xi's moments
Home | Opinion Line

The upside of population decline

By Adair Turner | China Daily | Updated: 2021-06-19 08:38

For many, the recently published census, which shows China's population growth rate continues to decline, is a warning of severe problems for the country.

But a comment posted on China's Weibo was more insightful. "The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people-women are no longer a fertility tool."

China's fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman in 2020 is well below replacement level, but so, too, are fertility rates in every rich country. Australia's rate is 1.66, the United States' is 1.64, and in Canada it is 1.47. In all developed economies, fertility rates fell below replacement level in the 1970s or 1980s and have stayed there ever since.

When the US rate increased to just above 2.0 from 1990 to 2005, some commentators hailed America's greater dynamism and "social confidence" versus "old Europe". But the increase was entirely due to immigration, with Hispanic immigrants initially maintaining the higher fertility rates of their relatively less economically advanced countries of origin. Since 2000, the fertility rate among Hispanics in the US has fallen from 2.73 to 1.9, while rates for white people have been well below 2.0 since the 1970s and for black people since around 2000.

Only in poorer countries, concentrated in Africa and the Middle East, are much higher birth rates still seen. In India, the more prosperous states-such as Maharashtra and Karnataka-have fertility rates below replacement level, with only the poorer states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh still well above. And while the national rate in 2018 was still 2.2, the Indian National Family Health Survey finds that Indian women would like to have, on average, 1.8 children.

A half century of evidence suggests that in all prosperous countries where women are well educated and free to choose whether and when to have children, fertility rates fall significantly below replacement levels. If those conditions spread across the world, the global population will eventually decline.

A pervasive conventional bias assumes that population decline must be a bad thing. "China's falling birth rate threatens economic growth," said the Financial Times, while several comments in the Indian media noted approvingly that India's population would soon overtake China's.

But while absolute economic growth is bound to fall as populations stabilize and then decline, it is per capita income which matters for prosperity and economic opportunity. And if educated women are unwilling to have babies to make economic nationalists feel good, that is a highly desirable development.

Arguments that stable or falling populations threaten per capita growth are hugely overstated and, in some cases, plain wrong. True, when populations no longer grow, there are fewer workers per retiree, and healthcare costs increase as a percentage of GDP. But that is offset by the reduced need for infrastructure and housing investment to support a growing population.

China currently spends 25 percent of its GDP each year on pouring concrete to build apartment blocks, roads and other urban infrastructure, some of which will be of no value as the population declines. By cutting that waste and spending more on healthcare and high technology, it can continue to flourish economically as the population declines.

Also, stable and eventually falling global population would make it easier to cut greenhouse gas emissions, helping fight climate change, and alleviate the pressure that growing populations inevitably place on biodiversity and fragile ecosystems. And contracting workforces create stronger incentives for businesses to automate, while driving up real wages, which, unlike absolute economic growth, are what really matter to ordinary citizens.

In a world where technology enables us to automate ever more jobs, the far bigger problem is too many potential workers, not too few. China's population aged 20 to 64 will likely fall by about 20 percent in the next 30 years, but productivity growth will continue to deliver rising prosperity. India's population in that age band is currently growing by about 10 million per year and will not stabilize until 2050.

But even when the Indian economy grows rapidly, as it did before the COVID-19 crisis, its highly productive "organized sector" of about 80 million workers-those working for registered companies and government bodies on formal employment contracts-fails to create additional jobs. Growth in the potential workforce simply swells the huge "informal sector" army of unemployed and underemployed people.

Indeed, fertility rates far below replacement level create significant challenges, and the Chinese mainland may well be heading in that direction. Many people expected that after the one-child policy was abolished in 2015, the mainland's fertility rate-then around 1.65-might increase.

But a look at the freely chosen birth rates of ethnic Chinese living in advanced economies such as Singapore (1.1) always made that doubtful. Other East Asian countries such as Japan (1.38) and the Republic of Korea (1.09) have similarly low fertility.

At those rates, population decline will be precipitate rather than gradual. If the ROK's birth rate does not increase, its population could fall from 51 million today to 27 million by 2100, and the ratio of retirees to workers will reach levels that no amount of automation can offset.

Moreover, some surveys suggest that many families in low-fertility countries would like to have more children but are discouraged by high property prices, inaccessible childcare, and other obstacles to combining work and family life.

Policymakers should therefore seek to make it as easy as possible for couples to have the number of children they ideally want. But the likely result will be average fertility rates well below replacement level in all developed countries, and, over time, gradually falling populations. The sooner that is true worldwide, the better for everyone.

The author, a former chair of the UK Financial Services Authority from 2008 to 2013, is chair of the Energy Transitions Commission, and the author of many books, including Between Debt and the Devil.

Project Syndicate

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Global Edition
Copyright 1995 - . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form. Note: Browsers with 1024*768 or higher resolution are suggested for this site.
License for publishing multimedia online 0108263

Registration Number: 130349