Curious about … Birth rates, and the demographic-economic paradox

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In the last few weeks I’ve heard two very contrasting interpretations of forecast birth rates. Both are largely based on the same facts, however with somewhat contrasting perspectives.

  1. The first interpretation, concerns itself with declining birth rates in the major, ‘developed’ economies, asking the question, if populations aren’t growing sufficiently (and in some cases, like Germany, aren’t even replacing themselves), how will future economic growth expectations be met?
  2. The second interpretation concerns itself with massive recent (ie, over the last 100 years) global population growth, and the potential consequences for earth’s finite resources (water, food, fuel, metals, etc.).

I’ve read around these concepts on the internet and set out, in the remainder of this blog post, some thoughts on what I’ve found, including the demographic-economic paradox,  the demographic transition, sub-replacement fertility rates, and suggestions of the ‘tabu’ of discussing population growth.

ps. The title of this post is made in hommage to The Curiosity Chronicles, a Tumblr blog by Paul Bennett, Managing Partner and Chief Creative Officer of IDEO. I encourage you to take a look at his posts, if you’ve not seen them yet.

In this post I set out a number of references and links to Wikipedia (which never fails to surprise as to the extent and quality of insight that it holds), the United Nations (UN), and the The U.S. Census Bureau, as well as others. Including the links, there is a lot of (potential) reading, however I think it is well worth making oneself aware of this topic.


The views that I set out above are causing economists, sociologists, politicians, and pretty much everybody that takes the time to understand them, some serious concern.

  • On the one hand, there is talk of peak oil, insufficient water, food shortages, declining natural resources, waste disposal problems, etc. – population increase will further exasperate these issues, if not somehow addressed early enough. These are also highlighted well in Al Gore’s recent Book ‘Our Choice’ (Chapter 11, ‘Population’)
  • On the other hand, there are considerable challenges facing the global economy (not least the recent economic downturn / crisis, and slow growth in employment despite signs of economic recovery), and if population growth cannot be sustained, questions arise as to how to cope with possible labour shortages, and whether historical GDP growth rates (and consequent increases in quality of living standards) will be sustainable (and if not, what is the alternative?)

76 million employees will be retiring [in the U.S.A.] over the next thirty years with only 46 million Generation Xers–those born between 1964 and 1980–entering the workforce during this time [credited to “Eisenburg, 2002”, and mentioned in several places on the internet, but I couln’t find a source for it]

The topic of ‘labour shortages’ is however also a politically charged discussion – some say that it is (ab)used to argue for increasing immigration or outsourcing to foreign countries, to acheive lower cost labor, when in fact supply might exist if better education and re-training opportunities, and better diversity and inclusiveness policies existed.

I recently watched the BBC Horizon program, narrated by Sir David Attenborough“How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth? (see the video on YouTube, courtesy of Reece / marksmanr)”, which did a great job of summarizing the environmental and demographic concerns around population growth. A similar RSA talk by Sir David Attenborough (unfortunately not yet of the RSAnimate style) is included at the end of this post.

I predict you’ll see a lot more about this in the coming months – after being stable for thousands of years, the world’s population is projected to break through the 7 billion mark this year (around October 2011 per most projections), with the last 5 billion of that growth happening inside the last century.


The “demographic-economic paradox”, fundamentally observes that GDP per capita tends to increase as population growth declines – that may be true, but there’s no denying that many developed nations’ GDP has historically benefited from population increase also, and the rate of that increase tends to be slowing in those nations:

“The demographic-economic paradox suggests that reproductive restraint arises naturally as a consequence of economic progress.”

“A reduction in fertility can lead to an aging population which leads to a variety of problems, see for example the Demographics of Japan.” [is Germany heading in the same direction?]

The demographic-economic paradox also observes that GDP per capita often increases as population growth occurs (as well as other factors – capitalism, cheap energy, globalisation, technology/modernisation, increasingly open politics, healthcare improvements, social welfare improvements, etc.), but with that comes a decline in fertility rates (ie, the outcome now being seen in many more economically developed world countries), suggesting that we might eventually reach a ‘peak population’ level – this is one of the outcomes of the UN’s projections for population growth (the ‘low’ population growth scenario – see resources below *), while the other projection scenarios all predict further population growth to differing extents (albeit it would seem that such projections are inherently difficult to make accurately).

The concept of ‘peak population’ is discussed in “The Population Surprise” – in any case, prior to that happening, it seems that, ignoring possible effects of natural disasters (earthquakes, etc.), wars (eg, in Iraq), diseases (such as AIDS), etc., we are at least likely to experience continued population growth in the short term, and that, combined with declining resources, and increasing consumption of resources, will likely put a strain on our available resources.

Connected to this discussion are the concepts of sub-replacement fertility (replacement fertility being acknowledged to be 2.1 in industrialized nations) and population momentum globally, and variations in these for LEDW (Less Economically Developed World) and MEDW (More Economically Developed World) countries respectively.

My personal experiences with birth rates, and perspectives on the implications for nations

My parents had two sons: my brother and I – both of us were born in the UK, and we’re both now in our mid-to-late 30s.

My brother does not yet have children, and now lives in Australia. My wife and I have three children, and we currently live in Germany. Three children means that, for now at least, we have effectively increased the population, whereas my Brother is currently reducing the population.

In Germany, however, the average family currently has less than two children, and hence Germany’s population is declining (subject to immigration levels). Along with Germany, Russia and parts of eastern Europe also face declining populations (see here).

Global population growth tends therefore to be driven mostly by LEDW countries which have emerging economies, and latent  or underperforming economies. It seems to be widely understood that population growth is therefore only ‘controlled’ in MEDW countries which have more, or better education – where communities are taught sex education, the benefits (or existence) of contraceptives, where woman receive a proper education, and incentives to do something else with their lives than just the carrying and care of children (leading also to greater empowerment of women).

Some other observations

This post would be incomplete without a reference to Chinese population control measures (“One-child policy”) – that is one way, but has many critics (for reasons outlined well in the Wikipedia article). Interestingly, buried in that Wikipedia post, was the following:

The United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) funding for this policy is heavily criticized in the United States.[48] The United States Congress pulled out of the UNFPA during the Reagan years,[43] and U.S. President George W. Bush referred to human rights abuses as his reason for stopping the US$40 million payment to the UNFPA in early 2002.[49]

In early 2003 the U.S. State Department issued a press release stating that they would not continue to support the UNFPA in its present form because they believed that, at the very least, coercive birth limitation practices were not being properly addressed. The U.S. government has stated that the right to “found a family” is protected under the Preamble in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This, coupled with the International Conference on Population and Development’s view that it is the right of the individual, not the state, to determine the number of children, represents a clear conflict between China’s policy and U.S. accepted and adopted human rights conventions.[50]

President Obama resumed U.S. government financial support for the UNFPA shortly after taking office in 2009. Obama said, “I look forward to working with Congress to restore U.S. financial support for the U.N. Population Fund. By resuming funding to UNFPA, the U.S. will be joining 180 other donor nations working collaboratively to reduce poverty, improve the health of women and children, prevent HIV/AIDS and provide family planning assistance to women in 154 countries.”

It seems however that the UNFPA funding was a casualty of the recent US ‘debt ceiling’ negotiations … (“GOP Escalates Global War on Women”, Population Action International).

Hans Rosling has some great presentations on the statistics of birth rates, GDP and population development (and life expectancy, which is also a key metric in this discussion, and one that I’ve largely ignored so far) by country, and what we can read into how those have developed over time.

The ‘tabu’ of discussing population growth (and consequential lack of activity)

Both Dr Richard Attenborough and Al Gore, in their respective talks/publications, refer to the ‘tabu’ in politics of discussing population growth (although Gore’s views are very much focused on the implications of increasing population on the environment, whereas Attenborough’s views are more on sustainability of humanity). While they are both referring to unrestrained population growth, the ‘tabu’ seems to apply also to those countries, like Germany, with sub-replacement fertility rates.

Yet most discussions about solving the climate crisis rarely touch upon population, leading some observers to wonder if it has become a tabu subject [‘Our Choice’, Al Gore]

Potential reasons for this, in my view, are:

  • The general public are not actively pushing politicians on the topic (and since politicians have many other things to think about, are happy to ‘let it lie’) – perhaps the general public needs to better inform itself of the topic?
  • It is a sensitive topic, relating to personal and sometimes sensitive, or emotional decisions about family planning (and hence politicians are fearful of mis-stepping in such a debate, in which they will likely always be wrong, at least with some part of the electorate, with fertility control having negative connotations or being confused with eugenics)
  • The solutions are difficult, and expensive: Population control rules is generally not popular (refer to discussion on China, above); education and increasing awareness of contraception require investment (and in the case of sub-replacement fertility countries, child/parent support payments often do not compare to potential earnings)
  • Addressing population growth might not be in some people’s best interests (or at least, they may perceive that it is not), causing them to lobby against and downplay such views
  • The topic can create tension with religious groups that do not support family planning / contraception
  • Some groups disagree with the view that overpopulation is a threat to earth or humanity

Not everyone agrees …

There are some who disagree that there is a trend towards overpopulation (although the statistics seem difficult to contradict that the population has at least increased dramatically in the past 100 years) or that increasing population is even the major issue (for example, that the key is to better balance the world’s consumption, rather than limit population growth):

  • “John Lennon’s Opinion about Over Population” (YouTube) – Lennon’s arguments principally focus on the belief that we can better balance, or redistribute peaks and troughs around the world (eg, population growth in one country with sub-fertility in another, or food excess in one with food shortages in another – that doesn’t necessarily address the question as to how to encourage the “haves” to share more of what they have with the “have nots”)
  • “The Population Dud”, by Austin Ruse (Catholic Education Resource Center) – perhaps no surprise?
  • – a site with an opinion which is pretty much ‘what is says on the tin’
  • “The Population Surprise”, by Max Singer, August 1999 (on – longer-term views that are well thought through, but we still have to get through the mid-term first

My conclusions

The birth of a child is a wonderful thing, and worth celebrating. Without it, none of us would be here today, so while many are choosing to defer, or avoid having children, they may also need to be grateful that their parents didn’t share this view. Childbirth/procreation is also key to the survival of humanity (but few parents will put this at the top of the list of reasons they decided to have a child!).

Of course, “everything in moderation” holds true here also – the world needs to find a way to stabilize population growth (in particular more education and more use of contraception in countries where this is not widespread), and continue to enhance productivity and sustainable production, to serve the (in the meantime at least) growing population.

Al Gore believes that there is a track record of success of stabilizing population growth, with reference to four key factors (education of girls, social and political empowerment of women, high child survival rates, ability of women to determine the number and spacing of their children) – if these trends are sustainable, we might be able to have a more optimistic future.

I haven’t answered (at least not solved!) the question of the demographic-economic paradox (to do so will require the future attention of the global community), but I feel that through reading around the topic I’ve better understood it, and hopefully been able to shine a light on it, for the benefit of anyone else interested in this topic.

Appendix I: Sir David Attenborough’s talk, ‘People and Planet’, at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA)

Appendix II: Other resources / links

Some interesting resources worth browsing:

As an aside, while there is a fantastic wealth of data and insights (population development, contraception, population policies, Urbanization Prospects, Population prospects, diseases, etc.) available from the United Nations, their websites look like they haven’t developed since the 1990’s (which is a long time in the development of the internet …). Even more disappointing, some of the links in the UN sites are broken (the one’s above are fine, but links from there don’t always work) – some websites don’t need to be pretty, but if the links are broken, then the effort made to share the data is wasted.


3 Responses

  1. An interesting site, with a ‘population counter’ (in quasi-realtime, using algorithms to estimate increases and decreases in population):

  2. Article on Economist today “Now we are seven billion”:

    There will be many more such articles soon – as I mentioned in my blog, we pass the 7 billion mark around the end of October. Per the World Population Clock (U.S. Census Bureau) we’re not quite there yet (6,969,888,386 today):

  3. On a flight recently I read an article, in the USAirways inflight magazine, by Peter Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, and co-founder of the Singularity University. The article consisted primarily of the first chapter from his new book “Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think”:

    Aside from his primary “message” (broadly, he believes that technology will eventually address today’s economic scarcity problems) the chapter does a great job of summarising the developments in population and implications for resources, referring to many of the sources that I mentioned in my blog post (Malthus, Ehrlich, Club of Rome, etc.).

    You can also download the first chapter of the book for free via Amazon’s Kindle service – see here:

    (you may need to go to your “local” Amazon country site to download the first chapter)

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