Population and ageing

‘It’s population, stupid’. According to an eighteenth century English clergyman, the Revd Thomas Malthus, this was the key to the great movements of history. As industrialisation spread, the fear of overpopulation declined. In the rich countries, productivity raced ahead of fertility. It was assumed that sooner or later the population of the rest of the world would stabilise. So why have we started to worry about a demographic ‘time bomb’?

There are two reasons. In the West, falling fertility and rising longevity create a problem of distribution between the generations; in the non-West, population is still growing strongly creating more pressure to distribute income from rich to poor countries.

The facts are clear. The ‘native’ European and American populations are not reproducing themselves; population numbers without immigration are set to fall. At the same time, the people live longer. Life expectancy in developed countries has risen from 70 in 1960 to 77 today and is expected to rise above 80 in 2025.

This situation spells crisis for pension systems. At present the ratio of workers to pensioners is 3.5. As the population falls and life expectancy in retirement rises this ratio shrinks. Without any change in social habits or policy, pensioners will become steadily poorer relative to those in work.

Russia has the same pattern of declining fertility and ageing. However, its demography has two peculiar features. The first is that its population has already started to shrink, falling by 6m between 1992 and 2000. On present trends it would sink by another 7.2m. by 2015. Secondly, though the population is ageing, life expectancy is falling. The main explanation of this is rising mortality rates for males of working age. Male life expectancy has fallen from 64 in 1989 to 59 today. Rising alcoholism has featured prominently in this trend. However this is more a symptom than a cause. The fall in life expectancy has gone together with the painful restructuring of the Russian economy. Russia now has the fertility rate (1.25) of a developed country, and the life expectancy of a developing country.

Taken in isolation, there is no demographic ‘time bomb’ in the developed world, only a problem of adaptation. A redistribution of income between generations could come about through a combination of higher savings and a longer working life (at both ends). Alternatively, women could be more fully employed. It could be made easier for women to combine careers with having children. Other things being equal, a modest fall in Europe’s population would be a benefit rather than a curse.

However, other things are not equal. The real demographic time-bomb is the fact that the whites are a small and shrinking fraction of the world’s population. On present trends, they are heading for extinction, together with their civilisation.

The extinction of the West could come about quite gradually through a large-scale immigration of peoples from the non-West, leading to a de-Westernisation of the former, or through racial and religious wars in which the weight of non-Western numbers would inevitably prevail in the end.

Both tendencies can be discerned. Commentators have started to talk about the ‘Islamicisation’ of Europe. But the West is also becoming more consolidated and fortified as though to defend itself against external threats. Time will tell which tendency will dominate.

 

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Author: Robert Skidelsky

Economist and member of the House of Lords