Child-catching won’t solve our demographic challenge

Britain needs more babies, said Charles Moore, after reading Stephen D. King’s When The Money Runs Out.

By failing to reproduce themselves in adequate numbers, the baby boomers have laid enormous burdens on those few children whom they have produced. You can borrow and spend hugely if you know that the generation that will end up with the bill is much larger than your own. If it is much smaller, you can’t; but we have. As a result, Europe is a dying business. Most of the rest of the world is not. So it is winning.

For 50 years now, European culture has developed the idea that the problem is too many people. Without quite realising, it has developed attitudes that work against the future of the human race. In cultural terms, the celebration of contraception, homosexuality and euthanasia all represent this trend.

A clever linking of the economic war and the culture war there. If it weren’t for all these hippie individualists, feminists and gays, doing their own thing and refusing to have kids, we wouldn’t be in this mess. If they’d just knuckled down and done as their parents did in the 1950s, everything would be fine now.

This argument, or at least the mathematics of it, is mirrored, usually on the left, by the call for more immigration. Just let a lot more migrants in and we will increase the number of young people. More youngsters means a lower dependency ratio and a higher proportion of the population of working age. Sorted!

There are two flaws in this logic though.

Firstly, they are looking at the wrong end of the pyramid. The increasing dependency ratio has come about because people are living longer, not because birth rates have fallen. If most people died by the time they were 70, as they have done for most of human history, the dip in the birth rate would be no more than a matter of passing interest. But, thanks to, among other things, better diets, healthcare, education and old age pensions, a lot of people are living past 70 and on into their 80s and 90s. The demographic challenge has come about because the top of the pyramid has grown, not because the bottom has shrunk.

The last time Britain’s population structure resembled anything like a pyramid was 1971. It’s a convenient check-point, coming as it does at the end of the baby boom, the end of the 25-year postwar economic boom and before those pernicious hippies and feminists really got to work on our cultural assumptions.

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There wasn’t much talk about pensions funding or dependency ratios back then as it was assumed that there would still be enough youngsters to pay the bills and that few people would live past 75.

Jump forward to today though and there are a lot more people living into their 70s.

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Given the larger number of old people, if we had produced enough children to keep the population profile (and therefore the dependency ratio) where it was in 1971, we would have a population of 80 million by now.

And, of course, these people would now be working their way up through the population structure too, storing up even higher pensions liabilities for future generations.

Jump forward again 20 years to the end of the next decade. The ONS predicts there will around 13 million over 65s by then.

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Just to maintain the 2011 profile, we will need to increase the population to over 80 million. If we’d had more kids, kept our 1971 profile and already had a population of 80m, we’d be needing something like 115 million by 2030.

The problem is, if the top of the pyramid keeps growing, the bottom has to grow too if you want it to stay pyramid-shaped. Eventually, the bottom of the pyramid (or quite a lot of it) becomes the top, so you then have to grow the bottom by even more. The more young people you have now, the more old people you will have in the future and the more new young people you will need.

Unless we start killing old people off, then, we will eventually have to face the problem of an ageing population. If we raise the population, either by a battle for babies or by becoming the global child-catcher, we will simply create a new demographic imbalance for the next generation.

That’s a potted picture of Britain’s demographics but there is a global context to this, which brings me on to the second flaw in the ‘get more people’ argument.

Ageing populations are not just a problem for Europe and the advanced economies. It is something that is worrying governments from Malaysia to Mozambique. According to the UN, even youthful Africa is moving towards a population profile that will start to resemble that of today’s Europe by the middle of the century. The global population is ageing, The advanced economies are simply further along the road.

Population by age groups and sex – Africa (percentage of total population)

Africa

It is also likely that, just as the emerging economies developed and industrialised at a faster rate than the West did, their populations will age more quickly too. According to projections from the US government’s National Institute on Aging, the length of time taken for the number of over 65s to grow from 7 percent to 14 percent of the population will be much shorter in the emerging economies.

(There’s a typo on the first chart. It should read France (1865-1980))

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A process that took 115 years in France and 45 years in Britain will take 21 years in Brazil.  Not only is the human race ageing, the speed at which it is doing so is increasing.

According to the most recent UN projections, 40 years from now, all of the advanced economies and many of the emerging ones will have more than 25% of their populations aged over 60.

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Take a close look at these maps. Even Iran, Algeria and Indonesia are in the red zone by 2050.

So Charles Moore is wrong. It’s not only Europe that is dying. If you must put it in those terms, the rest of the world is dying too, or, at least, getting closer to death.

But the child-catching strategy clearly has a limited life too. Before long, we will be trying to lure young migrants from countries which are facing their own demographic problems.

Both the increased fertility and the high immigration approaches to our demographic challenges have a whiff of middle-aged desperation about them. As with old men who take younger lovers or potions to hold back the tide of age, they are doomed attempts to capture a lost youthfulness.

It is very unlikely that I will ever again have a 28″ waist and be able to party without sleep for several days in a row. It is also very unlikely, barring some catastrophic population collapse, that Britain will have the demographic profile it had in 1971. Rather than attempting to reverse the ageing process, a more realistic approach would be to accept that it is happening and work out ways to deal with it.

If people live longer then older people will inevitably form a larger proportion of the population. Trying to stop that happening with injections of young blood is only ever going to be a short-term strategy and could well store up problems for the future. Face it, the world’s population is ageing. That is as true in Bahrain, Barbados and Brazil as it is in Britain. Sooner or later, the human race is going to have to find a way of dealing with it.

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3 Responses to Child-catching won’t solve our demographic challenge

  1. I feel the age profile is trying to tell us something. From a Dalek, to Mr Magoo, to a gorilla. You’d think the evolutionary direction would be the reverse.

    More seriously, Charles Moore has an obvious distaste for old people as well as gays and women who refuse to be breeding machines. There is no reason to suppose that an increasingly elderly population is a problem in itself. As you note, the reason we’re ageing is more to do with increased average life expectancy than a declining birth rate. That increase is the product of better health, yet it tends to be routinely (and illogically) translated into increased morbidity – i.e. every extra year gained is assumed to be spent in illness.

    The increase in life expectancy (due to improvements in obstetrics, sanitation, medicine and diet) is part of the wider advance of technology, which has also produced greater material wealth. Contrary to the doom-mongers, this very wealth ensures we have the means to provide for an ageing society even with a birth rate below replacement levels (this can be more than offset by continuing productivity growth).

    The problem is one of distribution. The welfare state (specifically the NHS, pensions and elderly care) acts as conduit to redistribute wealth from workers to non-workers, but it also redistributes from the wealthier to the poorer. Without “reform”, this will inevitably have an increasingly progressive bias as the population ages. It is therefore necessary to cast the elderly as a problem, to imply the welfare state is no longer affordable (though we are vastly wealthier than in 1948), and to claim that the very fabric of the system (the NHS and its “culture” to the fore) is broken and decrepit.

  2. Bina says:

    nb the age at which State Pension becomes payable is increasing…..at some point that will be at an age previously considered to be the typical age of death – except it won’t be. I can’t see how creating more and more human beings is going to solve any problems – it will only create them. Rats, rabbits, locusts etc etc show what happens with ‘unrestrained’ population growth by progeneration..

  3. John D says:

    I think it is worth thinking about the long-term consequences of the eventual overall decline in world population. This should just mean that there will be fewer human beings on the planet Earth, which is not in itself any bad thing. The present rate of population growth threatens to outstrip the Earth’s resources and ability to sustain human life on the planet. Having smaller families and fewer people on the planet will reduce the resource demands of humankind. Having smaller families also means that the whole emphasis – which Moore fails to grasp – is that future generations can focus on increased human quality of life rather than increased human quantity of life. Overall, I believe the enhancement of human life quality is much more desirable than simply adding more and more poorly educated people to the planet’s population. In the very – very – long-run, humankind will need to leave this planet and seek a new planet to live on elsewhere in the Universe. We will never achieve that if all the available resources are committed to keeping existing population levels at present or expanded levels. We need resources to conduct scientific research so that our descendants will have the technology needed for another hugely great one-way-only voyage of discovery.

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