A civilization in decline?- Hussain H Zaidi


In a significant move, the Chinese government has allowed couples to have three children. The permission replaces the two-child policy introduced in 2016. Until then, a one-child policy had remained in vogue in the world’s most populous country, whose current population is 1.41 billion.

The permission to couples to bear more babies has been granted in view of the demographic shift, whereby the share of old people (aged 60 and above) in total population has gone up to 18 percent and is projected to surpass 20 percent by 2025. A relatively high number of old people is a drag on the size of the labour force and output, and inflates pension and medical care bills.

China is not the only major economy to face aging; several other advanced or emerging economies, such as Japan and South Korea, are facing this problem. On the other hand, many developing countries are facing a youth bulge. In case of Pakistan, more than 64 percent of the population is below 30 years of age.

The higher the relative size of the young population, the greater is the supply of workforce and the less is the spending on old age and post retirement benefits. A predominantly young population also means a growing demand for goods and services. Such demographic credentials can, however, prove an asset only if substantial investment is made in human resource development and employment generation. Jobless and disgruntled youth are highly susceptible to indulging in deviant behaviour and thus may constitute a capital social problem.

Developing countries like Pakistan, with an abundant unskilled labour and scarce capital and land, are already subject to the law of diminishing returns, which translates into decreasing marginal productivity of labour as the workforce expands. On account of a highly skewed resource distribution, a significant segment of the labour force remains unemployed and needs to be exported to the economies that are better off. Not only that, people’s wants exceed public resources. No matter how many schools and hospitals the government sets up, such facilities will remain in short supply in the face of a spiraling population. Such societies are overpopulated and thus need to cut down on the birth rate.

The notion of high or low population is relative. A nation is over- or under-populated relative to its resources. By the same token, baby boom or bust is good or bad depending on the resource base of a country. This accounts for the notion of an optimal population size, which commensurates with the national resources available to sustain it.

There are two grand theories about population-induced doomsday. The first of these theories, associated with the 19th century English economist Thomas Malthus, is outlined in almost every elementary textbook on social sciences. Population growth, Malthus argues, always outstrips food supply. As a result, population will always increase to the level of subsistence. Only war, famine or a pandemic (such as Covid-19) and abstinence can check the excessive expansion of humanity. However, Malthus himself was sceptical on whether population explosion could be avoided. In his book, poverty and slough of misery is the inescapable lot of mankind.

The other theory, relatively obscure, was authored by the early 20th century German philosopher Oswald Spengler. Surprisingly, Spengler’s doomsday scenario is grounded not in overpopulation but in depopulation. His basic thesis is that, contrary to the widely held view, the civilization is a symbol of decline, decadence and death.

Among the various features that Spengler identifies of a civilization in decline is depopulation. The ‘civilized’ man becomes increasingly sterile and woman infertile, not necessarily in a biological sense but because bearing or having children is considered irrational. In the words of Spengler, ‘When having children becomes a matter of costs and benefits, something vital has gone out of life.’ Depopulation, he asserts, happened in all the past civilizations, while the present Western civilization is also exhibiting that ‘cataclysmic’ symptom before inevitably the sun will set on it once and for all.

While to many Spengler’s thesis may appear outlandish, a recent (July 2020) study on demographics published in the prestigious ‘The Lancet’ seems to lend credence to his views on the relationship between depopulation and ‘advancement’. The study forecasts that the world population will peak about 9.7 billion in 2064 before falling to 8.8 billion by the end of the century. Projected fertility rates (live births per 1000 women annually) in 183 nations will be too low – falling below the 2.1 percent threshold – to maintain current population levels. The global total fertility rate will come down from 2.37 percent in 2017 to 1.66 percent in 2100. In more than 23 countries, populations will shrink more than 50 percent each. These include Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Spain, Italy, and Portugal. In another 34 countries, populations will contract between 25 and 50 percent.

Depopulation will be accompanied by demographic shifts. Globally, in 2100, 2.37 billion people (27 percent of the total population) will be more than 65 years of age, compared with 1.7 billion (19 percent of the total population) who will be under 20. Countries like China and India will see a dramatic fall in working-age populations, which will box in their economic growth.

The study predicts that Pakistan’s population will peak at 314 million in 2049. However, by 2100, the number would come down to 248 million. Pakistan will still be the fifth most populous country behind India, Nigeria, China, and the US. The fertility rate for Pakistan will decline from a high of 3.4 percent in 2017 to 1.3 percent in 2100.

The Lancet study builds on an earlier work by the same journal, which was unveiled in 2018. Whereas in 1950, no country registered the minimum 2.1 percent fertility rate, in 2017 nearly a half of the reported countries had rates below the threshold. Globally, whereas in 1950 a woman bore on average 4.7 children, by 2017 the fertility rate had scaled down to 2.4 children.

Evidently, fertility or birth rate isn’t the only factor that determines population growth. Death rate and immigration are the other variables. Immigration, however, is a phenomenon between countries. It doesn’t apply to the world as a whole. With death rates having fallen all over the world, a long-run decline in fertility rate will cause the number of people to come down.

A correlation exists between the level of economic development and per capita income on one hand and low fertility rates on the other. The US, most of the European countries, Australia and South Korea are among the nations that have fertility rates lower than 2.1. For Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Western Europe, and South Asia the average fertility rate (AFR) is 1.8 percent, 1.6 percent, and 2.3 percent respectively. High-income countries have 1.7 percent AFR.

The fall in fertility rates in developed nations has been attributed to both sociological and biological factors, such as a decline in child mortality rate – which doesn’t make it necessary for couples to have a large number of babies – the growing availability and use of contraceptives, and socio-cultural changes which accompany development.

The latter includes late marriages, increasing participation of women in the workforce, rise of single-member household, respect for the individual’s right to choose, and a high opportunity cost of having children. As countries with relatively high fertility rates advance, they too will face declining populations for similar reasons.

The fall in fertility rates is causing an enormous demographic shift in several advanced nations, notably Japan, ushering in massive socio-economic changes. The share of dependent people in the total population is going up while that of working people going down. This means too few people will produce for too many people. Production will become increasingly capital intensive. On the consumption side, goods and services catering to the needs of an ageing population will be in high demand.

With all its implications, depopulation seems unavoidable. But would it, as prophesized by Spengler, constitute a step towards the eclipse of the Western civilization? This remains to be seen.

Email: hussainhzaidi@gmail.com

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi