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  • Raghav Sand

World Population: The Signal and the Noise

Just like any other news item, the buzz around population explosion or falling birth rate has split the world in half. Which version do you believe or want to believe? Don’t worry, there are plenty of theories. And, the propagators of these doomsday arguments seem to have data to dispel doubts. Nothing sells faster than fear. Economists, Governments and other social commentators choose and pick a portion of the demographic and human development statistics to garner attention towards their school of thought. World population has been rising steadily for the past century; it has more than doubled from its level in 1960 (3 billion) and currently stands at just under 8 billion people, as per data from the year 2020.

Total Fertility Rate

Some Asian countries have fertility rates near or even below 1.0, while much of the core population of Europe is shrinking. In the U.S., fertility rates have fallen below replacement rates, hitting a historic low of 1.7 in 2019, and will likely fall even further in 2020 in part due to Covid-19. From 4.82 children per woman in 1980, India’s fertility rate has dropped to 2.2 in 2019. While China reported a drop of over 35% in the fertility rate, India recorded a drop of 54% during the same period.

Beijing recorded its lowest number of births in 2020, official data has revealed, with a top expert saying the Chinese capital’s population could start shrinking from 2022, and China’s by 2027. The two-child policy implemented by China from 2016 has failed to make an impact on the low birth rates. It needs 11.8 million more workers and a demographic imbalance may derail its pursuit of economic and geopolitical dominance.

China has experienced a fertility collapse. According to the latest census released in May, China is losing roughly 400,000 people every year. China still claims its population is growing, but even if these projections are taken at face value, the population decline previously projected to start by mid-century may now begin as early as 2030. This means China could lose between 600 and 700 million people from its population by 2100.

The total fertility rate in a specific year is defined as the total number of children that would be born to each woman if she were to live to the end of her child-bearing years and give birth to children in alignment with the prevailing age-specific fertility rates. A total fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman ensures a broadly stable population. Together with mortality and migration, fertility is an element of population growth. It reflects both the causes and effects of economic and social developments. The reasons for the dramatic decline in birth rates during the past few decades include postponed family formation and child-bearing and a decrease in desired family sizes.

The Pandemic within the Pandemic

Remember all the jokes about people being stuck at home leading to a baby boom? As the data rolls in, it’s clear that in many countries, the opposite has occurred. Most children these days are wanted or planned children, especially in the developed world. Deciding to have a baby is contingent on being optimistic about the future – and optimism is difficult to muster during a global pandemic. In fact, the Brookings Institute estimates that 300,000 babies were not born in the US as a result of economic insecurity related to the pandemic.

A decline in fertility is just one way the pandemic is suppressing population growth in many developed nations. The other: closed borders. In 2020, Australia recorded its first population decline since World War I, due to stricter COVID-related border controls. Canada granted permanent-resident status to 180,000 applicants in 2020, far short of the target of 381,000 – and most of the new permanent residents were already in the country on student or work visas.

India’s Tryst with Destiny

Some Indian states, like Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Assam are on the verge of implementing strict population control measures. There is some sort of incentive for a smaller family in almost all the states in India. Assembly elections are due in UP next year, and the move to introduce curbs on population so close to the election is seem as political appeasement in some quarters. Undoubtedly, UP with a population of over 22 crores (220 million) should have a plan of action to save the state from catastrophe.

Can bifurcation of the state serve the intended purpose? Administratively, it is nothing short of a nightmare to govern a state with such a large population. The law-and-order situation in UP is among the worst in the country. What if some people are not eager for Government jobs and subsidies? Upper -and upper-middle income family sizes have been shrinking in the last two decades in India. Individuals have good reason to believe that if they have fewer kids than their parents, the living standards and resource allocation will be better.

Be careful what you wish for!

Why should you care about population decline? Fewer people are good for the climate, but the economic consequences are severe. In the 1960s, there were six people of working age for every retired person. Today, the ratio is three-to-one. By 2035, it will be two-to-one. Some say we must learn to curb our obsession with growth, to become less consumer-obsessed, to learn to manage with a smaller population. That sounds very attractive. But who will buy the stuff you sell? Who will pay for your healthcare and pension when you get old?

Because soon, humanity will be a lot smaller and older than it is today. Isn’t it what all of us have been wishing for?

An Introduction to Demography


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