An interview in Social Intelligence with Neil Howe on the changing nature of human population growth and its implications for politics, culture, and business.
Headlines around the world are trumpeting the United Nations’ announcement that the world population is now hitting seven billion and may reach eight billion in another 14 years. Yet lost in much of the commentary is any understanding of how the dynamics of population growth are fundamentally changing and what this means for the composition of the workforce, consumption patterns, and the general direction of society. To glean insight into these questions, SI interviewed LifeCourse founder and president Neil Howe, who has spoken and published widely on these topics over the last three decades.
SI: Neil, before we talk about the population outlook today, can you give us a brief primer on the demographic trends that got us here?
NH: Sure. The first 500,000 years or so can be summarized in a sentence. Women generally had six or more kids, but many if not most of them died young, so human population hardly grew. For most people, life may not have been solitary—but it was poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Then, about 300 years ago, there arrived the so-called “first demographic transition,” an era when mortality rates began to decline. That sparked a great population surge, particularly in Europe, North America, and China, beginning in the 1700s. This population explosion gave rise, particularly by the time of the French Revolution, to thinkers like Thomas Malthus. He famously theorized that human population growth would inevitably lead to more and more competition for food and other natural resources so that mankind would always be gripped in a struggle for subsistence.
SI: But it didn’t turn out that way…
NH: No, it didn’t. Eventually people began to realize that they didn’t need to have so many children just to ensure that two or three survived. Thus began the so-called “second demographic revolution.” Birthrates began to decline in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, initially only in western societies. Meanwhile, markets and science and new notions of progress brought us the Industrial Revolution and dramatic improvements in the productivity of agriculture. Bottom line? Because the rate of population growth decelerated and per-capita living standards rose, the Malthusian nightmare never happened. Our higher living standards produced public health measures and medicines that drastically cut child mortality, which has kept the rate of population growth from falling as fast as it otherwise might have. Even so, even as the numbers of people on the planet continued to rise, global living standards have continued to rise even faster.
SI: Then why did we hear so much alarm in the late 1960s and ‘70s about the coming “Population Bomb?”
NH: You are referring to Paul Ehrlich’s bestseller, which back then achieved enormous influence throughout the world. Everyone pointed to the book-cover image of hordes of people being crowded off the edge of continents. Many who came of age reading Ehrlich simply assumed that this was our future. At that time, world population growth, having slumped in the 1930s and ‘40s, was again growing rapidly. Not only did it seem like the American postwar “baby boom” would go on forever, but dramatic declines in child and infant mortality in places like India and China were triggering an explosive acceleration in population growth throughout what was then known as the “Third World.”
SI: So what happened?
NH: Well, all these trends turned out to be temporary. What Ehrlich and many others missed was the dramatic further decline in birthrates that would soon come. The American baby boom turned into the baby bust, resulting in today’s smallish Generation X—whose much smaller numbers of native-born U.S. births per year were later hidden, to some extent, by higher rates of immigration. Birthrates fell even more dramatically in Europe, Asia, and the former Soviet Union, and unlike in the United States, those birthrates stayed low. In fact, they fell well below the level needed to sustain their populations over time. Russia is now experiencing the steepest sustained population decline of any society since the bubonic plague. Japan is now in its fourth year of depopulation. And in recent years, the phenomenon demographers call “sub-replacement fertility” has even spread to many developing countries, including Brazil and parts of the Middle East, including Iran.
SI: But then why is the United Nations telling us that world population will grow from seven to eight billion in just the next 14 years?
NH: Partly it’s because there are some regions where the birthrates are still comparatively high, such as sub-Saharan Africa. The U.N. believes these rates are sustainable. I believe they aren’t. Do you really think that Nigeria in 2050 will have twice the population of Western Europe? It’s also because we are still facing a population explosion of seniors around the world. As my LifeCourse colleague, Phil Longman, recently noted in an article for Foreign Policy magazine, the U.N. now projects that over the next 40 years more than half of the world’s projected population growth will come from increases in the number of people over 60, while only 6 percent will come from people under 30. In fact, the U.N. projects that, by 2025, the population of children under 5, already in steep decline in most developed countries, will actually start falling globally. And that’s even after assuming a substantial rebound in birth rates in the developed world.
SI: So if remaining population growth doesn’t come from more children, that must mean we are all living much longer?
NH: That’s part of the explanation. But it’s mostly because yesterday’s youth bulges, like a pig moving through a python, are now or soon will be swelling the ranks of the old, just as they once swelled the ranks of youth and later of the middle-aged. So population grows even without any increase in the number of children. After these aging Boomers pass on, however, we face the very real prospect that world population will begin to decline. It is easy to imagine that we may never get to that eight billionth person on earth.
SI: What’s behind this global “birth dearth?”
NH: There are a lot of theories. The main one is that the traditional motivations for childbearing are no longer as strong in modernizing societies. Children used to be an economic asset to their parents. They helped on the farm. Now, with more than half the world’s population living in urban areas, children are no longer an economic asset for most people, but an avoidable and increasingly expensive liability. Having lots of children also used to be a smart strategy to provide for one’s security in old age. The advent of Social Security and private pension plans has lessened that motive.
SI: Yes, but we hear constantly these days about how pension plans are going broke.
NH: That’s not a coincidence. Population aging means there are fewer workers to support each retiree, and that has all kinds of implications, not just for pension finance, but for the economy as a whole. In places like Greece, Spain, and Italy, we are looking at societies in which, by the mid-2030s, half the population will be over 50—and in which more people will be celebrating their 80th birthdays each year than will be born. How are things going to work out politically when a decisive majority of the voting age population will be retired or near retirement? Already, the inversion of the age pyramid is the underlying story behind most of the economic turmoil facing Europe today. Slow growing or shrinking workforces diminish consumer demand, forcing capital to take evermore risks in search of reasonable returns. While demography is not destiny, it’s the tide in which we all must swim.
SI: How does this affect the family life?
NH: If you have a society where fertility is half the replacement rate (like in Italy, Bulgaria, or South Korea), in two generations you end up with a society in which the typical young adult not only has no siblings, but also has no cousins, no aunts, no uncles. Most young people will have two living parents, and four grandparents, but no other blood relations. In China, they call it the 4-2-1 problem, where one child is meant to support all of them.
SI: That raises interesting questions of what a society of single children will be like.
NH: Extended families are one of the basic institutions that individuals rely on as a social safety net in times of trouble—unemployment, hunger, sickness, disease. It’s the basic institution for socialization. It’s interesting to think about a world where these nuclear families are incredibly small and often fatherless, and the extended family doesn’t exist at all. In America, our extended families remain strong—and are getting stronger, due to generational forces. But what about extreme low-fertility societies, where only-children are the established norm? By definition, the extended family will evaporate. Who will fill the void? Will government rush in to provide benefits the extended family can no longer provide? If so, how can government afford to step in when the supply of taxpayers is shrinking compared to the supply of dependent elders? In these societies, we may have to look for the evolution of new, informal institutions that will take the place of both the extended family and the welfare state.
SI: In China, there’s the stereotype of the “Little Emperor.” What will be the dominant personality traits of a generation of only children?
NH: Social science finds only-children and first-borns do tend to have specific personality traits. Some are positive. For example, only-children and first-borns are associated with higher achievement, higher measured IQ, and a higher sense of overall planning and drive. But there are negatives as well. Research on only-children shows they tend to be less attuned to the need to please others, and less willing to be team players. You can draw a portrait of a society made up mainly of only-children and first-borns as being a bit more self-absorbed and a bit less accustomed to reaching out to strangers.
SI: Can we also expect that with fewer young people we’ll have fewer entrepreneurs?
NH: Entrepreneurship is negatively correlated with age. New businesses and new ideas generally come from young adults. But that’s not the only aspect of economic behavior that will be affected. When you’re in your 20s and 30s, it’s easier to change jobs and move to new places, lowering what economists call “frictional unemployment.” Today, I have no doubt that unemployment in the U.S. would be lower if we didn’t have such a high percentage of the population that is middle-aged or older, and thus unwilling or unable to assume risks, move to a new location, and acquire the skills needed to adjust to a rapidly changing workplace.
SI: What does that say for the overall picture, globally?
NH: In some of Western Europe’s societies, the working-age population may be declining by a percent or a percent and a half a year by the 2030s and ‘40s. That may wipe out any gains from productivity growth, so you might find that real GDP stays flat even with robust innovation. The declining number of workers will cancel out whatever growth might come from automation, for example. So even at full employment, GDP no longer grows. We already see this prospect dawning in all the worries over the Euro, as EU leaders suddenly realize it’s very hard for nations like Italy to bring down their debt-to-GDP ratios if their projected GDPs are no longer expected to grow—even after the recession ends. But that’s not all. Economic historians often point to a broader dysfunction that typically overtakes zero-growth economies.
SI: Are you talking about the 1930s, for example?
NH: Yes. Or much longer eras, like the fifteenth century in Western Europe. Historians observe that in a world in which businesses are no longer carving out new markets and industry is no longer growing, leaders gravitate toward a psychology of risk aversion. Companies just want to protect their current revenue, and industries just want to protect their “given” customer base against encroachment. It’s a world that favors monopolies, guilds, cartels, sweetheart deals with political rulers, and protection against imports. This trend may be further reinforced by the predominance of single children and by the emergence of an older workforce. Of course, voters will also be older, leading policy makers to take fewer chances and be less enterprising with changes in public policies. The biggest challenge will be in very low-fertility societies—Japan, China, Southern Europe, and across the former Soviet Union.
SI: You are painting a pretty gloomy picture here.
NH: Yes and no. There are real challenges presented by global aging, particularly in the areas of pension and health care finance. And we’ll have to get used to lower rates of GDP growth. In the U.S., we’ll probably also see lower rates of immigration, both because of the sharp falloff in birthrates in Mexico and throughout Latin America, and because aging societies tend towards xenophobia. But there are real opportunities as well, not only for society, but also for firms and individuals who see these trends coming and know how to offer appropriate products and services. That means, for example, not just tapping into the exploding demand from older consumers, but understanding how tomorrow’s generation of seniors will have different needs, means, and preferences than seniors in the past.
SI: So, you’re saying that just because we’ll have more old people, we shouldn’t expect an explosion in Oldsmobile sales?
NH: That’s one way to think of it. Concretely, one needs to understand not just that the 65+ population will be the fastest-growing demographic group in most countries for decades to come. One also needs to understand that members of this older population belong to a particular generation. In the U.S., we call them Baby Boomers, and they have very particular ideas about the roles they want to play in later life, while their children and grandchildren also have particular ideas about the roles this generation of elders should play. People who understand how global aging and generational change intersect will do quite well in the world that’s coming, whether they are politicians, inventors of new technology, or creators of culture. So when we discuss Boomers in SI, readers should keep in mind the larger context of global aging, which lends even greater weight to these generational trends.
Social Intelligence v1, n6 (LifeCourse Associates, 2011).