Forget overpopulation, many countries are running out of young people. Now what?

Brian Cooley | CNET.Com

Troy Warren for CNT

Demographers are sounding the alarm that too few people will be as bad as too many.

“Population problem” has always been synonymous with overpopulation, but the trendlines in many societies suggest the problem will soon be too few people, thanks to access to birth control, greater availability of education, increased affluence and women entering the workforce. Now what?

“It’s important to think about population decline not as necessarily good or bad. What it is is a big shift,” says Damien Cave, the Sydney bureau chief for the New York Times and author of a fascinating story on the problem of global population decline. “It depends on how we manage it. There are benefits, but there are also significant challenges in terms of how economies work and how societies work.”

Cave points to the fact that many entitlement programs are based on young people paying a career’s worth of taxes to fund the programs for retirees. Those political outcomes might change if older people become a larger share of the voting populace.

Countries including Hungary, China, Japan, and Sweden are at the leading edge of this lower fertility trend. “It started 40 to 50 years ago in some of the richest countries in East Asia and Europe,” says Cave. Even countries associated with high birth rates, like India and Mexico, have seen those trend lines at least flatten. The US is somewhat immune to thanks to its historically robust flow of immigration, which offsets lower birth rates. 

But no matter the country, Cave says turning the tide won’t be easy. “The challenges of having children have become greater. Data show that people would like to have more children but it’s seen as too expensive and too difficult.” The question is, will a society decide that funding programs to support births is in its interest when weighed against the better-known issues that arise from population growth?

Damien Cave shared a wealth of insights into the new population bomb with CNET’s Brian Cooley.

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By Troy Warren

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