Entrepreneur Elon Musk and our own Prime Minister may seem unlikely bedfellows, but they have one unassailable demographic fact in common: Both have lots of children. There the similarities end. While Johnson, like his predecessors in government, has yet to adopt a pro-natal policy, Musk is vehement on the issue of reproduction. We need to have more children, he says, or face the collapse of civilization.
Musk’s worries may seem far-fetched, but civilization seemed to crumble a bit when we ran out of tanker drivers and gas pumps ran dry earlier this year. It is also the case when we find that we cannot get an ambulance for mom or a caregiver for dad. And while labor shortages have many causes, demographics are at the root. With the retirement of baby boomers, there are fewer new entrants to the labor market, compared to leavers, than before.
This is not a problem migration may always encounter as the UK’s long-standing low fertility matches large and growing swathes of the world. You can travel back and forth across Eurasia, from Portugal to Singapore, with each country having a fertility rate below replacement level.
Not so long ago, small families were the exclusive preserve of rich countries, thanks to high levels of education, especially for women, urbanization and rising incomes. But now even countries that are still quite rural and poor are following suit. Fertility rates have dropped in unexpected places. In China, they halved from six to three between the late 1960s and the late 1970s, before the one-child policy. The easing and now the lifting of this policy made little difference; Chinese fertility rates are lower than in the UK. In Iran, the rate fell almost as rapidly in the 1980s and early 1990s. In India, there are now fewer births per woman than necessary for long-term stability of the population.
When low fertility strikes for the first time, it can deliver what is known as the “demographic dividend”. Countries full of people in their twenties without multiple offspring to care for can be incredibly vibrant and vibrant. Indonesia, where I worked, is an example. But in the longer term, problems arise. It is already affecting places like Bulgaria where decades of low fertility and out-migration means the population is on the verge of falling. Germany would be there too if it closed its doors to massive migration. Yet that too brings its own challenges. If migration is to come from countries with educated people who can quickly integrate into the host economy, then those people will burn out. Poland’s birth rate, for example, is now too low to keep the country in business while providing hard-working artisans for the rest of Europe.
There is one big exception – sub-Saharan Africa. In parts of Africa, family sizes have declined. But in West Africa, especially in Nigeria, five or six children per couple remains the norm. A population explosion in one part of the globe while the rest contracts can be destabilizing. But in many ways, we should be celebrating the last people on earth who seem interested in perpetuating the human race.