What Comes Up Must Come Down

States are grappling with falling populations all around the world

Natan Bram in SIR Trinity term 2015

For nearly 200 years, the dominant demographic story of the world has been that of rising populations. In 1800 the global population was around 1 billion; by 1900 it had reached over 1.5 billion, and by 2000 it was over 6 billion. For a long time, many scholars and commentators have been gripped with a Malthusian fear of population exceeding resources, leaving global shortages of food, water and energy. However there is another very different, but equally significant, demographic story emerging: that of declining populations. Such falls are not primarily because of disease, famine or war but because fertility rates are falling below replacement rates across large parts of the world. According to a UN Populations Division Report in 2012, nearly 48% of people live in countries where the fertility rate is below the replacement level – an average of 2.1 children per female in her lifetime. This article will explore three different types of countries where population is falling and predict how the situation will unfold by 2030.

Germany is a paradigmatic example of the first type of country. It is prosperous, the death rate is low, and net inward migration is in the hundreds of thousands a year. Yet the population is slowly falling as the birth rate remains stubbornly low; women are choosing to have fewer children later in life as they attempt to balance careers and motherhood. Indeed, fertility rates across the West (and Japan) are below the replacement rate, from as low as 1.3 in Spain in 2013, 1.8 in Belgium and 1.9 in the United Kingdom. So what does 2030 look like for Germany, and similar counties in the West? It seems unlikely that in the next fifteen years birth rates will recover or that countries will accept the high levels of immigration that would see populations stabilise and grow.  

Populations in Western nations will decline and governments will simply have to find ways to adapt to this

Firstly, the popular and political backlash against immigration is strong across many countries suffering from low fertility rates. The recent success of Alternative für Deutschland in Germany is representative of broader electoral successes for anti-immigrant parties across Europe in recent years. In addition, immigrants would need to move to areas suffering worst from depopulation if they are going to best fill the labour gap left by a fall in the working age population. However, it is often precisely these areas - such as the old East Germany - where levels of diversity are currently low and accommodating high numbers of immigrants will be socially difficult. 

Secondly, it is unlikely that birth rates will rise to the replacement level; this would require huge social and cultural change or a seismic event such as the Second World War which triggered a baby boom at the war’s conclusion. Germany has for years attempted to increase birth rates, with tax breaks for married couples and allowances for stay-at-home mothers, but with little success. It seems difficult to imagine that a shift in attitudes towards family size will happen in the next fifteen years.

Instead, by 2030, we will likely see Germany and other Western countries simply adapt to falling populations. Already local authorities are merging in order to provide services to a smaller and more spread out population at a lower cost. The retirement age in many European countries has slowly increased over the last few years, despite fierce political battles, and will likely continue to do so over the next fifteen years. Immigration or higher birth rates will not come to the rescue of western nations by 2030: populations will decline and governments will simply have to find ways to adapt to this.

A second set of countries, the Pacific Islands, are facing a very different depopulation story. Though not a uniform trend across the Pacific Islands, several of these small islands nations are facing striking declines in population. Self-governing Niue, for example, has seen its population fall from over 5,000 in the 1960s to less than 1,600 today. The population of the Cook Islands has similarly fallen from a peak of over 20,000 in the 1970s to less than 14,000 today. Unlike in Germany or Spain, the issue here is not about falling birth rates: there is a natural increase in the population of the Cook Islands. Instead it is all about migration. Cheap transport and historical connections to Australia and New Zealand facilitated mass migration to these labour hungry nations from the middle of the twentieth century. Furthermore, modern communications allowed people to move away and take advantage of the greater opportunities in large developed nations, without losing contact with friends and relatives back home.

Although technology facilitated the mass exodus of the past half-century, it may paradoxically prove to be a saviour by 2030

However, although technology facilitated the mass exodus of the past half-century, it may prove paradoxically to be a saviour by 2030. Internet communication will mean that people can stay on the islands without being isolated from the world – in 2003 Niue became the world’s first country to offer all its citizens free Wi-Fi. The Internet may also be able to stimulate the tourism industry in some of these more remote islands. Places like the Cooks Islands and Niue will struggle into 2030 but modern technology may help them remain viable polities.

The final set of countries that are suffering from falling populations are states of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. To a degree, they combine the problems of both Western nations such as Germany, and the Pacific Islands. Moldova epitomizes this: its fertility rate in 2012 was less than 1.5, well below the replacement rate. Moreover, scores of young people leave every year for Russia, Western Europe and the US – it is estimated that between 600,000-1,000,000 Moldovans work abroad, many of them illegally. In addition, Moldova, Russia, Belarus and others also have significantly higher death rates than in Western Europe putting, further pressure on the population. Moldova’s population has fallen from around 4.3 million in 1990, at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, to around 3.6 million today. The emigrants do provide remittances that are crucial to the Moldovan economy, but with so many young people emigrating, the dependency ratio becomes problematically high and chronic skill shortages throttle the economy.

More than in Western Europe or the Pacific Islands, government action could turn the population story around. If places like Russia and Moldova can achieve long-term economic growth, a stable political climate, and enhanced public services, then migration will likely be stemmed, the birth rate may well increase as young people feel more secure, and the death rate would fall as health care improved. However, the deep-seated nature of the economic and governance problems in places like Moldova and Russia means significant progress is unlikely to be made by 2030; instead their populations will continue to fall – though the pace of that fall can be mitigated by committed and sensible government action.

The deep-seated nature of the economic and governance problems in places like Russia means significant progress is unlikely to be made

Just as with population growth, declining populations present both challenges and opportunities for countries. A falling population means fewer dependent children for the state to provide services for, and less pressure on the natural resources of a country.  However, it also presents deep challenges of how to provide the same level of services with a smaller tax base, as the number of working age people decline. The specific problems and solutions faced by countries with falling populations depends on the reasons for the population decline. It is unlikely that, by 2030, governments will have really faced up to the problems they are facing; while for many countries like Russia and Moldova, falling populations are a symptom of wider governmental failure.