Long Slide Looms for World Population, With Sweeping Ramifications

Around the world, countries are facing population stagnation and declining fertility, a dizzying reversal unprecedented in recorded history that will make first birthday parties rare. more often than funerals and empty houses become an eyesore.

Obstetrics departments have ceased operations in Italy. Ghost cities are appearing in northeast China. Universities in Korea could not find enough students, and in Germany hundreds of thousands of properties were razed, land turned into parks.

Like an avalanche, the demographic forces – pushing deaths out more births – appear to be expanding and accelerating. Although some countries continue to see their populations grow, particularly in Africa, birth rates are falling nearly everywhere else. Demographers predict that by the second half of the century or possibly earlier, the global population will fall into a steady decline for the first time.

A planet with fewer people could ease pressure on resources, slow the devastating effects of climate change, and reduce the family burden on women. But this month’s census announcements from China and the United States, showing the slowest population growth rates in decades in both countries, also point to confusing adjustments.

The stress of longer lives and low fertility, which lead to fewer workers and more retirees, threaten to dominate the way society is organized – around the notion that an abundance of young people will fuel boost the economy and help pay for the elderly. It may also require a re-realization of family and nation. Imagine whole areas where people are 70 or older. Imagine governments laying out huge bonuses for immigrants and mothers of many children. Imagine a gig economy filled with grandparents and Super Bowl ads promoting fertility.

“A paradigm shift is needed,” said Frank Swiaczny, a German demographer and head of the UN population trends and analysis group. “Countries need to learn to live with and adapt to decline.”

The ramifications and reactions have already begun to emerge, particularly in East Asia and Europe. From Hungary to China, from Sweden to Japan, governments are struggling to balance the needs of a growing group of older people with the needs of young people, who make important decisions. Most fertility trends are being shaped by positive factors (more employment opportunities for women) and negative factors (persistent gender inequality and high cost of living).

The 20th century presents a very different challenge. The global population has seen the largest increase in known history, from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000, as life expectancy extends and mortality in infants decreased. In some countries – representing about a third of the world’s population – those growth engines are still kicking in. By the end of this century, Nigeria could surpass China in population; Across sub-Saharan Africa, families are still having four or five children.

Change can take decades, but once it kicks in, decline (like growth) spirals exponentially. With fewer births, fewer girls grow up with children, and if they have families smaller than their parents – which is happening in dozens of countries – the decline starts to look like a rock bounced off the cliff.

“It becomes a cyclical mechanism,” said Stuart Gietel Basten, an expert on Asian demography and a professor of social sciences and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “It’s demographic dynamics.”

Some countries, like the United States, Australia and Canada, where fertility rates range from 1.5 to 2, have softened the impact on immigration. But in Eastern Europe, migration out of the region has fallen sharply, and in much of Asia, the “demographic ticking time bomb” first became the subject of debate a few decades ago. broke out.

South Korea’s fertility rate fell to a record low of 0.92 in 2019 – less than one child per woman, the lowest rate in the developed world. Every month for the past 59 months, the total number of babies born across the country has dropped to a record level.

The declining birth rate, coupled with rapid industrialization, has pushed people from rural towns to large cities, creating what feels like a two-tiered society. While megacities like Seoul continue to grow, putting great pressure on infrastructure and housing, in towns in the region it is easy to find closed and abandoned schools, playgrounds for children and adults. they overgrown weeds because there aren’t enough children.

Expectant mothers in many areas can no longer find an obstetrician or postpartum care center. Below-elite universities, especially outside of Seoul, are finding it increasingly difficult to fill their ranks – the number of 18-year-olds in South Korea has dropped from about 900,000 in 1992 to 500,000 today. To attract students, some schools have offered scholarships and even iPhones.

To raise the birth rate, the government gave bonuses to babies. It increased subsidies for children and Medicaid for fertility and pregnancy treatments. Health officials bathed the infant with presents of beef, baby clothes and toys. The government is also building hundreds of kindergartens and day care centers. In Seoul, every bus and subway car has pink seats specifically for pregnant women.

But this month, Deputy Prime Minister Hong Nam-ki admitted that the government – which has spent more than $178 billion over the past 15 years encouraging women to have more children – has not made enough progress. In many families, the change is cultural and lasting.

“My grandparents had six children, and my parents five, because their generations believed in having multiple children,” said Kim Mi-kyung, 38, a stay-at-home parent. kyung, 38, a stay-at-home parent said. “I only have one child. For my generations and younger generations, all things considered, it’s just that having more children won’t come at a cost. “

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Thousands of miles away, in Italy, the mood is similar, the context is different.

In Capracotta, a small town in southern Italy, a sign in red lettering on an 18th-century stone building overlooking the Apennines says “School Nursery” – but today, The building is a nursing home.

People eat evening broth on wax-covered tablecloths in the old theater room.

“There are so many families, so many children,” said Concetta D’Andrea, 93, a former student and teacher at the school and now a resident of a nursing home. “There’s no one now.”

Capracotta’s population has aged and increased dramatically – from about 5,000 people down to 800. The town’s carpentry shops have closed. Organizers of a soccer tournament struggled to form even one team.

About half an hour away, in the town of Agnone, the maternity ward closed a decade ago because it had fewer than 500 births a year, the national minimum to stay afloat. This year, six children were born in Agnone.

“Once you can hear the babies in the nursery crying, and it’s like music,” said Enrica Sciullo, a nurse who used to help with births there and now mainly cares for elderly patients. . “Now there is silence and a feeling of emptiness.”

In a speech last Friday during a conference on the fertility crisis in Italy, Pope Francis said that the “demographic winter” remains “cold and dark”.

More people in more countries may soon be looking for their own metaphor. Birth projections often vary based on how governments and families react, but according to forecasts by an international team of scientists published last year in The Lancet, 183 countries and territories – out of 195 countries – will have fertility rates below replacement by 2100.

Their model shows a particularly sharp drop for China, whose population is expected to drop from 1.41 billion today to about 730 million by 2100. If that happens, The population pyramid will essentially flip. Instead of a young worker base supporting a narrower pool of retirees, China will have more 85-year-olds than 18-year-olds.

China’s rust belt, in the northeast, has seen its population decline 1.2% over the past decade, according to census data released Tuesday. In 2016, Heilongjiang province became the first province in the country to run out of pensions. In Hegang, a “ghost city” in the province that has lost nearly 10 percent of its population since 2010, houses are priced so low that people compare them to cabbage.

Many countries are beginning to accept the need to adapt, not just resist. South Korea is pushing for university mergers. In Japan, where adult diapers now outsell infant diapers, municipalities have consolidated as towns have aged and narrowed. In Sweden, some cities have shifted resources from schools to aged care. And almost everywhere, older people are asked to keep working. Germany, which previously raised the retirement age to 67, is now considering raising it to 69.

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Going further than many other countries, Germany has also embarked on a program of urban shrinkage: Demolition has removed some 330,000 apartments from the housing supply since 2002.

And if the goal is to revive, a few green shoots can be found. After expanding access to affordable childcare and paid parental leave, Germany’s birth rate recently rose to 1.54, up from 1.3 in 2018. 2006. Leipzig, which was once shrinking, is now rebounding after reducing housing supply and becoming more attractive on a smaller scale. ratio.

“Growth is a challenge, as is decline,” said Mr. Swiaczny, who is now a senior research fellow at the Federal Institute for Population Research in Germany.

Demographers warn against seeing population decline as just one cause for alarm. Many women have fewer children because that’s what they want. A smaller population can lead to higher wages, more equal societies, lower carbon emissions and a higher quality of life for fewer children born.

However, Professor Gietel Basten quotes Casanova: “There is no such thing as destiny. It is we who shape our lives.”

The challenges ahead remain daunting – no country with a severely slowing population growth has been able to increase its birth rate more than the small increase achieved by Germany. There is little sign of wage growth in shrinking countries, and there is no guarantee that a smaller population means less stress on the environment.

Many demographers have argued that the present moment could be likened by future historians to a period of transition or pregnancy, when humans have or have not yet figured out how to make the world hospitable. more – enough for everyone to build the family they want.

Surveys in many countries show that young people desperately want more children, but face too many obstacles.

Anna Parolini tells an ordinary story. She left her small hometown in northern Italy in search of better job opportunities. This year 37 years old, she lives with her boyfriend in Milan and put aside her desire to have children.

She fears her salary of less than 2,000 euros a month will not be enough for a family and her parents still live where she grew up.

“I don’t have anyone here who can help me,” she said. “Thinking about having a baby now makes me gasp.”

Elsie Chen, Christopher Schuetze and Benjamin Novak contributed reporting.

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