Having grown up with the orthodox belief that overpopulation will be the death of us, I now find myself among catastrophists who see low birth rates as the death of us. You can’t win in the catastrophe business!
In the Far East, Japan, having encouraged everyone to work til they drop and blocked immigration, is now sleepwalking into an ageing population, falling birth rate, high state spend future and low productivity collapse. China faces an even bigger problem, living with the consequences of an enforced Maoist prohibition on having children, also an imbalance between men and women - last time I checked boys don’t give birth. They have urbanised quickly killing the birth rate even further.
In Europe, from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, down through Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, Greece and Italy the falling population problem has been compounded by an exodus to the richer Western Europe. Economic migrants take the possibility of economic growth with them and leave behind an ageing population, in. a low tax base economy, that need care. Migration is not win-win, it is win-lose. Your young people, who you pay to get educated and trained, flee to richer countries leaving you less able to generate wealth or look after your rapidly ageing population. Eastern and Southern Europe is increasingly becoming a depopulated region, with mass migration out, requiring huge sums to be sent back in by the few EU donor nations who are themselves feeling the crunch. The donor nations in the North and West, about one third, are subsidising the other two thirds in the East and South.
Peter Zaihan’s book ‘The End of the World is Just the Beginning’ goes into real detail on the consequences of this depopulation crisis. One of the interesting features of falling fertility is that people are either not having children at all, having fewer children or fewer children later. Combine this with people living much longer and the median age starts to push up and up, so the pyramid starts to invert.
One of the drivers behind the falling number of children appears to be education. Isn’t is odd that something that is seen as a social good may end up atrophying the total number of people in the social pool. Extending the amount of time young people spend in education - now up to 18, then in Higher Education to 22/23, now a Masters Degree to 23/24 - has been sold as necessary (neat marketing trick). We now have a huge number of people being non-productive during some of their most productive years. They rarely have children during their studies, or afterwards, as they are only starting to build a career in their mid-twenties. As Daniel Dennett says, education turned out to be the most anti-evolutionary cultural trait in our species. He finds it almost impossible to get this empirical fact over to his students - that this may not, in the end, be great for humanity as a whole.
Others such as Goodhart in his book Head, Heart and Hand: Why intelligence is over-rewarded, manual workers matter, and caregivers deserve more respect (2021), plea for the rebalancing of society, economics and rewards away from the Head (cognitive work) towards the Hand (making and manual work) and Heart (health and care work). We have reached what he calls 'Peak Head', the focus on funnelling everyone towards University degrees on a single route towards a single, cognitive elite.
In The tyranny of merit: What’s become of the common good? (2020) Sandel diagnoses a relatively recent shift from the common good to a competitive meritocracy in Higher Education. The financialisation of economies, and changes of attitudes towards success have led to a divide between winners and losers. Finance has moved away from the greater good and rewards for all, towards enormous rewards for the few who work in finance, based on speculative finance, not the creation of valuable goods and services.
This has eaten away at the dignity of ordinary work. Rewards have become hopelessly imbalanced, buoyed up by meritocratic hubris and the success ethic. If chances are assumed to be equal or could be made equal, then those that flourish can attribute their success to personal agency, it is all down to their effort. This is what animates the meritocratic ideal. But social divides have deepened, aided by Higher Education, which induces a feeling that the winners, the graduate class, deserve their success and that the rest fail because it is their fault, which has led to one group looking down on the other. A side effect of this is a lack of respect for vocational skills and work.
The collapse of society, in my view, is far more likely to be a social collapse, or some totalitarian takeover a la Trump, Jinping or Putin, than climate change. That social collapse may come within decades due to not having enough people in rich societies to actually keep them functioning, fiscally or socially. The population pyramid is about to invert with more older than younger people, leaving less people to pay for the old, buy goods in the economy and the geopolitical consequences are frightening.