Sunday, May 03, 2009

I really hate it ...

When reality steps all over a beautiful theory.  Just when I was smugly comfortable I knew what the world population trends were and what the possible implications for life in the future were, those stooopid humans change their behaviors.

 Just a few things that I thought I knew and now I don't:
  • White folk were unpopulating themselves from the future.
The falling fertility rates in large segments of the Islamic world have been matched by another significant shift: Across northern and western Europe, women have suddenly started having more babies. Germany’s minister for the family, Ursula von der Leyen, announced in February that the country had recorded its second straight year of increased births. Sweden’s fertility rate jumped eight percent in 2004 and stayed put. Both Britain and France now project that their populations will rise from the current 60 million each to more than 75 million by ­mid­century. Germany, despite its recent uptick in births, still seems likely to drop to 70 million or less by 2050 and lose its status as Europe’s most populous country.
In Britain, the number of births rose in 2007 for the sixth year in a row. Britain’s fertility rate has increased from 1.6 to 1.9 in just six years, with a striking contribution from women in their thirties and ­forties—­just the kind of hard-to-predict behavioral change that drives demographers wild. The fertility rate is at its highest level since 1980. The National Health Service has started an emergency recruitment drive to hire more midwives, tempting early retirees from the profession back to work with a bonus of up to $6,000. In Scotland, where births have been increasing by five percent a year, Glasgow’s Herald has reported “a mini baby boom.”
Immigrant mothers account for part of the fertility increase throughout Europe, but only part. And, significantly, many of the immigrants are arrivals from elsewhere in Europe, especially the eastern European countries admitted to the European Union in recent years. Children born to eastern European immigrants accounted for a third of Scotland’s ­“mini ­baby boom,” for ­example.
In 2007, France’s national statistical authority announced that the country had overtaken Ireland to boast the highest birthrate in Europe. In France, the fertility rate has risen from 1.7 in 1993 to 2.1 in 2007, its highest level since before 1980, despite a steady fall in birthrates among women not born in France. France’s National Institute of Demographic Studies reports that the immigrant population is responsible for only five percent of the rise in the ­birthrate. 
  • Asians will overrun the world with staggering population growth.
The various demographic changes I have described arrived with remarkable speed. At the turn of this century, the conventional wisdom among demographers was that the population of Europe was in precipitous decline, the Islamic world was in the grip of a population explosion, and Africa’s population faced devastation by HIV/AIDS. Only a handful of scholars questioned the idea that the Chinese would outnumber all other groups for decades or even centuries to come. In fact, however, the latest UN projections suggest that China’s population, now 1.3 billion, will increase slowly through 2030 but may then be reduced to half that number by the end of the ­century.
Because there are so many assumptions embedded in it, this forecast of the Chinese future could well be wrong. There is one area, however, in which demography relies on hard census data rather than assumptions about the future, and that is in mapping the youth cohort. All of the teenagers who will be alive in 2020 have already been born. So a strong indication of the eventual end of China’s dominance of world population statistics is apparent in the fact that there are now 372 million Indians under the age of 15, but only 270 million Chinese. This gap will grow. India seems very likely to become the world’s most populous country by 2030 or thereabouts, but only if nothing ­changes—­China maintains its ­one-­child policy and India does not launch the kind of crash program of birth control that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi so controversially attempted in the ­1970s.
There is another development that could affect future Indian and Chinese birthrates: the use of sonograms to ascertain the sex of a fetus. Wider availability of this technology has permitted an increase in ­gender-­specific abortions. The official Chinese figures suggest that 118 boys are now being born in China for every 100 girls. As a result, millions of Chinese males may never find a mate with whom to raise a conventional family. The Chinese call such lonely males “bare branches.” The social and political implications of having such a large population of unattached men are unclear, but they are not likely to be ­happy. 
  •  Social Security and its foreign counterparts are doomed by too many old guys.
But these sorts of projections don’t capture the full picture. There are at least three mitigating factors to be considered, which suggest that the German welfare state and others in Europe might not have to be dismantled ­wholesale.
The first is that the traditional retirement age of 60 in Italy, France, and Germany is very early indeed, especially considering that life expectancy is approaching 80 and that modern diets and medicine allow many elderly people to continue working well into their seventies. An increase of the retirement age to 65, which is being slowly introduced in France and Germany, would sharply reduce the number of ­non­workers who depend on the employed for support, as would more employment for people below the age of 20. A retirement age of 70 in Germany would virtually end the problem, at least until life expectancy rose as high as 90 ­years.
Second, the work force participation rate in Germany (and much of continental Europe) is relatively low. Not only do Germans retire on the early side, but the generous social welfare system allows others to withdraw from work earlier in life. An increase in employment would boost the revenues flowing into the social security system. For example, only 67 percent of women in Germany were in the work force in 2005, compared with 76 percent in Denmark and 78 percent in Switzerland. (The average rate for the 15 “core” EU states is 64 percent; for the United States, 70 percent.)
David Coleman, a demographer at Oxford University, has suggested that the EU’s work force could be increased by nearly a third if both sexes were to match Denmark’s participation rates. The EU itself has set a target participation rate of 70 percent for both sex­es. Reaching this goal would significantly alleviate the fiscal challenge of maintaining Europe’s welfare system, which has been aptly described as “more of a labor-market challenge than a demographic crisis.”
The third mitigating factor is that the total depen­d­ency ratios of the 21st century are going to look remarkably similar to those of the 1960s. In the United States, the most onerous year for dependency was 1965, when there were 95 dependents for every 100 adults between the ages of 20 and 64. That occurred be­cause “dependents” includes people both younger and older than working age. By 2002, there were only 49 dependents for every 100 ­working-­age Americans. By 2025 there are projected to be 80, still well below the peak of 1965. The difference is that while most dependents in the 1960s were young, with their working and saving and contributing lives ahead of them, most of the dependents of 2009 are older, with more dependency still to come. But the point is clear: There is nothing outlandish about having almost as many dependents as working ­adults. 

Shoot.  I honestly thought I had a handle on the apocalyptic population problem.  It turns out too many people around the world can figure stuff out for themselves and make rational decisions as well.
This will not improve my chances of becoming a full-fledged "pundit".

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