February 12, 2009


"Afflicted" with fertility? (George Weigel, February 4, 2009, THE CATHOLIC DIFFERENCE)

According to Neil Howe and Richard Jackson, two researchers at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, the primary destabilizer of world affairs in the mid-decades of the 21st century will be demographics – meaning, primarily, too few people throughout too much of the developed and developing world. Some numbers-crunching helps make the case:

--In the 1980s, the median age was 34 in western Europe and 35 in Japan. Absent an unanticipated and dramatic change in birth rates, the median age in western Europe in 2020 will be 47, and in Japan, 52.

--In the 2020s, half the adult populations of Italy, Spain, and Japan will be above the official retirement age.

--By 2030, thanks to several generations of cratering birth rates and the resulting demand for immigrant labor to fill low-wage jobs, the number of Muslims will double in France and triple in Germany. Amsterdam, Birmingham, Cologne, and Marseilles will likely be majority-Muslim cities, twenty years from now.

--China, the fair-haired boy of establishment international affairs analysts, is heading for serious trouble, thanks to its draconian one-child policy and communism's destruction of traditional Chinese culture. By 2030, China will be an older country than the U.S.. As Howe and Jackson write, "Imagine [Chinese] workforce growth slowing to zero while tens of millions of elders sink into indigence without pensions, without health care, and without children to support them. China could careen toward social collapse – or, in reaction, toward an authoritarian clampdown."

--Vladimir Putin's plans for a new Russian imperium may run aground, because Russia will almost certainly be in demographic free fall by 2050, if not sooner. With what demographers call "lowest-low"birth-rates, and confronting colossal public health problems related to alcohol abuse and environmental degradation, Russia is a mess. Today, the average Russian man's life expectancy is 59, which is sixteen years less than his American counterpart (and somewhat less than the life-expectancy of those in his grandfather's generation who survived Stalin and Hitler). Forty years out, Russia will have fallen in the world population tables from fourth place (in 1950) to twentieth place.

--And while all this is going on, western Europe will be in continuing social, economic, and political crisis, thanks to too few tax-paying workers trying to support the womb-to-tomb Euro-welfare state – which has already displaced private-sector health care and pension options while suppressing the habits necessary to sustain them.

Ever since the 1968 publication of Paul Ehrlich's intellectually fraudulent bestseller, The Population Bomb, enlightened opinion has held that "overpopulation" is the problem. It isn't, and it never was. Now, thanks in part to the triumph of a contraceptive mentality in societies that have lost any religious sense of obligation toward the future, the grim truth is revealing itself: the problem is too few people. Of course, there was always something instinctively counterintuitive about the anti-natalist cast of mind, which thinks of a newborn calf as a "resource" or an "asset" and a newborn child as a "burden" or "problem." Now that implausibility turns out to have, not only the gravest moral consequences, but the most severe economic, social, and political results.

The World Won't Be Aging Gracefully. Just the Opposite. (Neil Howe and Richard Jackson, January 4, 2009, Washington Post)

Yes, demographics, that relentless maker and breaker of civilizations. From the fall of the Roman and the Mayan empires to the Black Death to the colonization of the New World and the youth-driven revolutions of the 20th century, demographic trends have played a decisive role in precipitating many of the great invasions, political upheavals, migrations and environmental catastrophes of history. By the 2020s, an ominous new conjuncture of these trends will once again threaten massive disruption. We're talking about global aging, which is likely to have a profound effect on economic growth, living standards and the shape of the world order.

For the world's wealthy nations, the 2020s are set to be a decade of hyperaging and population decline. Many countries will experience fiscal crisis, economic stagnation and ugly political battles over entitlements and immigration. Meanwhile, poor countries will be buffeted by their own demographic storms. Some will be overwhelmed by massive age waves that they can't afford, while others will be whipsawed by new explosions of youth whose aspirations they cannot satisfy. The risk of social and political upheaval and military aggression will grow throughout the developing world -- even as the developed world's capacity to deal with these threats weakens.

The rich countries have been aging for decades, due to falling birthrates and rising life spans. But in the 2020s, this aging will get an extra kick as large postwar baby boom generations move into retirement. According to the United Nations Population Division (whose projections are cited throughout this article), the median ages of Western Europe and Japan, which were 34 and 33 respectively as recently as 1980, will soar to 47 and 52, assuming no miraculous change in fertility. In Italy, Spain and Japan, more than half of all adults will be older than the official retirement age -- and there will be more people in their 70s than in their 20s.

Graying means paying -- more for pensions, more for health care, more for nursing homes for the frail elderly. Yet the old-age benefit systems of most developed countries are already pushing the limits of fiscal and economic affordability. By the 2020s, political warfare over brutal benefit cuts seems unavoidable. On one side will be young adults who face declining after-tax earnings, including many who often have no choice but to live with their parents (and are known, pejoratively, as twixters in the United States, kippers in Britain, mammoni in Italy, nesthocker in Germany and freeters in Japan). On the other side will be retirees, who are often wholly dependent on pay-as-you-go public plans. In 2030, young people will have the future on their side. Elders will have the votes on theirs. Bold new investments in education, the environment or foreign assistance will be highly unlikely.

Aging is, well, old. But depopulation -- the delayed result of falling birthrates -- is new.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 12, 2009 11:24 AM
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