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'Populate or perish'?

By Peter Curson - posted Thursday, 24 July 2008

Cardinal Pell has recently drawn our attention to what he perceives as a crisis in the Western World. Falling fertility, increasing divorce rates and serial monogamy threaten the social, economic and religious viability of societies like Australia.

It is often said that prelates conjure up problems of society and population which are then left to others to solve. In our case such demographic predictions are not destiny and Australia will undoubtedly be able to adapt to current demographic trends.

It is interesting to reflect on how discussions of population growth have run full circle over the last 50 or so years. Concern about unrelenting population growth was one of the great preoccupations of the second half of last century. This has now given way to concern about ageing and population decline. Yet both issues run parallel. The population of many developing countries, particularly the poorest, continue to grow fast with high fertility, while that of the richest countries face ageing and population decline.


These two differing scenarios will transform the international political and economic scene, with the balance of power shifting away from the developed world. Already 18 countries are experiencing population decline and within 20 years they will be joined by at least another 14. Most are in Europe with the notable addition of Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan.

International migration will also play a part and ethnic tensions may well emerge in the developed world enflamed by the rapid growth of immigrant communities.

In the years to come the world will be swept up in a demographic transition never before experienced. Moreover, it is presumed that all countries in the world will eventually come to share the demographic characteristics of countries like Australia - urban living, fewer children, longer lives, more single person households.

Interestingly, in the developed world we still lack a convincing explanation of why some people in rich countries choose to have larger families than others and very little knowledge of why some people choose to have any children at all. What is clear, however, is that we have assumed control of our own biological destiny in having fewer children.

Whether “ruthless commercial forces” are responsible for this “birth crisis” as Cardinal Pell claims is debatable. Fertility in developed countries has generally declined since the 1970s to below replacement levels. Today most developed countries have reached levels below 2.1 children per woman and a number have reached historically unprecedented low fertility levels.

Few realise that population remains at best a most imprecise science. At times our population projections and fears have proved deplorably wrong, such as in the 1930s, when like now, there was great concern about falling fertility and ultimate population decline. Few foresaw the baby-boom that followed World War II and the echo boom some 20 years later. Or indeed the demographic hysteria of the 1960s-90s when overwhelming population growth was claimed to be eroding world resources, threatening ecological doom, epidemics and widespread population decline. None of this happened.


Much of the population change in the world stems from the process known as the “demographic transition” whereby countries progress from high birth and death rates through a transitional phase to low birth and death rates.

Australia like all developed countries is emerging from the final stage of this process into relatively uncharted demographic territory. What our population future holds remains something of an unknown. In the developing world there remains pressure for populations to reduce their fertility. Most of this pressure stems from lingering Neo-Malthusian concerns about population and resources tinged with security concerns about emerging youth bulges and civil unrest.

Over the next 50 years the world’s population will increase by roughly another three billion people, ceasing to grow once it has reached about 9 billion. All this increase will take place in developing countries, particularly in the most poorest, and most of the increase will take place in urban centres.

Despite the fact that fertility decline continues throughout parts of Asia and that parts of the Middle East are showing signs of a decline, the populations of 50 developing countries are likely to double by the middle of this century with several of the poorest tripling their population. In much of Sub-Saharan Africa traditionally high fertility and large families will persist and in addition, there is recent evidence that fertility decline has stalled in countries like Egypt, Bangladesh and Malaysia. Despite this, the world is getting older as birth rates continue to decline.

To some our own society is “burdened” by low fertility and increasing age dependency, which ultimately place pressure upon things like workforce participation and pension systems. By contrast in developing countries discussion is more about large numbers of young people and their impact upon social and economic security.

Population ageing is one trend in Australia that we can predict with some degree of accuracy. Within 25 years roughly one quarter of all Australians will be aged over 65 and over this period the fastest growing sector of the population will be those aged over 80 - the “oldest old”. Added to this Australia’s birth rate now stands at the lowest it has ever been.

Do we need to worry about such things? Well it is likely that the decade of the 2020s will emerge as a turning point of maximum political, social and economic change as the impacts of extremely low fertility and population ageing in developed countries begin to bite and many developing countries experience a boom of young adults reflecting earlier decades of high fertility.

As far as our own society is concerned one is tempted to say that States and churches should not be in the business of pushing people to have more children. If women in their 20s and 30s elect for only one child or decline to engage in child-bearing and direct their energies towards a job and career or remaining unmarried, then that is up to them.

Perhaps the best way to handle declining fertility and a shrinking population would be to encourage and support women who wish to balance a career with childbirth, improve the economic prospects of young families, support people to work longer, and develop an immigration policy that is sympathetic to social and economic needs.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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