The end of the population pyramid (scheme)

by John Quiggin on June 1, 2021

In a case of l’esprit de l’escalier, I just worked out the perfect parenthetical addition to this piece that was published in Inside Story, responding to a string of pro-natalist pieces in the New York Times and elsewhere. The central point is that the economic model in which strong young workers support elderly retirees is outdated and will only become more so.

A sharp fall in births during 2020 has provoked a wave of handwringingabout the implications of an ageing population. The decline can’t be attributed solely to the pandemic, since most of the babies born in 2020 were conceived before the pandemic began. However, it appears to have accelerated as the impact of the pandemic has been felt.

Some of the complaints reflect old-fashioned, not to say primitive, concerns about birth rates as an indicator of national ‘vitality’. But the main focus of concerns reflects a 20th century understanding of the economy that is deeply embedded in our ways of thinking and economic measurement, even though it is now almost completely obsolete.

The central assumption underlying these concerns is based on economic model in which “societies are organized around the notion that a surplus of young people will drive economies and help pay for the old”.

The model in which the young supported the old emerged in the 20th century, and ended with the 21st. For most of human history, old people were expected to work as long as they could, just as children were put to work as soon as they were able. The very young and the very old depended on their families to support them.

The welfare state which emerged at the end of the 19th century changed this radically. On the one hand, children were excluded from the workforce and required to attend school until the official leaving age, typically around 14. Governments paid for the schools, but, for the most part, required parents to support their children as in the past.

On the other hand, the introduction of old age pensions meant that old people (most commonly those over 65) were now entitled to public support, sometimes though not always, subject to a means test. Pensions were paid out of taxes or contributions to social security schemes. Either way, the cost was borne by the population of ‘working age’, defined as 15-64. With a high birth rate, the age distribution of the population appeared as a pyramid, with a large working age population supporting a small group of retirees.

The model underlying the desire for a population pyramid is one in which physical work predominates. Young and strong, needing only on-the-job training, workers leave school at 14 and immediately start contributing to the economy. By 65, they are worn out and ready for retirement. In this model, the more young people, the better.

To see that this assumption is problematic, we need only to look at US data on employment by age. At the turn of the century, the assumption described above looked reasonable enough. Around 60 per cent of young people aged 16-24 were employed compared to barely 30 per cent those aged 55 and over.

But by 2019, before the pandemic, the gap had mostly closed. Just over 50 per cent of people 16-24 were employed, compared to 39 per cent of those over 55. Many of the jobs held by young people are part-time and low-waged. By contrast, older workers are, on average, just below their peak lifetime earnings, reached around age 50.

Taking these facts into account, it seems likely that mean earnings per person are already higher for the old than for the young.

The reality of a modern economy is quite different from that underlying the population pyramic. To become a productive member of the community, young people need post-school education, whether academic or vocational. That implies a large expenditure of resources, which may be paid for by government, parents or through loan schemes like HECS. Taking all these together, the proportion of national income allocated to education is stable or increasing in developed countries like Australia and the US, even as the proportion of young people in the population declines.

https://www.acer.org/au/discover/article/three-charts-on-how-much-australia-spends-on-all-levels-of-education

https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/us-education-expenditure-as-share-of-gdp-public-and-private-institutions?country=~USA

A return to high birth rates over the next few years would imply the need for a large increase in education spending. The payoff in terms of a more productive workforce would not be fully realised until the second half of this century, when the expanded age cohort entered the prime-age workforce in their late twenties and early thirties.

At the other end of the age distribution, official retirement ages have been abolished, and the eligibility age for the pension has been pushed to 67, with further increases in prospect. There is still a substantial group of manual workers for whom physical exhaustion makes retirement a relief. Attitudes that under-value older workers are still prevalent, with the result that many are pushed into retirement whether they like it or not. But for a large group of white collar workers, working past 65 is an increasingly attractive economic option.

A realistic model of the future workforce is one in which productive workers are mostly aged between 25 and 70. It’s unlikely that life expectancy will ever be much above 95. On that basis the typical person will spend about half their life in the working age population and the other 50 years evenly divided between education and retirement.

In all of this, I’ve focused on the age distribution of the population. Despite the concerns that have been expressed, the age distribution associated with a lower birthrate is unlikely to cause major problem.

By contrast, the implications of a lower birth rate for the the size of the world’s population are unambiguously beneficial. The world is already overcrowded, and the needs of a growing population are straining the capacity of the planet to support us. Even with falling birth rates, the worlds population is certain to rise between now and 2050.

By 2100, population might return to the current level of eight billion or perhaps a little fewer. The idea that we should push people to have more children in order this number, rather than making marginal adjustments to the economic institutions we have inherited from the 20th century, is simply nonsensical.

{ 67 comments }

1

Grahame Grieve 06.01.21 at 6:39 am

This is pretty interesting but I suspect that it falls over when it comes to the health part of the economy – nursing, in particular. I’m interested in your opinion on that.

2

Tm 06.01.21 at 7:24 am

The natalist, “demographic collapse” discourse is the weirdest thing. Societies with high birthrates are poor, societies with low birthrates are mostly wealthy. It’s the most solid correlation you are ever going to find anywhere in social science. Yet, a whole propaganda industry has developed clamoring for higher birth rates. Why even? Who’s interest is served by this nonsense?

3

Tm 06.01.21 at 7:30 am

https://www.slideshare.net/amenning/the-human-population-challenge, esp. p 46-62

“Mercantilists [the school of thought that dominated Europe from the 16th through the 18th century] and the absolute rulers who dominated many states of Europe saw each nation’s population as a form of national wealth: the larger the population, the richer the nation. Large populations provided a larger labor supply, larger markets, and larger (and hence more powerful) armies for defense and for foreign expansion. Moreover, since growth in the number of wage earners tended to depress wages, the wealth of the monarch could be increased by capturing this surplus. In the words of Frederick II the Great of Prussia, “the number of the people makes the wealth of states.” Similar views were held by mercantilists in Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. For the mercantilists, accelerating the growth of the population by encouraging fertility and discouraging emigration was consistent with increasing the power of the nation or the king. Most mercantilists, confident that any number of people would be able to produce their own subsistence, had no worries about harmful effects of population growth. (To this day similar optimism continues to be expressed by diverse schools of thought, from traditional Marxists on the left to “cornucopians” on the right.)” Encyclopedia Britannica

4

Tm 06.01.21 at 7:52 am

The percentage of working age adults (20-65) as a share of German population is currently near its highest level at least since the 19th century, around 62%. Yet the demographic propagandists ceaselessly claim falsely that an ever increasing share of the population (implicitly referring only to the upper end of the age distribution) has to be supported by a shrinking workforce. That children and youth also need to be supported and their schooling costs resources is just ignored. The pervasiveness of this line of propaganda, in the face of easy empirical refutation, is astonishing.

5

John Quiggin 06.01.21 at 8:39 am

@1 While the US is typical of developed countries as regards changes in working life, it’s atypical as regards increasing morbidity and, more recently, declining life expectancy. The general pattern is compression of morbidity. That is, more years of life corresponds to more years of healthy life. At the end, there are a few years of decline, but no more proportional to total life, than in the past.

@4 I don’t think it’s propaganda as much as a failure to think.

6

Tm 06.01.21 at 10:54 am

JQ: “I don’t think it’s propaganda as much as a failure to think.”

I suspect these are related. In any case, pro-natalism has historically been an important and widespread element of state propaganda (cf. 3). That is less the case today but it remains implicit in the growth paradigm that still rules the thinking of most of the political and economic elites.

7

Doctor Memory 06.01.21 at 2:50 pm

I realize that the USA is a bit of an outlier in terms of the grim dysfunction of our welfare state, and even moreso in terms of the absurd housing issues in our major cities, so with the caveat that this objection may not apply elsewhere:

Push? Push?!. The idea that pro-natalist (dare I say, “pro-family”) policies (at least in the US) involve an attempt to cajole reluctant people to have more children than they actually want is absurd.

The reality on the ground is that people who under normal circumstances would want more children than they have (whether that number be 2, 1 or zero) are being pushed into having fewer by policies and economic realities that relentlessly punish the decision to have kids. Just the cost of housing alone in any American city with a growing job base means that choosing to have children is the most expensive decision any person there is likely to make in their lifetimes, and that’s before you have to decide whether the price of daycare is more, long-term, than the earnings penalty to any parent who decides to put their career on hold until the child reaches school age.

8

MisterMr 06.01.21 at 3:05 pm

The same arguments that apply to population increase by migration apply to population increase/decrease by childbirth, in reality the economy can work both with positive and with negative population growth because the number of businesses can increase or decrease with the population.

In general in absence of various pushes from the government the number of businesses will increase only to the point that total profit also increase, so it will not squeeze the profit share too much.

As a consequence, in absence of government action, employment will be low relative to the wishes of workers so that:

1) those who have a job might be forced to work more hours because they can’t say no to their employers, while
2) there will be a lot of unemployed people, who compete against each other for a job for example by studying more, while
3) old people can’t/won’t retire because they can’t trust the idea while
4) as per (2), a lot of young people are jobless.

So, it sucks in various ways, but it is normal capitalism, not a consequence of the new economy: if there was a strong demand for workers, also workers without a specialistic skill would be in demand and they would learn the skill on the job. But the economy doesn’t really naturally go to that level of “very full” full employment, so these effects that are IMHO wrongly imputed to the changing nature of the economy.

9

Ebenezer Scrooge 06.01.21 at 4:11 pm

A few points:
– For rich countries, immigration works pretty much the same as a pro-natalist policy. Poor countries (which are the overpopulated ones) benefit from emigration: the equivalent of an anti-natalist policy.
– Of course this explains why natalism is allied to racism, although not all natalists …
– The planet is not overcrowded as a whole. Some countries are, such as Ethiopia. Others are badly undercrowded in terms of their carrying capacity: USA, Canada, Russia, Oz.

10

JimV 06.01.21 at 6:23 pm

“…a whole propaganda industry has developed clamoring for higher birth rates. Why even? Who’s interest is served by this nonsense?”–Tm

Well, the religious right a) sees it as a religious mandate and b) more cynically, the more suckers born, the more power they accrue.

Very thought-provoking post. I retired early thanks in part to the pension which GE no longer offers employees, and mostly no thanks to the change in management philosophy from pre-Welch to post-Welch. I could have done useful work until about 68 (under good management), but since then it has been one health issue after another, plus at this point my working memory isn’t. I have often felt sorry for the later generations and especially current ones, that don’t have the prospects and opportunities I had. I guess my point is that if they are going to have to work longer and harder they will need/deserve better working conditions and health maintenance than seem to be generally available, and we need to work for that politically.

11

Tm 06.01.21 at 8:32 pm

JQ I think there’s something missing in this sentence: “ people to have more children in order this number”

12

Kenny Easwaran 06.01.21 at 9:02 pm

The point that there are years needing support at both ends of life is a good one – it means that any linear distribution of birth cohorts over the past century yields a population distribution with 50% of people in the working years and 50% in the years needing support. But isn’t there still a problem if (say) 1950-2000 had high births, 2000-2025 had low births, and 2025-2050 had intermediate or high births? Under that distribution, a majority of people would be in years needing support in 2050.

13

Dog With A Keyboard 06.01.21 at 9:11 pm

@9, Emigration would benefit poor countries if the most economically burdensome people emigrated, but I suspect that the opposite is true. As for overcrowding, if it is meant in the spatial sense, it was never an important metric, and if it is meant as a metaphor for carrying capacity, then the world as whole is badly overcrowded (at current levels of consumption/pollution).

As for the idea of birthing/immigrating our way out of a welfare-state funding deficit, was it ever not absurd? It seems to require some mix of the following assumptions:

1) That constant population growth is ecologically sustainable
2) That job growth will track population growth enough to generate a taxable surplus of income
3) That constantly siphoning off the most economically productive people from poorer countries will not cause bigger problems that it solves.

14

Chris Bertram 06.01.21 at 9:55 pm

@Ebenezer – not quite true to say that immigration works like a natalist policy for rich countries, since depending on the age of migrants, it may not require an increase in education spending. Some migrants may also retire to countries of origin. So it all depends on the details.

15

Chris Bertram 06.01.21 at 9:59 pm

@Dog Migrants from poor countries to rich ones make cash transfers to countries of origin that vastly exceed what rich countries pay in development aid, there may be other beneficial effects too. Talk of “siphoning of the most economically productive people” neglects that it may not be possible for those very people to be as productive where they are. I’m not saying that there are never disbenefits from people moving, but much of the “brain drain” talk is lazy and ill-informed.

16

Doctor Memory 06.01.21 at 10:32 pm

Ebenezer @ (currently) #9 — Ethiopia’s average population density is roughly half that of Switzerland’s. (Addis Ababa is slightly denser than Zürich: ~5100 ppl/km2 versus ~4700.) Per an admittedly cursory check on google, 14% of Ethiopia’s land is arable versus 10% for Switzerland.

“Overcrowding” is not Ethiopia’s problem. Historically, bad governance and civil war has been.

17

Dog With A Keyboard 06.02.21 at 1:21 am

@Chris You make some good counter-points. Surely, though, in the time-scale relevant to this discussion (planning a welfare state’s revenue/cost balance generations into the future), the pernicious effects of remittance dependence and talent flight could compound to a point where they outweigh the benefits?

18

John Quiggin 06.02.21 at 2:18 am

Chris @15 I’m agnostic on the economics, so I prefer to make the case for less restrictive migration on the basis of personal freedom, not just for potential migrants, but for the people from whom borders may separate them – spouses, family and so on. Even potential colleagues – academic research for example, where particular collaborations matter, not just aggregate numbers of workers of type X. As borders have tightened, that’s got harder, though of course communications have helped to offset that.

19

William Berry 06.02.21 at 2:59 am

<

blockquote>Overcrowding” is not Ethiopia’s problem. Historically, bad governance and civil war has been.
I’m guessing that a brutal history of colonial conquest and exploitation, right up through WWII, had something to do with it as well.

20

William Berry 06.02.21 at 3:01 am

Sorry:

Overcrowding” is not Ethiopia’s problem. Historically, bad governance and civil war has been.

I’m guessing that a brutal history of colonial conquest and exploitation, right up through WWII, had something to do with it as well.

21

Peter T 06.02.21 at 3:12 am

I strongly suspect that our population projections out to 2100 will need downward revision. A large chunk of the current population are small farmers in the Gangetic plain; another large chunk are farmers in inland China; the major growth area is Africa. All these places are going to be hit hard by climate change (some already are being so). Many people will move, but many will die.

22

Robespierre 06.02.21 at 3:39 am

I disagree that older workers’ higher earnings are due to higher productivity as opposed to being higher on the pecking order. I also disagree that the shift from physical to mental work is that crucial an advantage for the old – very few workers of 60 or 65 are going to be very familiar with the latest technology, or the latest research.

But more than the relative proportion of younger workers to older workers, it is the proportion of working-age people to non-working-age people that will steadily and undisputably get worse, compared to today, in a low fertility scenario.

Low fertility is still an excellent thing, overall, in the long term. But this post seems ill considered.

23

Henry (not the famous one) 06.02.21 at 8:43 am

The LA Times reported yesterday that China is relaxing its limits on family size by increasing the number of children a couple is allowed from two to three, driven by fears that economic growth will be choked by an aging population. Only to be met with scornful responses to the effect of “Fine, but who’s going to take care of them when my work schedule doesn’t allow me to see my family anyway?” and “Don’t worry–this generation won’t live long enough to grow old.”

24

Barry 06.02.21 at 9:50 am

John: “But for a large group of white collar workers, working past 65 is an increasingly attractive economic option.”

I would substitute ‘unfortunately necessary’ for ‘increasingly attractive’.

Also, for older people, there is one factor of not being physically broken down, but another factor of being unemployable. I’m guessing that the pandemic has led to a surge in older employees being forced out of the job market who can’t return.

25

J-D 06.02.21 at 11:14 am

I’m guessing that a brutal history of colonial conquest and exploitation, right up through WWII, had something to do with it as well.

Ethiopia was invaded and conquered by Italy in 1935, but I can’t find any record of its having experienced colonial conquest before then.

But more than the relative proportion of younger workers to older workers, it is the proportion of working-age people to non-working-age people that will steadily and undisputably get worse, compared to today, in a low fertility scenario.

Since some people do in fact dispute this, it’s not clear what the justification is for using the word ‘undisputably’.

26

Chris Bertram 06.02.21 at 12:51 pm

@JohnQ, agreed

27

Ebenezer Scrooge 06.02.21 at 1:58 pm

I stand corrected on Ethiopia.

28

Tm 06.02.21 at 2:04 pm

Repespierre 22: Your claim is definitely disputed. See 4. The ratio of working age to total population depends on several factors, but roughly put, a decrease of fertility will initially lead to an increase, as I pointed out with the German example. At some point it peaks and starts declining, but not “steadily”. Under plausible scenarios, absent catastrophic disruption, some steady state will establish.
Again in Germany, the ratio peaked in the 1990s at 65%, decreased modestly to 62%, and is projected to reach 55% by 2060, still higher than it was around 1900.

https://m.bpb.de/nachschlagen/zahlen-und-fakten/soziale-situation-in-deutschland/61541/altersstruktur

29

Doctor Memory 06.02.21 at 2:49 pm

William Berry: yes, obviously agreed that colonialism is one of the primary root causes of many if not most of Africa’s problems. That said I feel like Ethiopia makes a fascinating example because, as JD notes, its colonial history was relatively recent and relatively brief. But either way, I would say that ‘overcrowding’ is not their problem.

30

J, not that one 06.02.21 at 2:58 pm

I was thinking recently about the change in public discussions of aging since I was young, I haven’t heard “we in the West, unlike those traditionalists in Africa and Asia, don’t value and listen to our old people properly” in a while – lots of fear that “old” people would be put on the Carousel from Logan’s Run – not in today’s era when the Baby Boom is still living and still maintaining its social and cultural dominance. There was a lot of concern, as well, about what would happen to “older” women, especially, when they no longer needed to care for children fulltime and thus had lost any cultural purpose, but also men who had retired and lost similar purpose, and needed “meaningful” entertainment options. Also doesn’t seem like a big concern in 2021.

31

William Berry 06.02.21 at 3:44 pm

@JD:

There is a core Ethiopia (roughly what it is today, minus Eritrea), that was never conquered (as such), in the modern era, until 1935-6. That core is what was left after large areas of its territories were stripped away and occupied by European powers.

In any case, it has been beset by external enemies for much of the C19 and C20.

That the modern core of the country was never conquered or occupied by a colonial power until 1935-6 makes your observation correct in a (very) narrow sense.

32

Trader Joe 06.02.21 at 4:06 pm

@24
” I’m guessing that the pandemic has led to a surge in older employees being forced out of the job market who can’t return.”

No reason to guess. The BLS publishes the statistics every month. Employment among +55 workers is down about 5% from pre-pandemic.

The greatest job loss has been 35-44 year olds, the second greatest has been 25-34 year olds. +55 year olds are middle of the pack. 45-54 year olds (often management) is least. Under 25 next least.

These are in percent of cohort terms. In actual job terms 25-34 yr olds is by far the greatest.

33

J-D 06.03.21 at 12:27 am

@JD:

There is a core Ethiopia (roughly what it is today, minus Eritrea), that was never conquered (as such), in the modern era, until 1935-6. That core is what was left after large areas of its territories were stripped away and occupied by European powers.

In any case, it has been beset by external enemies for much of the C19 and C20.

That the modern core of the country was never conquered or occupied by a colonial power until 1935-6 makes your observation correct in a (very) narrow sense.

If it is true that there are territories which were once part of Ethiopia but which are not part of modern Ethiopia, it is unclear how any experience those territories may have had of colonial rule is relevant to the situation in modern Ethiopia, not conquered and colonised before the Italian invasion.

‘Beset by external enemies’ is not synonymous with ‘conquered and colonised’; it’s a description which could be applied to many countries, maybe even most of them, including even great powers which were themselves conquerors and colonisers.

34

John Quiggin 06.03.21 at 1:26 am

@Robespierre The idea of a “pecking order” implies a lifetime employment structure that doesn’t exist any longer, if it ever did. There’s no meaningful ladder relating an 18-year old fast food worker to a 60-year old manager in the same business, let alone to the jobs the 18-year old is likely to hold after finishing college. Except for top management, companies nowadays don’t pay their workers, of any age, any more than they have to. Older workers who are no longer generating sufficient profits to justify their wages are pushed out . If anything, there’s a bias in favor of youth.

These, and not a hypothetical future shortage of young workers, are the things that need to change,

35

Seekonk 06.03.21 at 2:30 am

Aging: Any society that perceives its shrinking (because of aging) population as a crisis should put aside its racism and xenophobia and welcome migrants.

Total population: From a 1999 Cornell University study: ‘Democratically determined population-control practices and sound resource-management policies could have the planet’s 2 billion people thriving in harmony with the environment. Lacking these approaches … 12 billon miserable humans will suffer a difficult life on Earth by the year 2100.’ http://news.cornell.edu/stories/1999/09/miserable-life-overcrowded-earth-2100

36

William Berry 06.03.21 at 2:54 am

Beset by external enemies’ is not synonymous with ‘conquered and colonised’

Didn’t you read my last sentence? Not being able to gracefully accept someone agreeing (albeit somewhat grudgingly!) with your basic point is not a good look.

If it isn’t clear to you why having much of your territory stripped away by foreign powers would be nationally traumatizing then I’m afraid I can’t help you. That one’s all yours.

I’ve admitted that the surviving core Ethiopia wasn’t actually conquered by colonial powers. But that Ethiopia was not negatively affected by colonial turmoil and skulduggery in the Horn is a strange position, if that is the position you are taking. Famines in C20 Ethiopia likely didn’t happen in an international political vacuum either.

And the massive quantities of Soviet weaponry that poured into the country during the first couple of years of the Mengistu Regime were probably not conducive to peace in that suffering land.

But whatever. If I concede that the suffering of the Ethiopians over the last century or so is all their own f***ing fault, is that sufficient to end your nitpicking?

We’re all good now, right?

37

roger gathmann 06.03.21 at 7:22 am

I don’t get how the elderly “need support”. They actually produced hella wealth. The same argument is not used about, say, the founders of companies. Nobody talks about how Jeff Bezos “needs support” from Amazon. They assume his investment there is, well, work in some transformed form. If the economy budged forward whilst the cohort that is now
80 was working, from their 18 to 60th year, they have earned their retirement. Unless, of course, that retirement has been absorbed in the big wealth wastes of plutocrats, and none is left for them.
The problem should be: how are people who have been educated to fit, dronelike, into certain occupations supposed to have happy retirements? This is a good problem. As schools become emptier, education can become a bolder enterprise. We can educate people not to fit into a hole, but to endow their experiences with all the richness of which they are capable, or some such Deweyian mantra.

38

Robespierre 06.03.21 at 9:41 am

@TM: I did not mean to say that the ratio of workers to non workers will get worse and worse forever (and I do not think that’s a reasonable interpretation).

It will however get noticeably worse that the present ratio, and the fact that it will stabilise at a level equal to or better than proto-industrial ratios is not really relevant.

@JohnQuiggin: let’s assume, then, that older workers’ higher earnings are not due to career progress (or to the fact that low paid immigrants are disproportionately young).

Fine then. What is it due to? Higher productivity? Because that is required for your argument to make sense, and it seems quite difficult to swallow.

39

lurker 06.03.21 at 9:55 am

@J-D, 33
It’s only Wikipedia, but it seems Ethiopia rather expanded during the scramble for Africa:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menelik_II#Centralisation , with only minor losses to the Italian colony of Eritrea.
You could look for parallels in Afghanistan, whose current borders were established by Abdarrahman the ‘Iron Emir’ in 20 years of relentless military campaigns. Or Thailand, which managed to turn a loose network of vassal states owing some kind allegiance to the king of Siam into a modern state, only losing some of the outlying regions.

40

John Quiggin 06.03.21 at 11:20 am

Robespierre @38 Experience. This is a standard component of wage equations, going back to Mincer in the 1950s. Or you can just look at how many job ads ask for it.

41

J-D 06.03.21 at 12:20 pm

Didn’t you read my last sentence?

Yes, I read it.

Not being able to gracefully accept someone agreeing (albeit somewhat grudgingly!) with your basic point is not a good look.

If you think it matters what’s a ‘good look’ and what’s not, then would it concern you to be aware that you are not presenting a ‘good look’ to me.

If it isn’t clear to you why having much of your territory stripped away by foreign powers would be nationally traumatizing then I’m afraid I can’t help you. That one’s all yours.

That depends. If you want me to understand your meaning, then the fact that I have not understood it has to be of some concern to you. Do you care whether I understand your meaning? I can’t tell.

I’ve admitted that the surviving core Ethiopia wasn’t actually conquered by colonial powers. But that Ethiopia was not negatively affected by colonial turmoil and skulduggery in the Horn is a strange position, if that is the position you are taking.

I don’t know how Ethiopia was affected by events in the region. As far my knowledge goes (and as far as my comments have gone), it’s possible that it was negatively affected, maybe severely negatively affected. Then again, maybe not.

It’s practically certain that Ethiopia was affected in some way by events in the region, because that’s usually how it goes: countries are affected events in their regions, sometimes negatively and sometimes positively. I don’t have the detailed knowledge that would be required to evaluate the effects on Ethiopia of events in its region. I don’t need to have that detailed knowledge to pick up on the raw fact that (before 1935) it wasn’t conquered and colonised. If somebody were to say that even though it wasn’t conquered and colonised, it was affected much as if it had been, I would think that was the kind of thing that was within the range of possibilities: it might be true, and then again it might not.

But whatever. If I concede that the suffering of the Ethiopians over the last century or so is all their own f***ing fault, is that sufficient to end your nitpicking?

We’re all good now, right?

I’m pretty much fine now, thank you for asking, but then I pretty much was all the way through, independently of the content of your comments. I wouldn’t presume to speak for you. Your tone might be taken as suggesting that you’re somewhat out of sorts, but that could easily be a mistaken impression on my part.

42

Tm 06.03.21 at 12:36 pm

38: “It will however get noticeably worse that the present ratio”

I don’t agree with the framing. The ratio has just peaked and will decline somewhat, yes. If it declines from 62 to 55% in 40 years, a bit lower than it was in 1970, is that really “noticeably worse”? And we haven’t taken into account unemployment (which presumably should be nonexistent under a labor shortage) and actual labor force participation, which for women has more than doubled in the last half century.

I’m old enough to know that the discourse of demographic doom has been around since at least the 1970s, and probably before. And yet, societies like Germany, these last 50 years, have been coping just fine under conditions of low fertility. Germans haven’t gone “extinct”, as predictions had it back in my childhood (to the contrary, total population has been remarkably constant for 50+ years), and the welfare state hasn’t gone bankrupt either (it has somewhat deteriorated due to “reforms” that sometimes were justified with demographic arguments while in reality being purely politically motivated).

As to what the future brings, I don’t think we have any basis for guessing the average fertility of people not even born yet. The 55% figure quoted above is probably based on the assumption that current trends continue. If this turns out about right, I don’t think it will pose grave economic problems. But more likely too much will change in that timeframe to make meaningful predictions. The next half century will certainly bring challenges far harder to solve than low fertility – and in all likelihood we’ll be lucky if low fertility will be our “problem”.

43

Doctor Memory 06.03.21 at 4:39 pm

As the person who brought up the subject of Ethiopia in the first place for the specific purpose of using it as a point of comparison to western European country that nobody would say was suffering from “overpopulation” and to implicitly raise the question of why we are so quick to say that the problems of Africa boil down to there being too many Africans…

…is this back and forth about Ethiopia’s colonial history advancing the conversation at all? I feel that it is not.

44

Gorgonzola Petrovna 06.03.21 at 7:27 pm

“To see that this assumption is problematic, we need only to look at US data on employment by age.”

I have no opinion on natalism, but do I understand correctly that this economic argument is US-specific and based on the assumption that the changes in ’employment by age’ between 2000 and 2019 are indicative of a long-term trend? But the US situation in global economy is highly peculiar. And even in the US, what if manufacturing jobs came back, either by a dollar collapse, or though internal political pressure, or for some other reason. Then the ‘pyramid’ model would return, no?

45

Tm 06.03.21 at 8:43 pm

After all the back-and-forth about Ethiopia’s colonial history, I think it is appropriate to at least spell out what we are talking about:

“Italian troops used mustard gas in aerial bombardments (in violation of the Geneva Conventions) against combatants and civilians in an attempt to discourage the Ethiopian people from supporting the resistance.[12][13] Deliberate Italian attacks against ambulances and hospitals of the Red Cross were reported.[14] By all estimates, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian civilians died as a result of the Italian invasion [and occupation], including during the reprisal Yekatit 12 massacre in Addis Ababa, in which as many as 30,000 civilians were killed.[15][6][16] Such brutal and massive Italian reprisals against Ethiopians have been described by some historians as constituting genocide.[17] ”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Italo-Ethiopian_War

I agree this subrthread is a distraction but I find it puzzling why William Berry’s accurate reference to “a brutal history of colonial conquest and exploitation, right up through WWII”, is being found fault with. Direct colonial rule was short but nonetheless undisputably brutal, and colonial history undoubtedly had grave consequences on Ethipia’s postwar development.

46

John Quiggin 06.03.21 at 10:18 pm

@44 I used US data because I wanted to pitch this to the NY Times as a response to the pro-natalism they’ve been running. But there’s nothing in it that’s specific to the US. Birth rates are falling, years spent in education are increasing and retirement ages are rising nearly everywhere.

47

John Quiggin 06.03.21 at 10:21 pm

I haven’t followed the Ethiopia discussion closely. But going back to Ebenezer @9, I was surprised to read “Others are badly undercrowded in terms of their carrying capacity: USA, Canada, Russia, Oz.”

That’s not an opinion universally shared in Oz, to put it mildly.

48

Doctor Memory 06.03.21 at 10:46 pm

John@47: it’s also not an opinion broadly shared in the states. However, the citizens of the 145th (.us) and 192nd (.au) most densely populated territories in the world’s opinion that they’re “full” is not something that should be indulged.

49

J-D 06.04.21 at 2:29 am

I haven’t followed the Ethiopia discussion closely. But going back to Ebenezer @9, I was surprised to read “Others are badly undercrowded in terms of their carrying capacity: USA, Canada, Russia, Oz.”

That’s not an opinion universally shared in Oz, to put it mildly.

That was the first comment to mention Ethiopia, as a country which, in contrast to the others mentioned, is overcrowded and, in retrospect, the appropriate response at that point would have been that it’s unclear what basis Ebenezer Scrooge has for drawing conclusions about the undercrowding or overcrowding of any individual country or of the whole planet. That’s a point much more relevant to this discussion than any of the subsequent discussion of Ethiopia’s history.

I agree this subrthread is a distraction but I find it puzzling why William Berry’s accurate reference to “a brutal history of colonial conquest and exploitation, right up through WWII”, is being found fault with. Direct colonial rule was short but nonetheless undisputably brutal, and colonial history undoubtedly had grave consequences on Ethipia’s postwar development.

Every part of Africa* except Ethiopia was conquered by a European power in the nineteenth or early twentieth century; by 1914, Ethiopia was the great exception, the only African country* which had not been conquered by Europeans. The history of the (indisputably brutal) conquest and colonisation of Ethiopia by Europeans stands out as being not part of that earlier period of African history but being rather part of the events leading up to the Second World War. The description ‘right up to WWII’ could make it seems as if (like the conquest and colonisation of other African countries) it went back long before that, as opposed to a description such as ‘shortly before and during WWII’.

*That is, setting aside the more complicated case of Liberia.

50

Michael Newsham 06.04.21 at 4:23 am

#42- “Germans haven’t gone “extinct”, as predictions had it back in my childhood (to the contrary, total population has been remarkably constant for 50+ years)”

“Headbirth, or the Germans Are Dying Out”, Gunter Grasse (1980).

51

John Quiggin 06.04.21 at 4:29 am

@48 I don’t think population density at a national level is a particularly useful measure of carrying capacity. The vast majority of Australians live in cities, not in the barely habitable deserts that make up much of the denominator in your calculation (also true of Russia and Canada, and to a lesser extent the US).

More importantly, you appear to be assuming what is to be proved (“begging the question” as they used to say), namely that the world as a whole isn’t overcrowded. Without that assumption, there’s no reason to say that being #145, or whatever, means a country isn’t overcrowded. No-one would claim that Australia is more overcrowded than, say, Bangladesh, but that doesn’t mean we should be having more children to fill the place up, as pro-natalists are suggesting.

Migration needs a whole new post, but my general view was stated @18.

52

Doctor Memory 06.04.21 at 1:59 pm

John, we’ll obviously have to agree to disagree here, but I think the fact that you had to resort to a fairly tortured double composition (I’m…begging the question by assuming that it isn’t proved?) to suggest that I am ignoring a self-evident truth is a hint as to where the unfulfilled burden of proof here actually lies.

We’ve been waiting for the Malthusian endgame to befall us for literally centuries now and as far as I can see what we’ve primarily learned in the process is that civil wars are unsurprisingly bad for agricultural production, and that if you ask a European about “overpopulation” they will instantly start worrying about (or worse yet actually taking action about) fertility in their current or former colonial territories.

On a higher level, I’ll opine that the conflation of left politics with anti-natalism has been, in general, a disaster and we should stop doing that. Socialism is a hard enough sell as it is: “also you should stop having children and we are foursquare against any policy the helps you with that” does not help the case.

(And not to go off on a tangent about Australia, but yes I am aware that the outback exists. If you want to compare city-by-city, the numbers are no better: neither Sydney nor Melbourne approach the population density of Zürich, never mind noted overstuffed urban dystopia Somerville, Massachusetts…)

53

jwl 06.04.21 at 8:26 pm

There is a little more to the pro-natalist argument than just the economic pyramid question. For example, having the largest economy in the world (China already by some measures) controlled by an authoritarian government trending toward dictatorship is not optimal. All the people who complain about American control of the discourse and smothering of media they don’t like should pay attention to the ways China is already driving American and European companies to self-censor and impose Chinese free speech controls on their products (see, e.g., One Billion Americans by Yglesias). So it’s a variant on the mercantilist argument, with the focus on economic size.

Another argument is that some countries are too small and spread out to properly develop economies of scale and leading to cultural stagnation and “cringe” (see e.g., Maximum Canada by Saunders).

Frankly, I’m not too worried that we are in for a massive Baby Boom anytime in the near future. All the trends in fertility are down (modulo specific highly traditional religious communities) across the world, and modernity has a strong downward pressure on fertility via urbanization and education.

54

John Quiggin 06.05.21 at 3:14 am

@52 Population density isn’t the only issue with overpopulation. There’s also sprawl. By definition, cities with a large population and low density have a large area. I and most other Australians (from what I can tell) find our central cities too crowded and our suburbs too sprawling. Comparisons to other places don’t invalidate those perceptions, nor does the fact that you see political implications you don’t like.

“also you should stop having children and we are foursquare against any policy the helps you with that” is a caricature. I haven’t seen anyone on the left oppose Biden’s expanded tax credit on anti-natalist grounds, and similarly with support for preschool, childcare, free college and so on.

As with migration, I think policy should be based on individual freedom not on claims about aggregate numbers. So, I oppose pro-natalist policies like baby bonuses or attempts to restrict access to birth control.

55

derrida derider 06.05.21 at 8:23 am

One important thing to note is that fertility rates everywhere are fairly resistant to either pro-natalist or anti-natalist policies, because the fertility rate tends to be set by the underlying lifetime economics.

Even the ruthlessly enforced one-child policy in China did little to drop the birth rate below the level it would have dropped to because of economic growth anyway. The birth rate in heavily Catholic southern Europe is actually lower than in northern Protestant countries, whatever the Vatican’s policy on this. Cash bribes to women to have kids have a long history of ineffectiveness – ask the French.

I only know the detail numbers and projections for Australia, but John is correct in his basic point that population aging as an issue for government finances is way overblown everywhere as an issue, and that raising the birth rate is an extremely inefficient way to address it anyway. It’s at least 20 years before the extra kids start paying taxes and in the meanwhile the little buggers have to be fed, housed and educated. Oh, and they tend to take Mum out of the workforce for a while too.

The wider economic effects of having an old population globally is, IMO, not overblown – for several reasons, most of which boil down to older people not being fond of creative destruction. And in the very long run you can’t avoid it anyway as global population, one way or another, stabilises or falls.

Note immigration, desirable on other grounds or not, is not feasible as a way to address either a single country’s or the world’s population aging. Large (and it does have to be large) rates can temporarily defer a country’s population aging, but to permanently defer it the rate has to be large and continually increasing.

56

Tm 06.05.21 at 10:52 am

52: Literally nobody on the left espouses any form of anti-natalism policy.
(I trust you are not a right-winger rejecting pro-choice as anti-natalism).

57

Tm 06.05.21 at 12:43 pm

Joel: China has below replacement fertility. It’s population still grows due to inertia effect but at a rate lower than the US. What was your point, actually?

„Another argument is that some countries are too small and spread out to properly develop economies of scale and leading to cultural stagnation and “cringe” (see e.g., Maximum Canada by Saunders).“

Canada may be spread out but small? „Economies of scale“ and „Cultural stagnation“, huh? Again it’s totally unclear what point you are trying to make and how it’s related to the topic of this post.

58

Seekonk 06.05.21 at 7:59 pm

“Cash bribes to women to have kids”

I would do the opposite. I would pay a stipend to women for each year that they defer having their first child.
Over-population is not the main problem, but it exacerbates the consequences of our cruelty, greed, mal-organization, and lack of solidarity.

59

Dog With A Keyboard 06.05.21 at 9:00 pm

56: Literally nobody? Surely not. Plenty of people on the left espouse anti-natalist positions for ecological reasons. Perhaps they are not running for office and as such are not counted in some official version of “the left”, and perhaps their anti-natalism is not entailed by their leftism, but anti-natalist positions can “hang together” just fine with other arguments for managing material aspects of collective life, either for ecological conservation or per-capita welfare reasons.

60

Tm 06.05.21 at 9:07 pm

57 addressed to jwl, not Joel (autocorrect go f** yourself)

55 Quite agree.
Germany pays very generous child benefits (four children=913 Euros per month). The child benefits were in fact originally an idea of the Nazis, explicitly to raise birth rates. It turns out that nobody decides to have children in order to get those benefits. (If the benefits were a lot bigger, maybe then.) Today, the natalist argument plays no role in this. The child benefit is an established part of the welfare state, a social responsibility towards children and their parents. The American party of family values would throw fits if somebody told them.

61

J-D 06.06.21 at 11:04 am

One important thing to note is that fertility rates everywhere are fairly resistant to either pro-natalist or anti-natalist policies, because the fertility rate tends to be set by the underlying lifetime economics.

It seems reasonable to suppose that fertility rates largely depend on underlying economic conditions, but it also seems reasonable to suppose that government policies have some effect on underlying economic conditions. It would be consistent to hypothesise that, on the one hand, it is theoretically within the power of government to influence fertility rates indirectly through economic policy but, on the other hand, it is practically beyond the power of government to drive significant change in fertility rates if the government is unwilling (or unable) to bring about drastic change to the the economic system. (That last is guesswork; I don’t assert that it is so; but it seems to me that it might be so.)

62

John Quiggin 06.06.21 at 8:07 pm

The recent discussion gets us back to the point of the OP. Kids are expensive now, which means that parents don’t have so many, and that a model in which governments tax young people to support the old is obsolete. Really big subsidies would probably increase the number of kids, but would mean that the transfers would flow from old to young and not vice versa.

63

jwl 06.07.21 at 4:39 am

Tm,

The point was to talk about pro-natalist policies for the US. If China continues to grow its economy, it will dominate the world even if its population is stagnant, because there are four times as many Chinese as Americans. Hence the pro-natalist argument for the US, to compete with China.

The argument is that Canada needs pro-natalism to get to something like 100 million people to fully develop an economy and culture that isn’t just a slight appendage to US culture (for English-speaking Canada) or a strange hermetic system (for French-speaking Canada).

I’m not sure I agree with either of these arguments, but they are pro-natalism arguments that are very distinct from an ecomic support argument.

I do think the world is a better place if democracies have economic and population weight relative to autocracies and dictatorships. And economic power is partially based on population size.

64

jwl 06.07.21 at 4:42 am

Oh, and there are two historical examples of pro-natalism producing outliers. France after WW2 instituted strong pronatalism measures and these have lead to birth rates significantly above the norm. Israel is the other case, with extremely high birth rates relative to its gdp per capita and strong pro-natalism policies.

65

Tm 06.07.21 at 1:49 pm

NYT Comment about China’s three child policy (not terribly enlightening, fwiw):
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/07/opinion/china-three-child-policy.html

66

jwl 06.07.21 at 4:32 pm

Have multiple replies in moderation, but a relevant article ftom Kim Stanley Robinson in today’s Washington Post. He agrees with John Quiggin.

67

Tm 06.07.21 at 4:36 pm

59: Cite a verifiable example or shut up. Note, at issue is not opinions, at issue is whether any meaningfully influential leftists are proposing actual anti-natalist policy positions, of the kind of punishing people for having children or making life intentionally hard for parents raising children.

The latter position is of course very widespread, namely among the right wing (aka “family values conservatices”), but completely absent among leftists who are generally the ones promoting affordable child care, parental leave, child benefits, improved work-life balance for parents, and so on and on. If you have verifiable counter-examples, let’s hear.

And to be clear, when right-wingers accuse the left of anti-natalism, what they are opposing is practically always reproductive autonomy.

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