A Dying Breed

By Ehrman, Richard | The Spectator, November 5, 2005 | Go to article overview

A Dying Breed


Ehrman, Richard, The Spectator


If demography is destiny, then, on the face of it, Britain should be feeling pretty smug. In late May the number of people in the UK finally passed the 60 million mark. By 2031, according to official projections released last month, there will be 67 million of us. While populations across most of the rest of Europe are stagnating, and many will soon be shrinking, ours is booming.

So why does this bountiful prospect make so many of us uneasy? A century ago such news would have been greeted with jubilation, as another sign of national virility and self-confidence. But today people do not quite know what to think. We know that immigration is the overwhelming cause of our population growth, followed by greater longevity. This makes people nervous. We also realise that the birth rate is below replacement level, and that we have got to find workers from somewhere to support us through our old age.

Less well known is that, around the globe, most countries are facing demographic upheaval, many on a scale far greater than we are. Yet this gets far less attention than, say, climate change, even though we can be far more certain that it will transform the way we live, and in ways that are much easier to predict.

During the last 50 years populations increased pretty much across the board in developed and undeveloped countries alike, albeit at different rates. Now the demographic plates are not just shifting, but diverging. Japan, Russia and many southern and eastern European countries face a sustained, outright fall in population over the next 50 years -- something that has never happened before in any advanced economy.

For most of the rest of Europe, the prospect is one of ageing stagnation, even after immigration is taken into account.

In stark contrast, across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America numbers are set to rocket. Eventually, perhaps in the second half of this century, population growth in the developing world, too, will moderate. Before that happens, however, demographic divergence between today's developed and developing worlds will revolutionise the balance of political and economic power between regions and countries.

According to the United Nations, the world's population is increasing by 72 million a year, or one and a half million people a week, and stands at 6.5 billion overall. Of these, 1.2 billion live in the developed world and 5.3 billion in the developing world. By 2050 the UN expects the world's population to have grown to 9.1 billion people, with nearly all the increase accounted for by the developing world. Populations are also set to get a lot older; in developed countries there are already more over-60s than under14s, and by 2050 the ratio will be 2:1.

Of course, projecting current trends into the future is always hazardous. But, right now, virtually no demographer expects fertility in today's developed world to return to the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. For all sorts of reasons -- contraception, the decline of marriage, increasing economic and social equality of the sexes, expense -- Western women are having fewer babies than their mothers and far fewer than their grandmothers.

Barring anything cataclysmic, it seems safe to assume that in half a century's time the world's population will be 50 per cent higher, and the vast majority of these extra people will be Asians, Africans, Arabs and Latin Americans. None of them will be European. This is startling enough, but to get a better feel for what it will mean one has to look at individual national projections, some of which are truly amazing.

In Europe, a golden age is drawing to a close. For 50 years we have enjoyed an economic bonanza based not just on peace and technological progress, but also on remarkably favourable demographics. Thanks to the post-second-world-war baby boom, the number of young people coming into the job market in the 1970s and 1980s comfortably outnumbered those who were then reaching pension age. …

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