Demographics (not) is Destiny

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Demographics (not) is Destiny

Manuel Arias Maldonado
Professor of Political Science at the University of Málaga. He has been a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Berkeley and is the author, among others, of La democracia sentimental (Página Indómita, 2016), Antropoceno (Taurus, 2018) and Abecedario democrático (Turner, 2021). He is a columnist for the newspaper El Mundo and a regular contributor to Letras Libres, where he publishes Casa Rorty, a blog on political thought and cultural criticism, as well as The Objective.

It is significant that warnings about the catastrophic potential of demographic changes repeatedly resort to the image of the bomb that will eventually explode if nothing is done to prevent it; it is even more surprising that the meaning of the warning has changed radically in the course of barely half a century. Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford specialist in population biology, opened fire in 1968 with The Population Bomb, an essay that took up Malthus’ concerns – without actually quoting him in its more than two hundred pages – and warned that developing countries would soon face an irremissible global famine as a result of a sustained increase in their birth rate. To make matters worse, the latter endangered the habitability of “Spaceship Earth” in the medium term -the visionary Buckminster Fuller had just recovered that expression in a book of some resonance- and preventing such a disastrous outcome required the decisive and concerted action of the global elites. If the bomb went off, in other words, we would not live to tell the tale.

Such were the 1970s: hungry, hysterical, naked. But we are now in the third decade of the 21st century and one fear has been replaced by another: now it is the Canadian Mark Adler, president of an organization dedicated to the study of aging, who speaks to us in a book that appeared in 2019 of a Time Bomb or “ticking bomb” caused by the global aging of the population. Faced with this phenomenon, whose simultaneous causes are the decline in the birth rate and the increase in longevity, it is necessary to react before it is too late; governments must mitigate the negative consequences of this seemingly unstoppable trend, transforming at the root fiscal, labor and welfare systems that are based on premises that have become obsolete. We already know something of this in a society like Spain’s, where the cost of pensions has become a serious political problem whose implications have not yet been realistically addressed by our successive governments.

The contrast between these two imagined explosions, each projected onto an undefined and yet near future, could not be greater: in five decades we have gone from fear of overpopulation (remember that science-fiction film in which corpses were eaten without the consumer knowing the origin of the product) to the fear that we will not know how to deal with a world where few children will be born and the elderly will abound (the recent Japanese film Plan 75 fantasizes about a society where voluntary euthanasia is offered to the elderly). But the empirical evidence supports this global shift; if the fear of overpopulation in the 1970s was based on the maintenance of high birth rates in what we now call the Global South, without the rich countries showing any signs that theirs was about to collapse, What we are seeing today – some researchers believe that the trends are even more intense and rapid than we think – is a sharp decline in birth rates in rich and emerging countries, with the exceptions of the Middle East and some African countries, accompanied by a particularly striking increase in longevity in advanced societies. It is said that Japan, a society particularly resistant to foreign immigration, will go from 125 million today to only 75 million by the end of this century.

It is said soon!

How is this possible? Or, if you prefer: what has happened? The answer is very simple: the material and moral progress that modernity brings with it has passed, even if it is not the only thing it brings with it. It has happened and, in fact, continues to happen. Material progress, because economic growth changes the expectations of individuals, modifying their values as much as their expectations and reducing the relative weight of a pre-modern rural world where having more children meant having future labor; and material progress, because the growing equality between men and women gives the latter greater power of decision over their own offspring and it turns out that women, if they could choose, would only want to have two children according to the surveys that are dedicated to asking them. Add to this a cultural change that weakens the link between family reproduction and personal fulfillment, as well as, of course, the lengthening of life span thanks to improvements in health care and greater personal self-awareness about risks such as tobacco or alcohol consumption. Although there has also been an increase in the number of people who decide not to have children or find it difficult to do so after spending the first half of their lives dedicated to their professional careers or low-cost trips to exotic destinations, also an effect of the change in values, its impact is still relative: the universal ideal of the majority is still the nuclear family with offspring, which can sometimes be hindered by job insecurity or lack of public aid. Anti-natalist philosophers are far from exerting the influence they would like.

Well, in view of the fact that more than 8 billion people live on planet Earth today, and given that the peak child could be reached by the end of this century when humanity reaches 10.5 billion, it would be absurd to worry about the survival of the species: there would be nothing to object to the fact that individuals, in different latitudes, decide to have fewer children, let alone live longer! No one wants to die prematurely and we almost never believe that it is the right time to do so. It is a different matter whether the demographic transition that seems to be leading us irrevocably towards a less populated world – although we cannot yet know to what precise extent, nor should we take any prediction for granted, given that even best-sellers can be completely wrong – will be free of difficulties.

Quite the contrary: some will lose geopolitical strength and others will suffer the tensions arising from the increase in the population of foreign origin, while many wealthy societies will find it difficult to cope with the increase in the number of their pensioners and the reduction in the labor base called upon to produce the wealth needed to maintain the level of care provided by an increasingly demanding welfare state. In the same way, aging could lead to a less dynamic culture and generate suspicion of technological innovation. And it is enough to take a look at European democracies to see -as in the case of Spain- that the mass of pensioners conditions public policies and national budgets, often to the detriment of young people who lack the demographic strength and the necessary organization to assert their interests. We are thus talking about a demographic change with unequally distributed costs, also among the different regions within the same country; some seem destined to become extinct and the rest flourish due to internal migration and the reception of foreigners.

So the problem lies in the transition to a less populated world, if the trend is not reversed along the way; what comes after this demographic sinkhole is bridged should not worry us too much. In the meantime, what Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhmam call “the great demographic reversal” will generate costs and damages that demand political intelligence and social adaptability; perhaps we can rely more on the second than the first. What is not clear is that it is of much help to resort to an overloaded vocabulary, inherited from the catastrophist environmentalism of the 1970s, which resorts to notions such as bomb or collapse to designate gradual changes that will not produce apocalyptic scenarios: or does the metaphor of the “demographic bomb” really explode? It will not happen that schools will dawn empty or we will suddenly enter abandoned cities; the process is gradual and, therefore, manageable. Insofar as global demographic change is the result of material progress and the exercise of individual autonomy, we should not regret it more than we should. Especially when the anthropogenic impact on natural systems will be alleviated as a result of the decrease in the number of human beings on the planet; an unintended but desirable effect.

It goes without saying that the acceptance of a social phenomenon that cannot be easily regulated or controlled must be accompanied by an attempt to remove the obstacles that hinder the reproduction of those who would like to have children but cannot; just as we should work to stop the population of countries such as Egypt or Syria or Angola from growing. But how is such a thing to be done? Preventive calls for attention are as reasonable as states of panic induced by political sensationalism are inadvisable; it is a different matter that the former may not work without the latter. Moreover, without unsettling citizens, it will be difficult to amass the necessary political capital to take measures as unpopular as they are necessary. Let us not yet deactivate, then, the metaphorical bomb.