Wang Feng: The optimistic, alternative story of population decline

The population is going to decline. We need to adapt

(Annelise Capossela for The New York Times)

The shoe has dropped. The big one. China, the most populous country on the planet for centuries, this month reported its first population decline in six decades, a trend that is almost certainly irreversible. By the end of the century China may have only around half of the 1.41 billion people it has now, according to U.N. projections, and may already have been overtaken by India.

The news has been met with gloom and doom, often framed as the start of China’s inexorable decline and, more broadly, the harbinger of a demographic and economic “time bomb” that will strain the world’s capacity to support aging populations.

There is no doubt that a shrinking global population — a trend expected to set in by the end of this century — poses unprecedented challenges for humanity. China is only the latest and largest major country to join a club that already includes Japan, South Korea, Russia, Italy and others. Germany would most likely be in decline too if not for immigration, and many others could begin shrinking in the years ahead. (The United States is expected to grow moderately in coming decades, largely because of immigration.) Median U.N. projections point to global population peaking in the mid-2080s at more than 10 billion, but if fertility rates continue to drop, the decline could begin decades earlier.

But the alarmist warnings are often simplistic and premature. The glass is at least half full. Shrinking populations are usually part of a natural, inevitable process, and rather than focus excessively on concerns like labor shortages and pension support, we need to look at the brighter spots for our world.

There is no need for panic; we’ve made that mistake before.

In the second half of the 20th century the world was panicking about unstoppable population growth. The number of people on the planet more than tripled in seven decades, from 2.5 billion in 1950 to around eight billion in 2022. Turns out, that was a transitory phase when mortality rates fell faster than fertility rates because of improved nutrition and public health, and relative peace.

But panic can lead to hasty policy and human tragedy. This reached its fullest form with China’s extreme birth-control campaigns launched in the late 1970s and which caused immense suffering, mostly for women, through forced abortions or fines and other penalties for breaking rules that restricted most couples to having only one child. Until those limits were scrapped beginning in 2015, hundreds of millions of Chinese women underwent sterilization procedures or had intrauterine devices inserted.

The population declines seen today in some countries have come about largely as a happy story of greater longevity and freedom. Fertility rates worldwide dropped from more than five births per woman in the early 1960s to 2.3 in 2020. Credit greater investment in child and maternal health everywhere: A mother who successfully brings her child to term and an infant who survives to childhood lower birthrates because parents often don’t feel the need to try again. Greater availability of free or affordable contraception has also reduced unwanted births.

China, South Korea and Japan are now all in population decline, but this is in part because of rapid increases in income, employment and education. The number of South Korean women who went on to postsecondary education rose from 6 percent in 1980 to more than 90 percent by 2020; China and Japan also have seen big gains. Lower birthrates stem in part from greater personal and reproductive freedom, such as the choice to stay unmarried, higher pay and more professional opportunities for women in these nations.

More women in the work force is a recipe for even greater productivity and prosperity and could help ease labor concerns among falling populations. More women than ever are rising to leadership positions in business, media and politics.

Compared with a half-century ago, people in many countries are richer, healthier and better educated and women are more empowered. China’s population, for example, is shrinking and aging, but its people are more educated and have a longer life expectancy than at any time in the country’s history. Expanded educational opportunities guarantee a spot in a university for almost every person born today in China, including more women than men.

Average world life expectancy has increased from 51 years in 1960 to 73 in 2019, and even more so in China, from 51 in 1962 to 78 in 2019. Increases of that magnitude reshape lives and open up opportunities unimaginable when life spans were shorter, such as workers remaining productive later in life and growing markets for older consumers in areas like tourism, nutritional supplements and medical devices, among others.

Fewer people on the planet, of course, may reduce humanity’s ecological footprint and competition for finite resources. There could even be greater peace as governments are forced to choose between spending on military equipment or on pensions. And as rich nations come to rely more on immigrants from poorer countries, those migrants gain greater access to the global prosperity currently concentrated in the developed world.

This new demography brings new challenges, including the need to offer quality and affordable child care, make college education more affordable and equitable, provide guaranteed minimum income and make societies more gender equal. Governments should abandon the mindless pursuit of economic growth in favor of well-being for citizens.

There is no reason the world’s population must keep growing or even remain level. And just as earlier panic led to harmful policies in China and elsewhere, efforts to raise fertility — which may prove futile — risk viewing women once again as birth machines.

Global population will inevitably decline. Rather than trying to reverse that, we need to embrace it and adapt.

Wang Feng is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and the co-author, with James Lee, of “One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities, 1700-2000.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.