall size of the population begins to shrink. “What happens to mortgages in a country where real estate depreciates like a used car because the population is falling and we need fewer and fewer houses all the time? We’re totally unprepared for that,” said Lyman Stone, a demographer and research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies…
In the U.S. we are still arguing about the wisdom of immigration. So it is hard to see us discussing in a serious way the policies needed to increase population growth. American women are delaying motherhood and, by extension, reducing the number of children they have.
We don’t have a lot of examples of countries that have successfully increased their fertility rate. The Czech Republic is one. What the have in common is giving parents time (and money) to accommodate having more children. Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic writes:
In the long term, the effects of policy on birth rates are generally more modest, but still apparent. Sobotka told me that countries that spend more on supporting families have, on average, higher fertility rates. In the past two decades, Germany and Estonia have seen upticks in their birth rate as they have provided residents with more child-care options and better-paid parental leave.
Governments may be able to make a dent in the problem. It remains to see if they will. It’s not clear what individuals should do as the U.S. looks more like Maine. As Roger Lowenstein writes:
No doubt, the U.S. is suffering a case of Maine — lack of the right skill mix, social dysfunction, declining birth rates. One lesson of the post-pandemic boom is that the U.S. needs better education and job training, and more effective social services.
*One example, is that the case for emerging markets has been built on robust population growth for those countries.