Dyer: Big shift lies ahead for world populations

In the politics of population, the magic number is 2.1. That is replacement level: if a country’s fertility rate (the average number of children a woman has in her lifetime) is 2.1, then the country’s population will remain level. Above that number, it starts to grow; below 2.1, it eventually falls.

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In the politics of population, the magic number is 2.1. That is replacement level: if a country’s fertility rate (the average number of children a woman has in her lifetime) is 2.1, then the country’s population will remain level. Above that number, it starts to grow; below 2.1, it eventually falls.

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India’s fertility rate has dropped to 2.0 per woman. India’s population won’t start falling right away. It will still overtake China as the world’s most populous country later this decade, with around 1.45 billion people, but in due course it will stop growing and start shrinking.

The delay is because human beings are not salmon: they do not spawn and die. Instead, they live on for decades after their children are born.

Let me explain, using the Dyer clan. I was the eldest of five children, which was a middle-sized family in Newfoundland at the time. We all lived to grow up, and on average we had exactly 2.0 children each.

Those children all lived to grow up too, and it looks like they’re also going to end up with an average of 2.0 children each – but I and my brothers and sisters are all still alive. Where there were 10 people in my generation (counting spouses), there are now 30.

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When my generation dies off, we will be replaced by the great-grandchildren. At that point the Dyer clan will have reached equilibrium – or even shrink, if some of the grandchildren cut back on childbearing. It takes a few generations to stabilize if you stay at 2.0.

However, Asian populations are not stopping at 2.0.

In South Korea, where the fertility rate is an astonishing 0.86 (less than one child per woman, on average), the population is going into free fall. At this rate, it will drop by half by the end of the century.

Same for China, where official statistics predict the average woman will have 1.3 children in her lifetime. At that rate, China will be down from 1.41 billion people now to 700 million by 2100.

Even that may be too optimistic. Fuxian Yi, senior scientist in the obstetrics and gynecology department at the University of Wisconsin, recently estimated China’s 2020 population was 1.28 billion, not the 1.41 billion recorded on the census, and that China’s real fertility rate is a lot less than 1.3.

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Many of the children counted in the census don’t exist, he says. Local governments overstate their population to get more subsidies from the central government, and some families buy extra birth certificates on the black market because more than 20 social benefits are linked to a birth registration.

If Yi is right, the United States, despite a fairly low growth rate (443 million in the year 2100), may have about the same population as China by the end of the century.

Most of south and southeast Asia is already below replacement level (Vietnam 2.0, Bangladesh 1.9, Thailand 1.5). The rest are almost there (Indonesia 2.2, Myanmar 2.15, Sri Lanka 2.15). Apart from the Muslim countries of the Greater Middle East (Pakistan to Syria), the only big Asian country still growing fast is the Philippines (2.5).

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Populations in Europe are stable or gently falling, and in the Americas almost every country has a growth rate of less than one per cent.

The only world regions still growing fast are the Middle East and Africa, where population growth rates are between 1.5 and three per cent. Project those numbers forward to 2100, even allowing for a gradual decline in Middle Eastern and African fertility rates, and these two regions will contain half the world’s population at the end of the century: more than four billion people.

Except for the Arab oil states and a couple of middle-income countries like South Africa and Iran, unfortunately, none of these countries has a per capita GDP of more than $5,000 a year, and their incomes are barely keeping up with population growth. It will be a very divided world.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London, England.

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