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Population Paradox: Are Declining Birth Rates Good or Bad for the World?

Aging populations, economic prospects, and sustainability goals - we tackle it all in this episode on population decline.
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About the Episode

As birth rates decline and life expectancies increase, some regions are now experiencing a net decrease in population, leaving us to question whether that’s good or bad for the world. Stephanie Feldstein of the Center for Biological Diversity and John Ibbitson, author of the Empty Planet unravel the layers of this population paradox and its implications on society, the global economy, and the environment.

[Lizzy Shackelford: INTRO: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm your host, Lizzy Shackelford, with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

In recent years, the world has witnessed a surprising and unprecedented phenomenon, a decline in global population growth. As birth rates fall and life expectancy increases some regions are now experiencing an aging population and decrease in numbers overall. This shift is expected to pose challenges for the global economy, but possible benefits to the natural environment, leaving experts and policy makers grappling with its potential consequences. So, is population decline good or bad? What are the implications for our world? And what steps can society take to harness its benefits while mitigating its challenges?

Here with me to explore, we have Stephanie Feldstein, the Population and Sustainability Director at the Center for Biological Diversity, where she heads a national program that addresses the connection between human population growth, overconsumption, and the wildlife extinction crisis.

And we have John Ibbitson. John is a writer at large for The Globe and Mail. He is also co-author of the book “Empty Planet, The Shock of Global Population Decline”, which we discussed on this podcast after its release back in 2019.

So John, let's start with the big picture here. Where are we seeing a decline in birth rates? Why are we seeing it? And why are so many economists sounding the alarm about this trend?]

John Ibbitson: We're seeing a decline in birth rates everywhere around the world. There are no exceptions or very very few exceptions. Even in those regions that have the highest fertility rates Sub-Saharan Africa Those rates are coming down and in the rest of the world Fertility rates are either flatlining at their placement rate, which is 2.1 children per woman, or they have fallen below a placement rate and those populations are aging and starting to actually decline, the decline is enormous. 36 countries are losing population right now, every year. About 30 countries are going to lose half their population over the course of this century. And some of those are the biggest countries on earth. China is set to lose about half of its population over the course of this century. and an empty planet- we said China would start losing population later this decade. China is losing population now. We said that India would reach replacement rates 2. 1 later in this decade, India is at 2.1 now. So, the population growth that we are experiencing in this century is going to plateau earlier and lower than most experts expected. And then the global population is going to start to decline. And once it starts to decline, that decline will never stop. and we're going to talk, you know, about the implications for the environment, the implications economically are dire, there's no other word to describe it. We said in our book that population decline isn't a good thing or a bad thing, but it's a big thing. We've changed our mind economically. It's a very bad thing. It's a thing that involves aging societies, declining populations, fewer and fewer young people available to pay the taxes and consume the goods needed to sustain a society and to sustain pensions and healthcare and other necessities. There are all sorts of other implications that we can get into, but that's the long and short of it.

Lizzy Shackelford: So have we always had a growth based economy? Forgive me if I'm wrong here, but the idea that we have to keep growing in order to keep paying for the folks we already have sounds a wee bit like a pyramid scheme…

John Ibbitson: Well, it's a pyramid scheme that's about as old as the Renaissance, you know, the Enlightenment period, the period of global exploration, the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, the Second Industrial Revolution of the 20th century, the postindustrial revolutions of the 21st century all have been predicated on growth. They resulted in growth, and then growth became the assumption that every year, we will expand, we will grow, there will be more of us, we will be consuming more goods, our standards of living will be rising, things will be getting better, and society will go on. Liberal, democratic, capitalist society is founded on those assumptions. now those assumptions may be false, but those assumptions are deeply, deeply entrenched. And so, anyone who's going to question that assumption, and many have tried, over the course of the last couple of centuries, have to contend with the robustness of the model.

Lizzy Shackelford: So, Stephanie, we're talking about how it's affecting our economy, but that growth-based model, which began as John said, back when we kind of thought we had unlimited resources to move into. What's been the impact of that on the world we live in?

Stephanie Feldstein: Well, the reality is that any model that's based on infinite growth in a finite planet is just untenable. I mean, it can't go on forever. It has to end at some point. And, you know, what we've really seen is human population has grown faster than any other large animal population on the planet. And it's grown larger and with more devastating consequences for life on Earth than we've seen from any other species. And of course, that's not population growth alone, a lot of that is our consumption. But this is tied together, right? We're talking about that concept of growth, both in people and in terms of our economy, which means what are people consuming. So, as a result, that's really launched us into the environmental crises that we're facing today. You know, I mean, so many of us are experiencing the consequences of the climate crisis now during the summer here, right? We're seeing these unprecedented heat waves, we're seeing drought that, threatens to really become, crippling in parts of the world, including parts of looking at, like, the Southwest United States and how that's going to affect, the population centers that are there, we see it in floods and storms and wildfires. I mean, we're seeing this play out in real time, just like we're seeing some of these predictions about where populations are going to go happening now. We're seeing the climate crisis happening now. And we're also at the same time experiencing a wildlife extinction crisis, which doesn't get nearly as much attention, but is going to be just as devastating because this means really unraveling these ecosystems that we rely on for our survival.

Lizzy Shackelford: So, John, the economic impact, as you've said, is even worse, than when you wrote your book just a few years ago. but you also comment on some of the Potential benefits to slowing population growth outside strictly the environmental benefits, as Stephanie's mentioned. What are some of the other benefits that we could harness of a smaller population?

John Ibbitson: Let's not understate the importance of slowing population growth and eventually of population decline to improving the environment to helping in the fight against global warming to preserving biodiversity after all population decline as a result of urbanization is the result of people leaving rural areas and going and living in cities. And when they do that, those rural areas revert to bush and all sorts of good things happen. There's also something called the geriatric peace. This is the notion that as societies age, uh, governments are unable to wage war or find it very difficult to wage war because they have fewer and fewer young people available to throw into the meat grinder. And they need to devote more and more of their resources, to their aging and geriatric society. So, in theory, at least, over time, aging societies should be more peaceful societies. There's a huge asterisk to that though- aging societies can also become unstable. As you have, more and more old people consuming more and more resources in healthcare and pensions, and fewer and fewer young people who are available to support them, you get intergenerational tensions. China, which is one of the most acute, countries in terms of aging and aging populations and societal tensions. You also have the problem of an alarming shortage of young women, caused by sex selective abortions. So, you have a lot of unhappy young men who are not married, not getting sex, and working, huge numbers of hours in order to support their parents and other old people that can lead to social tensions and governments that are experiencing deep social tensions, sometimes go looking for a quick and dirty war to distract people's attentions from it. And if Taiwan is the source of Chinese saber rattling right now, that might be the cause.

Stephanie Feldstein: You know, just one other element that I wanted to add to this is we're talking about population decline and some of the causes of it and how it fits in with society. I think it's really critical that we point out that the major drivers behind population decline come from really positive societal developments. We're talking about things like reproductive freedom and increased health care and education and gender equity for women and girls. And that is, you know of course, one of the things that makes it harder to turn back the trends for the countries that are trying to do so, because women don't want to give up, this empowerment. And so, I think it's just really important part of this conversation to emphasize that population decline, not only has these benefits for the environment and for society, but it comes from a very good place.

John Ibbitson: It certainly does. And this is something that Darrell and I emphasized in our book and have been writing about in the Globe and Mail mostly since. Urbanization leads to the empowerment of women who receive education in ways they don't when they live in rural societies. The power of traditional religion declines, the ability of peers and family to force you to marry young and have kids declines. Instead, your peers are your co-workers and your co-workers couldn't care less whether you get pregnant or not. All of these factors lead to the empowerment of women and lead to a declining fertility. And indeed, some societies that are trying to reverse, fertility, declines are doing it by trying to strip away the rights of women. Hungary is a particularly good example of this. They're essentially, through tax breaks, trying to bribe women to quit their jobs, go home and have babies. The good news is it's not working. The bad news is that the more positive versions of that, such as in Sweden, where there are very generous, parental leave policies, where there's on-site daycare, where there are all sorts of supports that allow women to have children while continuing to maintain and advance their careers, they also don't work. They don't get you back up at least to 2.1 and they are tremendously expensive. So, yes, all good things, are the reasons for fertility decline, but bad things in some areas are the consequence.

Lizzy Shackelford: I want to shift and talk to policies in just a second, but I, feel like what we're kind of honing in on is that the biggest risk of the population decline is primarily economic, that there are a lot of other positive social reactions, but the economic argument is really against it. But Stephanie, you've written a bit about the economic impact and that it's not that simple a calculation. Can you talk about the economic impacts of reducing that influence on our environment too?

Stephanie Feldstein: Yeah, I think the problem that we run into here is when we talk about the economy sort of as if it exists in the bubble, right? But as I mentioned before, we're facing these multiple crises. And when you look at, for example, population decline is expected to happen in, you know, about three decades or so, we have less than a decade to slash greenhouse gas emissions. Before we hit these irreversible tipping points in the climate crisis. And these things are deeply, deeply interrelated. And a lot of the solutions that we see for how we can start to change our consumption to address the climate crisis is also part of how we need to change our economy as well. So, you know, we had talked about how, of course, our growth economy is deeply, deeply entrenched, but we've also had to challenge many other things that are deeply entrenched, including some of the societal norms we were just talking about having to do with the patriarchy having to do with the subjugation of women. And of course, we've seen that changing. And I think, you know we have to look at the economy as something that has to change. And we need a radical change, because this endless growth can't work and you know, the good news is that we already see some examples of how these different economic models can work in things like mutual aids and co-ops and these really community based and community driven ways of supporting each other and of approaching the economy in a way that is based more on well-being and partnership rather than just endless profits.

Lizzy Shackelford: What are some other policy or even technology solutions that can be pursued and John, you've spoken about some governments, how they're trying to throw the brakes on this population decline. Are any governments so far trying to shift the economic model so that they can navigate the storm better?

John Ibbitson: Yeah, there are three essential models that a government that is worried about its aging society can pursue. The first is, the Hungarian model- use the tax system to encourage women to abandon, their careers, return home and have babies. If you have enough babies in Hungary, you can live a decent middle-class existence just from the government supports. The problem is, of course, it's hugely expensive and it's vile. The other alternative is the Swedish model, which is also hugely expensive, but which focuses more on keeping women. In their jobs, in the workforce, advancing their careers while also having children. It does a better job than the Hungarian model according to early results at any rate, but it still doesn't get you up to 2.1 and it's very expensive. The third model we call the Canadian model, which is a truly aggressive immigration policy. Canada, last year brought in 1 million people. This isn't a society that only had 39 million people last year. We added another million. We're on track to bring in 400,000 regular immigrants, next year, plus temporary foreign workers, plus foreign students. So, we're able to smooth the curve. It doesn't flatten the curve, but it smooths the curve, by bringing in young workers who can then contribute, to the society. They don't contribute babies because they have the same fertility rate as the rest of us, but at least there are young workers, working in our society in order to pay for the cost of an aging society. The problem with all of this, though... Is that it does not address Stephanie's problem, which is how do you transition to new economic models that will relieve the pressure on the environment? And the problem here is that we have just run out of runway, Stephanie may disagree with me, but I don't think we have enough time left to make the changes that would need to be made in order to have a permanent sustainable impact on the environment. The United States population is deeply polarized and is fighting over the stupidest things and the very notion that you could get the American population to talk with any degree of intelligence about a new social model, is just not going to happen, not in the timeframe that we have. And it's not going to happen in India, it's not going to happen in China. So, if it's not going to happen in those three societies, even if you did have progress in the European Union, for example, where there is greater openness to different economic models, and Canada sometimes has experimented with this as well, but we don't matter, we don't count. The big places, the places that could actually make a change, I see no possibility of that change being made in the timeframe that's available.

Stephanie Feldstein: I think it's very dismal to say that we've run out of runway. We don't have enough time. And that may be true in some ways, but if we don't change what we're doing, it gives us a little bit more runway just to fall off a cliff. I mean, it's not a solution in itself. And I think that there are some changes that can happen immediately. I mean, we know what needs to be done, right? If we look at the climate crisis, we know what needs to be done. And this again, dovetails into a lot of the solutions that we're seeing when we talk about, well, either the solutions to fertility decline or the solutions to better adapting society to deal with an aging society are expensive, they cost a lot of money. Those things can be very closely interrelated. I mean, we're giving billions of dollars away to the most polluting industries. It takes a reframing of government's funding that's already happening, but how do we shift it towards things that can actually protect the environment and therefore also protect our societies? And I think that that's a really good place to start, is to look at what are the mechanisms we already have. And I agree that there is low political will for that in these places right now. But again, it's something we have to keep pushing for because we don't have a choice. You know, we can't put the environmental damages that are happening on hold until we decide we all agree on what the next economic model is. We have to keep pushing towards these changes urgently. I mean, that's where we're really running out of time. Not to say that we, can't do it. But that we know what the solutions are, and we have to create that political will to make it happen.

Lizzy Shackelford: I'm trending towards despair here, folks. As John said, the political obstacles are very real to having sensible policy solutions. What I'm hearing, and correct me if I'm wrong, is that there are policy solutions that could mitigate the damage or I guess flatten the curve, but that we don't have political systems in place that can make that happen at this time.

John Ibbitson: Yeah, I mean, I'm a political reporter, columnist, I work in Ottawa on Parliament Hill, so I can only get my head around that which I consider to be politically possible. In my country, the way to lessen the impact of population decline and an aging society is through robust immigration. I think that is the American alternative as well, although again, there is a deeply polarized debate within the United States over immigration. However, let's be honest, that's a growth-based solution, right? We replaced the missing babies by bringing in young people from developing countries to take their place. It's still growth based. If you went to the Canadian people or the American people and said, we need, in fact, to end growth. We need to retool our society in a shared co op model that acknowledges that there will not be the economic growth that we used to have that young people won't ever own a home, that there will have to be compromises in terms of the quality of health care, everybody will receive the same quality of health care, but that quality of health care will steadily diminish over time, and all the other assumptions of a non-growth based society, well, you might get there. If you have the kind of summers that we're having, you know, five and six or seven, 10 years in a row. If we get the kind of smog from smoke fires, in Canada that really destroys the summer for everyone year after year after year, you may get there, but we're not there now. And I don't foresee, honestly, the likelihood of our getting there anytime soon.

Lizzy Shackelford: So, Stephanie, how do we persuade governments to translate what we've been seeing, as John said, with our climate scenarios that is impacting everybody now. How do you politically persuade governments to take it seriously and take a non-growth approach?

Stephanie Feldstein: Well, I think the biggest challenge to that, you know, at least here in the United States, has to do with corporate power. Because there are a number of policies that could be put into place that the public would be very happy with. I mean, people are not against renewable energy, people are very favorable to renewable energy. But that is not where the government is investing the majority of their money. They'll create a renewable energy policy in one hand, and then in the other hand, still give double that amount to fossil fuel companies, you know? And so, I think that there is a place there where we need to focus on how we break up this corporate control, this really this corporate stranglehold that they have over politicians, because that's going to be a big piece of that. And there are, you know, so many other policies that I can point to having to do with looking at agriculture and why are we supporting industrial agriculture instead of agroecology. And again, that shift toward things like democratized renewable energy towards agroecology are all things that help support the values behind this alternative economic future that we can have. And so, there's a lot of public support for it that exists. But we need to keep pushing hard on that corporate control. And how do we break that up? And really it's hard because I think a lot of people share that despair that you were feeling. Because even while, you know, I say there's still time and there's so much that we can do. We have the solutions in our hands, we at the same time are seeing all these scientific reports that are like, the clock is ticking and it is. But I think that we need to push back against that despair, particularly among young people and stay engaged in politics, really change that paradigm that we're seeing among governments.

Lizzy Shackelford: So, China is one of the countries that's facing this in a very, very big way. And as John, you've said, it's one of the countries that matters most because of its sheer size. And China is not subjected to the same political economy that the United States is and others. So, is China taking any steps to face down this challenge that others could learn from? Am I looking in the wrong place for optimism here?

John Ibbitson: It's always a bad idea to look to China for sources of optimism. The quick answer is no, you know, they are working, on expanding the renewable side of their economy, but they're also building cold fire plants at a tremendous lick. And because they're an autocracy in theory, the ability to compel young people to do certain things, but again, it's very hard to compel a woman to have a child, no matter how autocratic your society is. It is very hard to compel a woman to have a child as it should be. So, this decline that China is experiencing in population that is already underway is in fact going to accelerate. And there's nothing that can be done to stop it. Again, we're predicting that China will lose half its population over the course of the century, which will have pronounced environmental impact, but it's down the road and the immediate impact in terms of social instability, global instability, the threat of invasion across the Taiwan Strait, all of those things, are clear and immediate and certainly not cause for optimism at all.

Lizzy Shackelford: Are they looking perhaps at any ways to shift from the growth-based model or is that just a pipedream?

John Ibbitson: If they're looking, I'm not aware of it now again, I'm not a sign off a file. I don't claim to have any expertise in the area of the Chinese economy and Chinese politics. But I'm not aware that they are looking to replace their current directed capitalism, if you want to call it that, autocratic capitalism, corrupt capitalism… that they're looking to replace that economic model with something different. They may have to they're already confronting the fact that their consumption-based society is not doing it for them. They spent decades building an export-based economy. Exports have sharply curtailed as a result of COVID and other things. they're trying to transition to a consumption-based society, but you can't have a growth-based consumption-based society when you have fewer people being born every year and more people dying. So no, I don't see any options there.

Stephanie Feldstein: Regardless of the national level government, there is this global pressure that's being driven by capitalism by these multinational corporations. So, whether you're looking at the US or China, or so many other different models of government, they're still feeling that same pressure of growth, which shows up on the international stage. I mean, if you look at every year, you know, COP, the big climate conference is sponsored by fossil fuel companies, and that's the place where everybody's supposed to actually be talking about solutions, regardless of what their individual model is. But one source for optimism to look for is really what's happening at the community-based level. And I think that's so critical, not just because, communities have to be really the backbone of these solutions. And there are a lot of really innovative, hopeful things happening in communities around the world, but also that creates this groundswell of pressure that helps aid these political problems we've been talking about, but it also has very real impacts on the lives of people who are experiencing things like this summer we've all been having right that creates that community resilience. That's sort of, you know, brings us down from this high-level talk of economic models into how is this really impacting people? And ultimately, we do need these larger national level policies, but this community action and the community level policies that we're seeing is really a source of hope because that is the thing that can not only help drive this change, but is actively helping people now as they are experiencing the impacts.

Lizzy Shackelford: I like that- positive. It's good. So, John's mentioned that there are various models that countries have been using to try and kind of kickstart that population growth again. But if we're accepting that that's not going to be a permanent solution, what are the best near-term choices, specific things that governments or international institutions could do to help navigate the challenge that population decline is doing? Are there any specific things that you could recommend?

John Ibbitson: I think first of all, and with great respect, we have to acknowledge here that Stephanie and I are working on very different models. for one thing, I'm focused on the economic challenges posed by declining fertility and declining population. Stephanie is focused on the environmental degradation caused by expanding populations. So, I'm trying to keep the populations up and Stephanie is trying to bring them down. We have to be honest at the end of the day, we are talking about two different things. You can respectfully disagree, but that is the origin of the disagreement. On my side of the argument, Darrell and I argue that we should be trying to at least maintain population and slow the process of societal aging so that we can continue to sustain our healthcare systems so that we can continue to sustain our pension systems. And so that, younger people can enjoy some quality of life other than just working relentlessly to pay taxes, to prop up old people. And again there are three models to repeat them. One is encouraging women to go home and have babies. That doesn't work and it's awful. The second is encouraging women to have babies while remaining at work. And that's a great idea and governments should do more and more of that through, expanded, parental leave programs, through on-site daycare programs, through everything like children ride free if they're with their mother, on the bus and the subway, stuff like that. And then finally, encourage robust levels of immigration, to replace the babies that aren't being born. In fact, one of the things that Darrell and I, and others, are specifically recommending, is long term care insurance. Right now, most of the healthcare costs that you incur, you will incur in the final years of your life, the last five years when you become frail and elderly and you need support at home or you need support in an institution, that's where all the tax money goes. There are a couple of countries, that have already embraced long term care insurance. It's like, well, we have the Canada pension plan, you have social security, you contribute to it, through your wages, every year from the time you get your very first job, your employer also contributes to it as well. And there is an insurance policy available to you when and if, you end up needing it. And if you don't need it, well, the money goes to someone who does. And that creates, a pool of investment that can be used to help people, in their final years. And that can mitigate the worst impacts economically of aging and declining populations.

Lizzy Shackelford: Could we agree that robust immigration, combined with reducing our climate impact could be a good way to marry those two approaches?

Stephanie Feldstein: Yeah. I mean, I completely agree that immigration is a helpful solution here. And my experience from the environmental side, it's also a necessary part of the picture as we are talking about things like how climate change will be changing the livability of certain regions of the world. But I think immigration is a great solution to addressing the immediate impacts that, countries will be feeling from population decline. I think John and I also in agreement that, you know, forcing women to have children is also a terrible idea. And I also do support, you know, support for parents, for people who do want to have children and still work and need the additional childcare. I think that all of that is very important. I think, and it sounds like John probably agrees that there are limitations to how effective that's going to be, because that still doesn't, address the issue that if people don't want to have kids, they're not gonna have kids. It helps the people who do want to have children, but for those who don't, who, for whatever reason. That's not going to necessarily change their mind. And I think, you know, the one piece that's missing this is really facing that reality that our populations are aging and investing now, looking at what is that length of our runway and realizing we need to make some of these changes now, and even before you get to the larger, economic transformation that we've been talking about. Looking at where do we need to shift social supports for aging populations? What does it need to look like for us to instead of denying that the population is aging and figuring out quick, how do we, you know, pump up fertility rates, instead recognize that this fertility decline, this population decline is happening. So, what do we need to do as a society to really embrace that?

Lizzy Shackelford: Stephanie Feldstein of the Center for Biological Diversity and John Ibbitson of The Globe and Mail -- I want to thank you both so much for coming on Deep Dish to explore this intriguing and terrifying trend of global population decline and how it’s affecting our world.

John Ibbitson: It's been a pleasure.

Stephanie Feldstein: Thank you so much!

[Lizzy Shackelford: OUTRO: And thank you for tuning in to this episode of Deep Dish.  

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As a reminder, the opinions you heard belong to the people who expressed them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.  This episode is produced and edited by Kyra Dahring and mixed by Frank McKearn of Aphorism Productions. 

Thank you for listening. I’m Lizzy Shackelford and we’ll be back next week with another slice of Deep Dish.]

About the Experts
Population and Sustainability Director, Center for Biological Diversity
SF Headshot
Stephanie Feldstein is the Population and Sustainability Director at the Center for Biological Diversity, where she heads a national program that addresses the connection between human population growth, overconsumption, and the wildlife extinction crisis.
SF Headshot
Writer At Large, The Globe and Mail
JI Headshot
John Ibbitson’s career as a journalist spans more than three decades, more than two of them at The Globe and Mail. He writes columns and features that focus on Canadian and American politics and global demographic trends and is the author of more than a dozen books, including "The Big Shift" and "Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline".
JI Headshot
Elizabeth Shackelford
Former Senior Fellow, US Foreign Policy
Council staff Elizabeth Shackelford
Elizabeth Shackelford, a former career diplomat who served the US Mission to Somalia and the US Embassy in South Sudan, focuses on building awareness and understanding of a "restraint" approach to foreign policy, which seeks to limit the use of force to core US security interests and favors diplomatic engagement.
Council staff Elizabeth Shackelford

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