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Two Cheers for Population Decline

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Two Cheers for Population Decline

Eventual gradual population decline, provided it results from free choice, should be welcomed. Indeed, the greatest demographic challenge to human welfare is not low fertility and population aging, but rather the high fertility rates and rapid population growth still seen in Pakistan, much of the Middle East, and Africa.

LONDON – Since China abolished its one-child policy on January 1, 2016, annual births, after a temporary increase to 17.86 million that year, have actually fallen, from 16.55 million in 2015 to 15.23 million in 2018. The baby boom that wasn’t should surprise no one.

No other successful East Asian economy has ever imposed a one-child policy, but all have fertility rates far below replacement level. Japan’s fertility rate is 1.48 children per woman, South Korea’s is 1.32 and Taiwan’s 1.22. China’s fertility rate will almost certainly remain well below replacement level, even if all restrictions on family size are now removed.

Population decline will inevitably follow. According to the United Nations’ medium projection, East Asia’s total population will fall from 1.64 billion today to 1.2 billion in 2100. Nor is this simply an East Asian phenomenon. Iran’s fertility rate (1.62) is now well below replacement level, and Vietnam’s 1.95 slightly so. Across most of the Americas, from Canada (1.56) to Chile (1.76), rates are already well below two, or falling fast toward it.

The clear pattern is that successful economies have lower fertility rates: Chile’s rate is much lower than Argentina’s (2.27), and wealthier Indian states, such as Maharashtra and Karnataka, already have fertility rates around 1.8. In the poorer states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, fertility rates over three are still observed.

We should always be cautious about inferring universal rules of human behavior, but, as Darrel Bricker and John Ibbitson suggest in their recent book Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, it seems we can identify one.

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