If you think the world is only arcing toward overpopulation, think again
18:41

If you think the world is only arcing toward overpopulation, think again

Wellness
Speaker 1: Worries about world population have always centered on too many people, population bombs of too much growth, or at least too much concentration of it. Now, all of a sudden there's a robust conversation that does a 180, we're hearing a lot of concerns about how populations going the wrong direction, declining in many areas of the world. And many of the most at ants economies. Now what D and cave has amazing insights into this. He is the New York times [00:00:30] bureau chief in Sydney, Australia, but he also happens to have a specialty in writing about demographics and population. And he and his colleagues did a story recently that really grabbed my eyes and my mind long slide looms for world population, with sweeping ramifications. Before we even get into the why behind population declining, what are the problems with that? Most of us would say, oh, great, less pressure on everything. Speaker 2: It's important to think about population decline, not as necessarily good or necessarily bad, what [00:01:00] it is is a big in a big transition. And so it will depend on how we manage it. There are, there are benefits in terms of less pressure on the environment, but are there, there are significant challenges that societies have not really worked through yet in terms of how their economies work in terms of how their societies work, uh, in terms of a whole bunch of different things that are really gonna change how the world works. And so part of it is just getting people to really accept and grapple with the fact that this is a big change. That's gonna come and move through the entire world and is already here in a lot of places that's [00:01:30] gonna have to be dealt with. So where, Speaker 1: Uh, is the population going the wrong direction or stagnant? Is it most developed, not nations or is it a few large ones? What's the rough take on that? It Speaker 2: Started, you know, really 40 or 50 years ago in some of the richest comp countries in east Asia and, uh, and in Europe. And it's simply just been spreading around the world ever since. So even countries that we associate with high population growth, like India or Mexico have really seen their fertility rates and their birth rates flat. Um, so it's kind of just moved around the world, [00:02:00] but it's most concentrated in the really economies in Asia and in Europe. And that's the places where we're really seeing the impacts. First is the, is Speaker 1: The stereotype true that as populations get a little more affluent and more educated, they tend to have fewer kids. Speaker 2: It's one, you have education sort of becoming more common and spreading, uh, you have women in the workforce and then you have more access to birth control and family planning. So, you know, families are making different choices than they used to. They're choosing to have fewer kids. And that's a, that's a positive what's on, on the negative side is [00:02:30] that you still have a lot of families who, frankly, aren't having as many children as they would like. Um, because the challenges of having children have also become greater. And so you're not in a situation where, oh, everyone's having as many kids as they want. There's actually a lot of data that shows that people would like to have more children. And it's just that it's seen as too, too expensive and too difficult. And so we're not at a place where, you know, the ideal situation is actually happening no matter, no matter where you are. Speaker 1: A lot of this is elective, right? Yeah. A lot Speaker 2: Of it is elective. For sure. It's just a question of whether or not those elections are, you know, factored [00:03:00] in because of how the society works or they're, you know, in a state of nature where everyone had the perfect amount of childcare and housing was affordable, how many children would people have? That's a question that I think is worth asking. And so, you know, for a long time, societies have just assumed there's always gonna be enough children. Everyone's gonna have enough kids. We don't really have to think about it, but now we're at a place where you really have to think about, well, do we need to focus our policies on encouraging people to have families or at the very least making it possible for them to have the size family that they want as opposed [00:03:30] to being discouraged from having children? Because there are real consequences from having two few children, you know, and some of the places where the birth rates have really collapsed, like south the changes are pretty wrenching and that, you know, it's, it's not a question of just, okay, is it decline versus growth? It's a question of how rapid is that decline gonna be? Because if it's really rapid, you know, South Korea has a birth rate of less than one per family. The changes are really significant Speaker 1: If I understand it, right? You, uh, 2.1 children per is [00:04:00] considered replacement value. When you factor in, you know, premature death and infant mortality, is that Speaker 2: About right? That's about right. And so, you know, most places or in the developed world are somewhere between, you know, 1.5 and two. Um, you know, when you're closer to two, that's not so bad. The demographers I talked to said, Hey, if we can stabilize it like 1.8, um, you know, we can maybe man manage this transition to decline, or there will be some benefits, but if you settle in at like 1.5 or below, um, then it starts to get really difficult. And, and there part of what it is [00:04:30] is there's all these other forces that kind of create something cyclical and create momentum. So if you have, for example, you know, urbanization along with declining birth rates, what happens is these regional areas lose services like maternity ports. And so what happens, everyone moves to the big cities and those big cities become even more expensive. And as they become more expensive, people decide to have even fewer children. And so that cyclical nature can make it really move very quickly and create some really, really enormous challenges. Speaker 1: Okay. [00:05:00] So that's how that trend will line starts to steepen. As we go out year after year, people Speaker 2: Have fewer daughters and those daughters have fewer children. And so each generation, it actually, you know, it's sort of the op opposite of financial growth. It's sort of just like multiplies itself pretty quickly. And so, and then if you try to turn it around, it's very slow because Hey, it takes a while to add more babies, right. And for them to go into workers. And so, you know, it's not the kind of thing that you can just turn on a dime. Speaker 1: So we've talked a bit about what's going on and why on the population side. Now let's talk about, [00:05:30] uh, those ramifications, which are so manifold. Um, we talked about one, which is simply having an aging population that is relying on fewer and fewer young people to basically foot the, for entitlements. That's the one that always occurs to us is that the biggest issue here, definitely Speaker 2: One of the biggest issues societies have been organized in that way. So that to have younger workers pay for older people. And so something about the way that that works is gonna have to change, it could be, you know, there are more workers through, you know, robots and AI. It could be that older people [00:06:00] have to work a lot longer than they used to. It could be that we change the way these incentives and tax structures work, but there's gonna have to be some kind of change in that regard. Um, so, but it's far from the only one. I mean, you know, there are some really interesting questions about how democracies work when the constituency is mostly older, but the need is for people to have better sort of family friendly policies will older people actually vote for that order to keep society stable. They're kind of gonna have to, but it's far from clear that they have any interest in voting beyond their [00:06:30] own interests. Older people tend to vote what, like everyone would what's best for them. So that's gonna be an enormous challenge for DeMar Speaker 1: Too. That's interesting. Cuz the older person one's gonna vote for something that is going to be bearing on their life far less than it's going to be bearing on someone else's and yet if they have all the votes that is kind of a permanent, uh, unfairness or imbalance, isn't it? Speaker 2: Yeah. I mean, it's, it's gonna be really interesting. The conversations we're gonna have around generations and the need to sort of think forward and think for the future are, are gonna be very different. And it's frankly, it's gonna be [00:07:00] really challenging. Um, especially for these people who have sort of grown up being really worried about population growth and being taught that for most of their lives, think about, well, you know what, for my grandchildren, I actually need to pay more taxes to help them have, you know, a better situation for childcare. And yes, I didn't have that when I was coming up and have kids know what, for the benefit of society in the world, I actually need to make it easier for them to have children. That's not something that people, you know of grandparents age really thinking much about, but they're gonna have to. Speaker 1: So as I was reading your piece, I remember the thing that kept sticking in my [00:07:30] CRA uh, being an old ZPG guy from when I was old enough to even understand the concept was, wait a minute, do we have to correct for population? Or should we take a fresh look here at correcting for economics and saying, wait a minute, let's figure out how to make a smaller population work, which is getting the most talk. I I'm hearing about population, uh, uh, what encouragement, but is there any meaningful discussion about economic restructuring instead of growing the number of people? Speaker 2: And I think for a lot of societies and a lot of governments, it's easier to say how just have more [00:08:00] children. We'll just do that. Right? But there are a few countries that are leading the way in terms of actually trying to, as they say right size, their economies and their cities to the populations that they have Germany, for example, you know, has torn down hundreds of thousands of apartments in buildings in some cities life SIG is one example to basically shrink it to the population that was healthy for that city. And it worked, the city is much healthier now than it used to be. Um, people are moving back into it. And so, you know, there are ways to do this and this is something that I think, you know, some countries are just starting [00:08:30] to think about, but it's hard. I mean, Japan is a country that's been dealing with aging and low fertility rates for a long time. Speaker 2: They're just starting to think about merging local councils, for example, war finding ways to consolidate, to kind of deal with that. So, you know, there are some real promising things that are just starting to emerge, but it's gonna require again, some government innovation and some vision and frankly, getting over this idea, that decline is sad. You know, if you go to these towns where everyone is 75 plus there's a real sense of sadness. [00:09:00] And to some degree that seeps into government policy that, oh, well isn't this decline. I mean, even the word, you know, it's just a shift. It doesn't have to be good or bad. It just depends on what we do with it. That's Speaker 1: Very interesting cause there's a lot of power in that language and declines, a very powerful word. It's, it's rarely used in a positive connotation. Uh, let me ask you this about the China example, we all have read in the headlines lately. Uh, China moving from its one to its two child policy for many years and then just very recently to a three child policy. Uh, what are they afraid of in that enormous population? [00:09:30] Uh, what are they afraid of in terms of impacts from stagnant or declining population Speaker 2: There there's sort of something that's called kind of this perfect sweet spot with demographics, where you have enough workers to kind of make the country rich and pay for the older people and grow really quickly. And, and the problem with China to some degree is that it's gonna get old before it gets rich. So, you know, they're still gonna have, it's not gonna be quite as rich of a country as it is in the, in other countries like United States, the develops world. Um, but then they're gonna run outta workers or there's gonna be fewer workers per older person. Right. So, and it's, and it's gonna be [00:10:00] a pretty sharp decline because that one child policy is pretty severe. So one of the analysts I was talking to said that, you know, by 2100, you know, China's population will basically be cut in half from 1.4 billion to 730 million, which could mean that Nigeria is suddenly, you know, the second largest country in the world. So it's a pretty significant, you know, change for that society, even though yes, there's still a lot of people. So that's what they're trying to kind of head off with this three child policy. But it's, it's very hard to see that working at least according to demographers, [00:10:30] I've talked to, it's not clear that there's a ton of people in China who want three kids and so you can give them the freedom to do that. It doesn't mean they're gonna do Speaker 1: This idea that the attitude there is one of, okay, fine. We have permission, not interested at least if you're speaking kind of broadly Speaker 2: For China, I mean, there's enormous challenges in terms of how you make it, you know, a society where people want to have children and then, you know, there as they age, there's still a whole bunch of structures that China is still swinging with, whether it's pensions and social security or healthcare. So, you know, they have, they have an enormous challenge ahead [00:11:00] of them over the next, you know, 50 years really. I mean, it'll in the second half of the, of the century has been, it will really start to be really, even more visible than it is now. So you have a little bit of time, but there's not, you know, it's not the kind of thing you can turn around really Speaker 1: Quickly. I think about how much, especially, uh, pre-war uh, in 20th century history and a little bit longer than that, you know, nations took great solace in the fact that they had huge populations to Mount enormous armies if they had to, or had armies of workers. And both of those were seen as huge assets to both their, [00:11:30] uh, their security and their, uh, ability to prosper. But those days are, are kind of in the past. Both of those per suits, industry and war and defense are incoming, are becoming increasingly automated and less requiring massive amounts of human bodies. I guess that's a, an uninteresting factor in Speaker 2: This too. Someone said to me, you know, for a long time workers, they were like commodities. There was always enough of them. And you know, we're getting to a place where that's not going to be the case. And to some [00:12:00] degree, we're already shifting to a point where that's not how we look at this, right, where you do have a lot more that's automated and there's a lot more, you know, sort of variation in how workers work. It's not just stick someone in a factory and as long as you have a body, they can make the widget. Um, and so, you know, this is another thing that's happening concurrent with this population shift is a shift in how people work and how people specialize. And so you're gonna have more segmented and segregated, you know, economic groups, it's gonna change how immigration works. There's a whole bunch of things that are gonna happen [00:12:30] that, that show that sort of segmentation of society, a way that is different from the industrial era, when really you just needed bodies to do things, Speaker 1: Let's bring it to the us. Now, what do you think long term, should this play out here and start to rear its head in impacts that the average person can see, do you think this would do to our perception of immigration? I know that's getting to a political question more than anything else, but could this have major impacts on large nation's view of immigration? Which many of them see as something that they wanna hold at arms [00:13:00] length, if not outright Speaker 2: Oppose? One of the interesting things that one of the demographers I talked to said was that around mid century, the countries that are most likely to be successful are the ones that are best at attracting immigrants. There's gonna be enormous competition for immigrants, especially skilled immigrants, um, because that's, what's gonna be needed to keep the economies growing. Right? And so the countries that say are best about dealing with discrimination are best about integrating immigrants into their societies are best about, you know, offering entire families opportunities to come. Those are the [00:13:30] societies that are most likely gonna succeed and do well between now and 2100 group. And so, you know, that is an enormous challenge, but it is real. And to some degree you see it already, you know, competition for nurses worldwide is really intense. And so if you think about that as the beginning of a trend, um, that's the kind of thing I think we're gonna see a lot, a lot more of. Speaker 2: And then at some point there's just not gonna be enough immigrants to go around. You know, there are countries like Mexico, where I used to be a cor where there are just fewer people leaving because there are smaller families. Not everyone wants to be an immigrant. You [00:14:00] know, not everyone there, isn't an infinite number of people who actually wanna move to the United States. So at some point you're gonna have to figure out a way to make people want to, and you're gonna have to figure out a way to make the society work with those immigrants. If you want to continue the path of Speaker 1: Growth that we've had. And that's interesting because as you mentioned, population decline in broad parts of the world will reduce the pool of immigrants. And I guess potentially make conditions better in places where people used to want to immigrate out of and say, no things are actually pretty good here. We've balanced the number of people against the resources and I [00:14:30] don't need to leave anymore. And that would seem to magnify the crunch in countries that do want to draw immigration. I mean, I Speaker 2: See as a correspondent in Mexico, there were families that used to have, you know, the dad came from a family of eight and he had two kids and they were both in university and there was no desire to send anyone to the United States like there used to be. Uh, and so you're already seeing it happen. It's just that people have such a hard time getting their heads around it because they're still seeing other people who are trying to come, but it, but if you look at it and you really pay attention to the data, it just makes sense. Right? It's just how families work when you [00:15:00] have you, you can potentially have a better life for yourself in the country where you are, um, with fewer children, then there's less pressure to leave. And so then it becomes a question of, well, what are the opportunities and what are the benefits? And if there are benefits and if countries offer those benefits, then you're gonna see, see that kind of happen. Now, the demographers do believe that there are certain countries like the United States, like hu, where I am that have a history of immigration and growth in that way. And as if you look at the sort of projected numbers by 2100, those countries end up continuing their growth and being [00:15:30] a little bit strong by the end of the century than countries that tend to reject immigration like Japan, for example, or China, Speaker 1: You used to be based in Silicon valley in a earlier part of your career, uh, did quite a bit of coverage around technology. So you'll appreciate this. And that is, as we try to grow our populations for the reasons you've outlined, I think that tends to run headlong, the competing trends of digitization and automation of work, because we can't just create people first, you gotta get couples to have them or parents [00:16:00] to have them. Then you have to raise them healthfully. Okay. We can usually do that. Then you have to employ them gainfully. Speaker 2: In an ideal scenario, you have just the right amount of automation to provide the services that you need for are the people as they age for the society of whatever size it is. The reality is it's gonna be hard. It's probably gonna be uneven in some places. Sometimes you're gonna have too many workers and too much automation. Sometimes you're gonna have not enough automation and not enough workers. And so this is the sort of, you know, fit and puzzle that needs to be put together. [00:16:30] Um, and it's gonna be, you know, they're gonna be different skills that are gonna be needed. There's gonna be different. You know, kinds of industries for automation is really hard. I mean, home healthcare, you know, if you're dealing with a significantly aging population, it's pretty hard to automate that. Um, so, you know, there are some things that you're gonna see a lot of sort of pressure and need for humans. And then you're gonna have other things where, you know, automation can do the job. And so, you know, that is definitely a possibility societies need to become more productive as they shrink basically to maintain their status of living. Speaker 1: I know we have [00:17:00] a lot going on in the world right now with pandemic issues and global climate issues and, uh, recognition of people's worth issues. But this seems like the Uber story of the next 50 years, or maybe longer am I over overthinking it? Speaker 2: I sort of came to that same conclusion cause I was reporting it where I was just like, oh my God, how is this not the biggest topic that we're all talking about? And, and, and I even asked this guy, Chris Murray, who's a, who's a data scientist. Who's done a whole bunch of projections at the university of Washington said, [00:17:30] I don't understand why isn't this more, a part of the public conversation. And he said, you know, I think part of it is that in the, in the demographic world, they spent so much time worrying about population growth. That it's really hard to sort of get people out of that kind of anxiety that, that comes from that. Um, and he said, and the second thing is it's, it's, it's slow and it's still uncertain, right? So the numbers that we're talking about today in 10 or 20 years could change if the entire world changed how family policy worked. Speaker 2: If, you know, there was some rapid technological advance that [00:18:00] let people have kids between 50 and 40 and 60, even more than they're having it. Now, maybe things change that way, you know, things can change. And so, um, it's, it's hard to sort of see where this will be. And, but it is quite clear that this is a really big global story. And, and I do think that it's, you know, demographics are not destiny, but they definitely set the foundation for a whole bunch of challenges that we're gonna be writing about and talking about and debating for the next 50 to a hundred years. So people need to get their heads around it. Amy and cave Speaker 1: Is the bureau chief and for the New York times [00:18:30] and an expert on demographics and population.

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