You Decide: Has the population boom fizzled?
When I was in college four decades ago, one of the headline concerns
was overpopulation. Worries were just beginning about what more people
would mean for the food supply, the availability of clean water and
the price of everything from gas to lumber to clothing. Dire
predictions were made for widespread starvation and plunging living
This wasn’t the first time that society had fretted about
overpopulation. In the 19th century a British scholar named Thomas
Malthus predicted that increased numbers of people would inevitably
lead to disease, famine and a long-run trend to subsistence living.
Advances in agricultural productivity proved Malthus wrong for a large
part of the world. But today another trend may be a more significant
undoing of Malthus’ predictions. Instead of the world facing the
continuing challenge of an increasing population, just the opposite
may be emerging — a world facing depopulation, and by choice!
Birth rates (technically the term is “total fertility rate,” or the
average number of babies born to each woman) are falling all around
the world. And it isn’t because babies are dying shortly after birth.
It’s because women are having fewer babies. Many demographers are now
saying the big problem of the future will not be too many people;
instead, it will be too few people.
In fact, many countries — China, Japan, Italy and Russia are examples
— are already losing population. If current trends continue, each of
these countries will be 20 percent to 30 percent smaller in population
by the end of the century. The U.S. currently isn’t in that situation
— our country now has a total fertility rate above replacement level
— but that could change in the future. Demographers have noted that
falling fertility rates are common across all nationalities and ethnic
But why? Several factors are likely at play. Many women are delaying
childbirth as they stay in school longer and pursue their own work
careers. Studies have shown that the longer a woman waits to have
children, the fewer children she will have.
In agrarian societies, children were an asset as they helped on the
farm with the planting and harvesting and in the home with cooking,
canning and mending. I can remember my father entertaining me with
stories about rising at 4 a.m. to milk the cows, feed the hogs and
chase down stray sheep.
But those days are gone for most of our country and increasingly for
the rest of the world. Family farms are disappearing, and today’s
farms are big, mechanized and run like a corporation. From a purely
economic point of view, children are a cost with very little financial
Children also used to perform another important function for their
parents later in life. They supported their parents. I have vivid
memories of this role from my maternal grandfather. He had three
daughters (one was my mother), and in the last decade of his life, he
alternated living with each daughter. His daughters were his pension!
This too has changed. Social Security, Medicare, private pensions and
personal savings have allowed many — certainly not all — older
adults to live separately from their children, often in different
states. So the motivation to have children to ensure care and support
later in one’s life just isn’t as strong today.
So what are we to make of the trend toward depopulation? Certainly
there are mixed impacts. Some see pluses from reduced use of natural
resources, a smaller human imprint on the environment and simply more
open space and less crowding if there are fewer people on the planet.
They see the potential for an increase in the quality of life for the
fewer quantity of people.
But others aren’t so sure. Fewer people obviously mean not as many
individuals to do work, to innovate and to make path-breaking
contributions. The stock market could also suffer if older people sell
stocks to finance their retirement, but there are fewer younger folks
to purchase those stocks.
Most analysts agree the big federal programs that assist the elderly
— Social Security and Medicare — would be severely challenged by
depopulation. This is because their funding relies in part on
contributions from younger workers.
Several counties, like Japan and Russia, have implemented public policies to encourage a higher birth rate, but to no avail. Apparently the forces driving societies to have fewer children are stronger than anything government can change.
The longer I live, the more examples I have seen of the conventional wisdom being turned on its head. For centuries many have worried about the impacts of a population explosion. Now the concern may be totally flipped around — to depopulation. Could the emerging demographic implosion be our greatest challenge ever? You decide.
Dr. Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Professor and North
Carolina Cooperative Extension economist in the Department of
Agricultural and Resource Economics of N.C. State University’s College
of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He teaches and writes on personal
finance, economic outlook and public policy. The College of
Agriculture and Life Sciences communications unit provides his You
Decide column every two weeks. Previous columns are available at