Science

No 21st Century Big Chill

Debunking fears of the "Demographic Winter."

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Humanity will soon experience a "demographic winter." So claims a new documentary that premiered at the conservative Heritage Foundation last month. The demographic winter is supposed to result from dramatically falling global fertility rates. If current fertility trends continue, world population will top out around 2050 at 8 billion and began to decline back to 6 billion by 2100.

The documentary asserts that falling fertility rates threaten to have "catastrophic social and economic consequences." Among the dire consequences are contracting economies and social welfare systems overburdened by pensioners. The documentarians argue that vital youngsters keep economic growth humming and enable them to support ailing oldsters. The film's analysis relies implicitly on life cycle consumption economics, which suggests that young workers need to buy (and produce) all of the things of the good life.

Thus the demand for housing, cars, furniture, clothing, education, just about everything burgeons as young workers demand more goods and services. Consumption over a person's life cycle typically peaks at around age 50—by then people have their houses, cars, and so forth. Demographic Winter claims that if the merry-go-round of generational consumption stops, so too will economic growth. Jobs will disappear, fewer taxes will be collected, and improvident and childless old folks will be left to fend for themselves amidst the economic rubble.

Is the assertion that a rising population produces a robust economy correct? There are reasons to doubt it. Economic demographers note that in the 20th century, economic growth has been strongest in those countries that have undergone the "demographic transition" from high to low rates of mortality and fertility. Brown University economist Oded Galor finds that when a country undergoes the demographic transition, its economic growth generally accelerates. Having fewer children means that people have more resources to invest in themselves and their children which improves human capital. Evidence suggests that countries with high population growth rates experienced relatively lower economic growth rates in the 20th century. So there doesn't appear to be any iron law that says that sheer population growth is necessary to fuel economic growth.

The proponents of demographic winter agree that reducing the number of children dependent upon each worker does boost economic growth, but only temporarily. Eventually, the number of elderly dependent upon each worker begins to rise. Then econosclerosis will set in as resources are diverted from productive activities to support the consumption of the elderly. But it is not at all likely that older people in the future will dutifully follow the life-cycle consumption patterns of the past.

As we've seen, people do not get rich simply because they live in countries that have more workers. People get rich because they live in countries in which workers become increasingly more productive. Higher productivity means that workers produce more output per hour.. Ever increasing productivity results from a positive feedback loop of human capital (education and effective social institutions) combined with constantly improving physical capital. Rising productivity is what supplies the modern world with the plethora of goods and services that people in developed countries enjoy.

The same positive feedback loop is improving medical technologies that are already lengthening healthy lifespans. In 1935, the average 65 year-old could expect another 9 years of active life without suffering a major disability. By 2015 it will be 17 years. This trend will enable increasing numbers of older people to remain longer in the workforce producing more than they consume. Already the percentage of Americans between ages 65 and 74 who are still working rose from 20 percent in 2000 to 23 percent today.

Besides being physically healthier, advances such as memory pills and personal robots will help older people to maintain and enhance their mental acuity. Even more tantalizing is the possibility that some time in this century anti-aging research could achieve actuarial escape velocity that would allow people to have indefinitely long healthy and productive lives. This means that instead of peaking, people's life cycle consumption (and production) will stretch into an open-ended future driving economic growth forward.

Finally, will societies filled with older people become more set in their ways, and less open to new ideas and innovation? No. In fact, a recent study found that people become more tolerant and politically liberal as they age. If the world somehow drifts into a demographic winter of catastrophic proportions, it won't be because of a lack of children, it will be because of a lack of imagination.

Ronald Bailey
is
reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.

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  1. Alright which Reason editor is referring to Magic the Gathering?

    Come on, admit it!!!

    For shame…

  2. But it is not at all likely that older people in the future will dutifully follow the life-cycle consumption patterns of the past.

    Vote Soylent Green.

  3. First unattributed post I’ve seen on Hit and Run and first referencing Magic: The Gathering. Coincidence?

  4. I find it encouraging that all the bad stuff is predicted for well after I expect to be dead.
    Party on, dudes.

  5. Funny.

    I’d always looked at the Demographic trend as a good thing.

    I did a rough calculation several years back and got a year 3000 world population around 10 Million.

    No more crowded beaches. Let the robots do the work!

  6. No name on the post with the Magic reference?

    Come on, whoever you are. Take credit for your words. Be a manna.

  7. Ron,

    Sounds like the ‘documentators’ took one of the final scenes of Dr. Strangelove too seriously and expanded on the thought of having to repopulate the earth before a depopulation event occurs.

    I swear, if you look at their work in this light it will reveal this ‘documentry’ to be on the same par with Seven Days in May by Rod Serling, The Population Bomb, An Inconvenient Truth and Futureshock.

  8. “Higher productivity means that workers produce more output per hour. Ever increasing productivity results from a positive feedback loop of human capital (education and effective social institutions) combined with constantly improving physical capital. Rising productivity is what supplies the modern world with the plethora of goods and services that people in developed countries enjoy.”

    Not sure that this will necessarily follow if the world population decreases. What good does better widget productivity get you if there are fewer people out there to buy your widgets?

    “Already the percentage of Americans between ages 65 and 74 who are still working rose from 20 percent in 2000 to 23 percent today.”

    But is the reason for this the desire to keep working to ‘feel productive’, or the necessity to keep working due to higher medical costs? I think a number of older workers who might have wanted to retire at 65, stay working because medical costs are a larger portion of their budgets.

  9. When I stop seeing crying, whining, shitting kids absolutely everywhere I go, I will give this “problem” a sliver of my attention.

    My favorite child-in-restaurant story:

    My wife and I were eating in a booth at a mid-level chain restaurant. The two women behind her were getting hammered at lunch and the 4 or 5 year-olds they had brought with them were restless. One of them pops over the back of the booth behind my wife with a fucking steak knife and tries to stab her in the neck. I get her to duck and the mother finally pulls the kid off and disarms him. The mothers and the restaurant management actually laughed it off. We hadn’t got our food yet, so we just left. If it hadn’t been two women, I’d probably popped one of them in the mouth.

    Demographic winter? Bring it on. I got a coat.

  10. Not sure that this will necessarily follow if the world population decreases. What good does better widget productivity get you if there are fewer people out there to buy your widgets?

    Part of the point of libertarianism is that free markets are self-regulating and adaptable.

  11. We’ve had discussions about the urbane left and its neurotic fear of parenthood, but what’s with the right and its obsession with population growth? Historically, the big fascist regimes were all nuts about babymaking – Hitler with his incentive packages for motherhood, Causescu with his Menstrual Police, Putin with his nashist fertility festivals – and here in America, even our own mild conservatives won’t shut up about it. Sometimes the Heritage Foundation reminds me of the parent who is continually nattering on about getting out there and doing your duty so he can have grandkids. Surely there must be a more psychologically satisfying explanation than “they want bodies for the war machine,” to which my leftist friends reflexively attribute this tendency. Religion also doesn’t satisfy me as an explanation. What’s the big deal?

  12. MAKE MORE WHITE BABIES

  13. hale,

    I think they believe that people will settle down and be good Republicans after they have kids. And the tendency for some parents to reflexively support any oppressive policy that can be considered to protect children. They have a good basis for these beliefs.

  14. I personally don’t like kids (and they’ve never liked me, even when I was one) and don’t want any. This bothers my father, who would like grandchildren, but then he should have sold the whole fatherhood thing better, instead of telling my sister and I such things as “It’s a terrible thing to bring a child into this world” and “I would lie awake at night listening to you coughing and it would tear me up inside”. So, what you’re telling me is I should find some woman that I can stand being around for longer than 10 minutes, who feels the same about me, and together we should cause her to go through months of discomfort and pain to pop out a screaming, shitting bundle of joy, because it will warm our hearts to see it learning and how happy it will be to greet us when we return to it, domesticate it so it can deal with its shitting itself and not hit other people, guide it through school and life, including years when it can’t stand the sight of me and finds my every thought and preference horrible, then pay massive sums for it to get a higher education and maybe, maybe at some point repeat the process with a spouse of its own?

    I’m sorry, I don’t see the point of being a parent willingly. If you had a mistake and you sucked it up and raised the kid, good for you. To me, it’s like walking into a police station and telling them you want to spend the rest of your life in jail but you’ll accept being paroled in eighteen years.

    @SugarFree

    I agree with your assessment about parents being good Republicans, although I would expand it to “nanny-state in general”. After all, who will keep your precious safe when you aren’t there, if not the state?

  15. Not sure that this will necessarily follow if the world population decreases. What good does better widget productivity get you if there are fewer people out there to buy your widgets?

    If one makes a sufficiently desireable widget that appeals to a sufficient portion of ANY existing population then one has nothing to worry about.

    Weren’t there plenty of manufacturers being outstripped of their production capacity when the world population was half what it is now? Of course, there were inefficient producers and there always will be. Seems there would be less room for the bad with a lower population, but there will always be room for the good.

    Also, when the Third World is allowed to shake their chains of Socialism there will be abundant markets for the old junk the rest of us grew tired of, but is all fresh and new to someone else.

  16. NeonCat, you should seriously write a book. That was the best thing I have ever read.

  17. Okay people! You have had more than enough time to link this to illegal undocumented immigration! Step up, I know you can do it!

  18. Fer crissakes, the only peoples who seem to have high birth rates are arabs, bangledeshis and hasidim. We built up western civilzation to hand it over to their horny but incompetant hands?

    Sheesh, I should’ve said “Fuck it” and gone with Elliot to that hot whore. At least SHE was a true blue American!

  19. Neoncat,

    I think we can all back you with the whole non-reproduction thing. Your dad’s loss, everyone else’s gain!

  20. OK, which one of you is going to come out from your Circle of Protection and admit to this post?

  21. But you can’t train a cat to go to the fridge and get you a beer while the football game is on.

  22. But you can’t train a cat to go to the fridge and get you a beer while the football game is on.

    We’ll have robots for that.

  23. “Even more tantalizing is the possibility that some time in this century anti-aging research could achieve actuarial escape velocity that would allow people to have indefinitely long healthy and productive lives.”

    “Actuarial Escape Velocity” would be a wicked cool name for a band.

  24. It’d be shortened to “Escape Velocity” in days and within weeks, Weigel would’ve bought all the copies of your EP and posted your video on Politics n’ Prog.

  25. no no no

    actuarial escape is a much better name.

  26. OK, which one of you is going to come out from your Circle of Protection and admit to this post?

    No one will. They’re going to leave the issue in a Fog, lest a Lightning Bolt strike the guilty party.

  27. What about Actuarial Velocity?

  28. months of discomfort and pain to pop out a screaming, shitting bundle of joy

    Don’t forget, NeonCat, that the mother will also be screaming and shitting. Fun all around!

  29. I suspect you people of trying to undermine Ron Paul.

  30. I’m sorry, I don’t see the point of being a parent willingly. If you had a mistake and you sucked it up and raised the kid, good for you. To me, it’s like walking into a police station and telling them you want to spend the rest of your life in jail but you’ll accept being paroled in eighteen years.

    Enjoy your long, lonely, bitter life 😉

  31. “But you can’t train a cat to go to the fridge and get you a beer while the football game is on.”

    “We’ll have robots for that.”

    Fools. Who gets up to geet beers anymore? Those little dorm-sized refrigerators make great end tables.

  32. Geet, get … whatever.

  33. “But you can’t train a cat to go to the fridge and get you a beer while the football game is on.”

    “We’ll have robots for that.”

    Then what is going to drive my flying car?

  34. Why do so many people get so wrapped up in speculative discussions about stuff that won’t occur until the distant future? (Like, say … Global Warming?) It’s always a case of too many variables occurring over too long a period of time for our puny selves to have any impact on. And even if we could (have an impact) we have no idea if our impact will improve or worsen things. Anyway, the people who live in the supposedly horrendous future will deal with whatever the conditions are then. Just like we’ve been doing for milennia. I’m going home to have a beer and think about getting my vasectomy reversed so I can populate the world with even more offspring.

  35. NeonCat,

    So, what you’re telling me is I should find some woman that I can stand being around for longer than 10 minutes, who feels the same about me, and together we should cause her to go through months of discomfort and pain to pop out a screaming, shitting bundle of joy, because it will warm our hearts to see it learning and how happy it will be to greet us when we return to it, domesticate it so it can deal with its shitting itself and not hit other people, guide it through school and life, including years when it can’t stand the sight of me and finds my every thought and preference horrible, then pay massive sums for it to get a higher education and maybe, maybe at some point repeat the process with a spouse of its own?

    Yes. And it will be the greatest experience of your life, and you will wonder how you could have ever thought you were living a meaningful existence before that.

    Really. No shit. That’s how it works.

  36. Okay, some of the things I hear people blowing off as doomsday scenarios or far-future stuff are already happening; ecological fallout from bad land management, for example. We’re in the middle of a mass extinction event of our own instigation, and if that sounds melodramatic then just bear in mind how bizarre it is for anything to change on Earth over such a brief timeframe as the 12,000 years it’s been since we started seriously into this agriculture+population business. I’m not saying we need to return to Eden or whatever hippy horseshit – I believe in better technology and more efficient deployment of infrastructure – only remarking that the easiest time to fell a tree is before it’s a tree. That and screwing up something intricate and not-fully-understood that you live inside is pretty dumb, particularly if whim is the best answer you’ve got for why. This isn’t an appeal to the government to solve environmental problems for us; it’s an open appeal to individuals to do it themselves.

    How does this relate to population? Well, directly. Now, it’s true that not all population growth is equal. In some places, a new person comes into the world and the impact is effectively mitigated. But in others, it’s just cheaper to do everything needed to support human life in pointlessly destructive ways, so that’s how it’s done (I don’t think I need to name names; America’s a glutton, but many other countries are messier eaters). The point is: actions have consequences. Pretending otherwise is abdicating responsibility, and that’s nothing but a moral failure.

  37. Ronald Bailey,

    Your analysis is correct assuming that the political trends of the last 200 years remain. If they do not, then we could face a demographic winter.

    Increasing productivity allows fewer and fewer workers to support more and more non-workers. That includes not only retirees and the disabled but also children and students. Before the industrial era. childhood ended somewhere around 14. Today it ends somewhere around 24 (longer if your a grad student). That shift is wholly the result of increased productivity and higher per capita energy use.

    That increased productivity, however, is based on increased energy use and a world view that viewed business and technological progress as near unalloyed positives. We are rapidly beginning to lose that pro-technology culture and the future may not have sufficient technology for a small population of young people to support an older population.

    Most advocates of Global Warming and “Sustained” development an economy that uses far less energy and as a result is far less productive. It’s easy to see that if we had followed such policies back in the 50’s and retarded our development, social security and other generational transfers would have long collapsed because the increase in productivity would not have offset the demographic shifts.

  38. PB sez We built up western civilzation to hand it over to their horny but incompetant hands?

    You need but to rent “Idiocracy” to see the doom that awaits.

    And most likely from YOUR offspring.

  39. Shannon Love said:
    “Most advocates of Global Warming and “Sustained” development an economy that uses far less energy and as a result is far less productive.”

    finally, discussion on what Ron Bailey threads are really about.

    And to wit I disagree. There may be ‘some’ such advocates wanting less productivity and/or less energy use; but imo, ‘most’ don’t want to reduce wealth or productivity or energy use. They want to reduce the fossil-CO2 fraction of wealth to near zero. Energy use and productivity can increase while also reducing fossil-CO2 intensity of wealth.

  40. LOL, I did not think that my 3rd or 4th comment on reason.com ever (after years of lurking) would be an agreement with joe.

    However, judging from the experience of my friends (me = single still), not a few of them changed their view on parenthood totally (to a positive one) after experiencing it themselves.

    As for kids being whiny and loud, maybe this is in part caused by the too-permissive childrearing that prevails in the US and most of the other Western countries.

    Kids in other cultures do usually have more respect to adults: just like they did in the West until the 60s.

    I hope that the market will self-regulate itself in this too.

  41. Sam-Hec,

    but imo, ‘most’ don’t want to reduce wealth or productivity or energy use. They want to reduce the fossil-CO2 fraction of wealth to near zero. Energy use and productivity can increase while also reducing fossil-CO2 intensity of wealth.

    Assuming fossil fuels really are causing catastrophic problems (and I do not agree that they are), precisely what are you going to replace them with?

    If it was that easy, it would have been done by now.

  42. Sam-Hec,

    There may be ‘some’ such advocates wanting less productivity and/or less energy use; but imo, ‘most’ don’t want to reduce wealth or productivity or energy use.

    I think you should spend more time researching the intellectual underpinnings of the global warming movement. There is a definite and pronounced repetition of the idea that we produce and consume to much stuff and use to much energy overall. Look at all the dedicated people riding bicycles, walking, using homemade or repurposed goods and otherwise trying not make use of the abundance of modern “consumer” society.

    These people are not just trying to decrease CO2 emmissions. For one thing, this lifestyle and the ideology behind it began long before global warming became an issue. Clearly, these people want us to turn away from an energy intensive, highly productive society and towards an energy poor, low productivity society. Worse, though the idea of “sustainable development” they want to trap the planets poor there as well.

    Real environmentalist worried about global warming advocate replacing fossil fuel electrical plants with nukes. People using global warming to advance other agendas attack energy consumption itself. If they succeed then we could well find ourselves in a demographic trap wherein future generations of workers do not have access to the energy they need to take care of non-workers.

  43. Scroogy wrote:
    “Assuming fossil fuels really are causing catastrophic problems (and I do not agree that they are), precisely what are you going to replace them with?

    If it was that easy, it would have been done by now.
    Not sure yet about mobile fuels like gasoline/diesel, but biodiesel looks the best.

    Non-mobile energy has many more options already well discussed.

    In terms of ‘ease’, it would be much much easier if the subsidies and market protections enjoyed by the fossil fuel industries were simply removed.

  44. Shannon Love,
    I think you should spend more time researching the intellectual underpinnings of the global warming movement. There is a definite and pronounced repetition of the idea that we produce and consume to much stuff and use to much energy overall.

    Are you referring to the ‘Warmingist’ movement or the Environmentalist movement? They are not quite the same demographic.

    These people are not just trying to decrease CO2 emmissions. For one thing, this lifestyle and the ideology behind it began long before global warming became an issue. Clearly, these people want us to turn away from an energy intensive, highly productive society and towards an energy poor, low productivity society. Worse, though the idea of “sustainable development” they want to trap the planets poor there as well.

    I see them as avoiding make-work-wealth. The inneficient consumption of wealth to prop up appearances of wealth. Which leads only to being debt poor. Also I see no evidence that warmists or enviros want to keep poor people poor; every day I see new enriching technologies being developed expressly for poor countries which can’t afford western definition of wealth…and not ‘Let them eat cake’ technologies.

    Real environmentalist worried about global warming advocate replacing fossil fuel electrical plants with nukes. People using global warming to advance other agendas attack energy consumption itself. If they succeed then we could well find ourselves in a demographic trap wherein future generations of workers do not have access to the energy they need to take care of non-workers.

    I agree that there are negative factions in the ‘warmist’ movement who mean ill for humanity. This is why I am here trying to develope and promote positive Libertarian responses. Not easy.

  45. Carbon dioxide comes out of the devil virus(homo sapiens)….it is a scurge of the earth. All you homosapiens should care about the environemnt and place carbon taxes on ALL outputs of the poison gas.

    Only phony environmentalist try to redirect energy towards mercury and Sulfur dioxide from power plants. Now all you good little peasants go drink your fluorinated water. Make your donations to sterilize africa and make sure to donate to planned parenthood to give all those needy black women their abortions… particularly the black women.

    It is a good thing that sperm counts are dropping….it will be so good for mother gaia to be healthy again.

  46. “What good does better widget productivity get you if there are fewer people out there to buy your widgets?”

    That means more widgets for everyone. And that can’t be bad. Everyone needs widgets.

    Lots and lots of widgets.

  47. “Never in history have we had economic prosperity accompanied by depopulation.”

    Well, never in history have we had economic prosperity. World per-capita GDP was essentially stagnant from 10,000 BC to 1800. It’s only in the last 200 years that the world economy has grown. And even from 1800 to 1900, it per-capita GDP wasn’t growing very fast when compared to the last half of the 20th century.

    So there aren’t a lot of data points to use. Let alone trying to figure whether correlation has anything at all to do with causation.

  48. Single and childless workers are the less productive than those who are parents with mouths to feed. There is nothing like family responsibilities to make you work harder. Besides, a world without kids is pretty dull. When you are old, there will only be robots to talk to. Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, once wrote about a society of long-lived people who were served by many robots. They stopped innovating and were too selfish to have children and eventually died out.

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