Demography is destiny

The Politically Correct attitude towards demographics is that the world is suffering from massive over-population and that there is a critical need to slow the arrival of more human beings onto this desperately overcrowded planet. This may well be the reason, or at least the excuse, for the tragedy that is unfolding in many developed countries – as well as in quite a number of culturally developed but economically backward ones. From Japan to Greece, the danger is not one of over-population, rather the opposite: plunging birth-rates that reflect a kind of collective death-wish of entire countries and cultures to bring about their own extinction, by the slow but sure process of not reproducing. 

The central role of demographics in the developing global debt crisis, and in the area of government debt in particular, is gradually gaining recognition among economists trained to look only at economic data and financial analysts whose purview has traditionally been the current and coming quarters, not the next several decades. The latest evidence of this welcome development is that this week’s edition of Business Week International devotes its cover story to the phenomenon. The article is patchy in both quality and quantity — but it’s a major step forward, especially for a publication as mainstream and as PC as this one. Entitled “Shrinking Societies: The Other Population Crisis”, the article reveals – in a rather shocked tone, apparently reflecting naivety or ignorance – that many countries suffer from a chronic trend of population decline. This is always the result of a very low birth-rate, but it can be exacerbated by other factors, including a) a high death-rate, usually due to poor public health systems and an epidemic, such as HIV/AIDS, drinking- or smoking-related illnesses, etc.; b) emigration of young people, in search of better employment opportunities.

Much more useful than the main article – at least for anyone aware of the general thrust of the problems under discussion – is a supplementary slide-show (on the online edition), providing a country-by-country review of the 25 countries that are leading the world in this race to eliminate themselves. Although providing just a nutshell summary of key data for each country, this approach suffices to generate both nitty-gritty facts and a big picture overview of this aspect of global demographics. You can draw your own conclusions and also ponder the implications – for instance, it seems pretty clear that Europe is indeed doomed, and that all the daily babble in the media about financial developments and economic data are as useful as rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic. An enormous swathe of European countries, notably including Germany but also almost the entire Balkans and the whole of European Russia (including Ukraine and Belarus), are heading for extinction as their overall population shrinks rapidly, whilst the composition of those left moves steadily in the direction of more old and very old (85+) people and fewer young adults and children.

I will admit that I was surprised, even amazed, that Italy, Spain and Portugal didn’t make the ‘Top 25’ – the mania of list-making extends even to this macabre topic, it seems. The list was also marred by the inclusion of numerous pseudo-countries that have become ‘independent’ in the post-USSR dissolution of Eastern Europe. Frankly, flea-bit countries such as Montenegro and Macedonia are of little interest or relevance, unless you happen to live there — in which case please leave a.s.a.p. On the other hand, the fact that Japan heads the list should come as no surprise. Far more interesting – arguably, dramatic — is the existence of a bloc of East Asian countries that are seriously afflicted with the low-birth-rate/ shrinking population problem, and they include Taiwan and South Korea. We know that China has major demographic problems, although these are further into the future than those of most other countries, hence there was no way it could already be on a list of this nature. But if the key East Asian ‘economic miracle’ countries are breeding themselves into decline and ultimately out of existence, then that has major significance for the medium-term future of the global economy.

The bottom line is that the huge population growth predicted by demographers for the next 40 years will be overwhelmingly concentrated in Africa, South Asia and South America and the Middle East. Meanwhile, Japan is fading fast, most of Europe is on the way out – and much of East Asia is going the same way. Why, in the face of these entrenched trends, should anyone think that America’s superpower status is at risk – when the US population is set to continue growing at a healthy clip for decades to come?

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