By Lawrence Ho
A lot of our public discourse this week has been about climate change: the irreversible effects, as well as our continuing impact of humanity on the world. Thanks to Greta Thunberg’s straightforwardness and David Attenborough’s relentless reporting, it has finally entered the public awareness and become one of the key issues of the world. Certainly, in the UK, there is much consensus on what needs to be done by the left and the right – the only point of bipartisanship in an increasingly divisive political atmosphere. However, there is an element of preventing climate change that worries me: the raising and giving birth of children.
It seems to be a running theme of this generation: people are deciding to not have any children based on their belief that this will limit humanity’s impact on the world. With more people, more resources are needed – resulting in the production of more CO2, pollutants and plastic in the ocean – which is far more than the world can handle. The world is already at a breaking point with our current population. Why would introducing more children be a good thing?
These reasons, while noble, are problematic as many countries already suffer the consequences of low population growth in numerous ways. One such consequence is population collapse, a point agreed upon by tech titans Jack Ma and Elon Musk. Many industrialised and developed countries, such as Japan, Taiwan, Germany, South Korea, and the US, have experienced lower than before birth rates with most countries being under 2 children. Given that the replacement rate is 2.1 (the rate needed to keep a population constant throughout the generations) and estimates show Japan will face population collapse by 2050, this issue is worrying as it impacts those that are most vulnerable in our society: the elderly.
The society is made up of high levels of dependency of both young and old on a shrinking working population. We are living longer than before and living better than ever before. Life expectancy has increased in every country and more of us are approaching the maximum limit of the human lifespan. Yet as we grow old, so do the mounting health problems. Even with all the technological advances of medicine, entering old age means a litany of issues. It is unrealistic for people to continue working; old people must be supported by the younger working population. Due to the demographics of the millennial generation having less children than their boomer counterparts, pension systems for the elderly are at a breaking point. For instance, the social security system in the US requires the working population to pay taxes, so that a portion goes to the elderly. Unfortunately, due to the demographic imbalance, with the boomer and subsequent generations approaching retirement, there will be a huge fiscal imbalance in which over the next 75 years, the obligations paid to the elderly will exceed taxes by about $10 trillion. The easiest way to address this imbalance would be to increase the retirement age or to decrease the obligations to the elderly. However, this would cause significant political furore and be deemed harsh against the elderly, therefore delaying or decreasing their just rewards.
Unless we introduce redistribution of people across the world by allowing mass immigration from countries like the Middle East, South America and Africa where birth rates are much higher, the issue of low birth rates will start to be increasingly problematic in the future. Redistribution could also be a benefitable solution, especially as these areas are getting hotter and hotter and less hospitable. But the point still stands: a society must be able to replace and renew the generations. It must be able to rejuvenate its workforce over and over again to ensure those vulnerable in society can be supported.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not represent the views of The St Andrews Economist.