Population Decline and Its Consequences

Low fertility is common in countries with advanced economies and is recognized as a problem by many of them. Several recent articles in the global press shed some light on what is happening and how countries are responding.

The articles in the Wall Street Journal are potentially paywalled, but I have included some excerpts.

Harvard Political Review: One Is More Than Enough: China’s Population Conundrum

What demographers call the “low-fertility trap” — which asserts that populations with a total fertility rate below 1.5 births per woman will face difficulty reversing population decline — has caused increasing concern among the political elite for a while now: China’s TFR stands at just 1.3. By 2050, assuming fertility trends remain the same, China’s elderly dependents will make up close to one-third of its entire population while its labor force contracts by a whopping 23%.

Most of China’s East Asian contemporaries — Japan, South Korea, Singapore, among others — expect similar population declines, but the restrictiveness of China’s one-child policy has drawn a much sharper curve than the rest. Instead of a silver wave, China expects a tsunami.

As a result, China risks teetering off a precipice in its population pyramid: The after-effects of the one-child policy have created a massive population imbalance that has placed extreme pressure on its generation. As young Chinese of this generation, now in their twenties and thirties, start to settle down and set up their families, they must contend with the weighty pressures of the 4-2-1 structure. It is this structure that describes the vast majority of Chinese families: a working adult with 6 elderly dependents — a pair of parents, along with 2 pairs of grandparents.

WSJ: In Aging Japan, Under 75 Is the New ‘Pre-Old’

Japan is by far the world’s oldest nation, with more than 29% of the population 65 or older, compared with 17% in the U.S. and 21% in Europe. Efforts to get younger have gone nowhere. The birthrate is still falling and immigration has nearly ground to a halt with Covid-19.

Linguistically, however, Japan is at the forefront of change. Millions of people have learned they no longer are old, but merely “pre-old.”

WSJ: Singapore Isn’t Kidding When It Comes to Fostering Fertility

But in 1987, a new policy encouraged Singaporeans to “have three, or more if you can afford it.”

Today, Singapore’s National Population and Talent Division, a government unit, says that while most young Singaporeans want to get married and have children, “they are increasingly prioritizing other goals such as furthering their education, building their careers and travel.” The government said there were hopeful signs, including that “the average number of citizen births and marriages over the last five years is higher than that in the preceding five-year period.”

From 2014 to 2018, an average of 33,000 citizen births were recorded each year, compared with 31,400 a year in the preceding five years. In that 10-year period, however, the fertility rate—which reflects the number of babies born relative to the number of women of fertility age—didn’t change much, hovering around 1.2 births per woman.

Singapore is finding new ways to bring couples together. Deon Chan, the founder of dating agency Love Express, recently received a government grant to build an app that, she said, will use artificial intelligence to suggest romantic partners for singles who attend her events. She points to statistics that show Singaporeans staying single until later in life.

WSJ: As the rich world contemplates a future of labor shortages and possible economic stagnation, demographic decline is already reality in Latvia

As in much of former Soviet Eastern Europe, Latvia’s low birthrates have been exacerbated by a decadeslong exodus of young people for higher-paying jobs in the West and a reluctance to accept immigrants from outside Europe. The result is a nation whose population is falling even faster than those of other countries, like Japan and Italy, where birthrates are lower.

Since joining the European Union, with its open borders and freedom to work anywhere in the bloc, in 2004, Latvia has lost 17% of its population; only neighboring Lithuania has lost more. The working-age population has fallen 23% over the same period.

Last year, Latvia recorded its lowest number of births in a century and the sharpest population drop in the EU, at 0.8%. This first half of 2021 was worse, with twice as many deaths as births.

Now, this nation of less than two million people is trying to do something that has historically proven all but impossible: Turn around a demographic slide.


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