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Tuesday 20th March 2018

Stopping Population Growth


Charles Crawford

Thu, 10 Jan 2019 10:21 GMT

China’s Academy of Social Sciences has given an official prediction that in only some 520 weeks’ time (ie in 2029) China’s population will reach its peak of 1,44 billion people, then start to fall fairly quickly. This, says the Academy, could cause “very unfavourable social and economic consequences”.

Back in 1985 or so I drafted a speech for the then UK Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe about global demographic trends. It posed this apparently easy question:

Take a country with a fast-growing population.

It gets worried that its people may outstrip its resources and passes a law that limits families to a maximum of two children.

The law is 100% obeyed from the day it is passed.

When does the country’s population stop growing?

The answer, of course, is that in the absence of wars or massive calamity through disease the population stops growing roughly around the time that the children who are born the day the law is passed themselves die of old age.

In other words, the population growth juggernaut trundles on for some 70 years before the decline sets in.

Wait … it takes a full 70 years for the population to stop growing, even if that tough new law is fully respected? How can that be?

Look at it this way. Ignore migration. Any state’s population grows only because more people are born than die.  

So if now there are more many young people than old people, the total population has to keep growing until the current youngest people themselves reach the top of the demographic pyramid.  

This explains why the demographic equivalent of a tsunami can appear suddenly.  

Imagine a poor country in which every woman has some five children of whom two die in infancy. Along comes modern medicine and development programmes, and suddenly most of those infant deaths are avoided.

It then takes a while for families to grasp that if they want (say) two children to reach adulthood they no longer have to have five children. But in due course those five children themselves have several children who then in turn have several children and whoosh, we see a turbo-boost to that country’s demographic profile. There are far more young people around than old people.  

See, for example, Nigeria.  

Back in 1950 Nigeria had a population of some 38 million people, with 40% of the then population under 14.

Now the population is nearly 160 million people. 44% of them are under 14; less than 3% are over 65. 

Note that even if Nigerian women now typically decide to have fewer children, as each year goes by there are more and more women reaching the age to have those children, so the population soars for decades to come.  

This effect works in reverse. Ukraine, Russia and Japan are close to accelerating demographic decline: they each have too many old people dying, and not enough new young people appearing. They and many other countries accordingly will struggle to support the economic base to pay the pensions and healthcare bills for their ‘ageing societies’. As the Chinese Academy wisely warns, China is soon going to start moving in this direction.

As the cynic says, the future belongs to those who show up. And the people showing up today who’ll have a major influence in the decades to come are in countries such as Nigeria, Pakistan, DRC, Indonesia, Tanzania, Ethiopia.  

By the end of this century Nigeria will have added half a billion people; China will have lost 400 million people. No wonder the Chinese Academy is looking at these dramatic yet inexorable trends and wondering what if anything might best be done about them.

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