The Impending Demographic Winter Is the Global Crisis No One Is Talking About - Hindustan Times
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The Impending Demographic Winter Is the Global Crisis No One Is Talking About

Published on Feb 15, 2023 07:53 PM IST

As heads of state sound alarms about climate change and a looming global recession, there’s another issue on the horizon that ought to receive equal attention: the impending demographic winter

The Impending Demographic Winter Is the Global Crisis No One Is Talking About
The Impending Demographic Winter Is the Global Crisis No One Is Talking About
ByHT Brand Studio

As heads of state sound alarms about climate change and a looming global recession, there’s another issue on the horizon that ought to receive equal attention: the impending demographic winter. Two decades ago, the Austrian demographer Wolfgang Lutz outlined the “fertility trap” hypothesis.

Countries with shrinking populations, he theorized, became trapped in a downward population spiral as fewer births resulted in fewer future mothers and fewer future children. As households shrunk, so too did the “ideal” family size. Once the trend began, the trap was hard to escape.

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Today, Lutz’s analysis seems prescient as countries known for the largest populations—including India and China—are experiencing a marked slowdown in population growth. And in the coming decades these trends could reshape the world and its geopolitical dynamics. Since the mid-twentieth century, the global fertility rate has declined by an estimated 50 percent. South Korea currently has the world’s lowest fertility rate at .84 children per woman. For context, in the 1960s, South Korea’s fertility rate was around 6 children per woman. But countries from Canada to Australia also have fertility rates well below the rate of replacement, which is 2.1 children per woman.

Not all of this is negative. These fertility trends often coincide with positive developments for educational and economic opportunities for women as well as a significant reduction in the rate of teenage pregnancy. But there are also risks, economic and otherwise, that come with an aging, shrinking population. In the United States, for example, social safety net programs for the elderly depend on a young tax base for funding. When that tax base starts to contract, the system may become unsustainable. We have already seen the economic impacts on countries like Japan. Among the vaunted G7 nations, the only country with slower economic growth in recent years is arguably Italy, which has an even lower fertility rate than Japan (1.2 compared to 1.3 children per woman).

Unstable populations also impact issues like national defense and immigration. But the consequences are not just political or economic — they are deeply human. As populations shrink so too do cultures, traditions, and even languages. There may be more loneliness with fewer familial and social connections. There are fewer cousins; fewer sisters and brothers; fewer aunts and uncles; fewer parents. The family support groups — the first line of defense in any society — will get smaller and smaller.

While a confluence of socio-cultural factors influences these trends, government policies also have an impact. For instance, in Greenland fertility rates were as high as 6-7 children per woman in the mid- 20th century before the government instituted an aggressive push toward urbanization. The fertility rate rapidly dipped as a result. Today it hovers around 2.02 children per woman—just below the replacement rate. And yet, even today Greenland still stands out for its relative high fertility compared to its Nordic neighbors.

Government have also attempted to reverse some of these downward fertility trends. The results have been mixed. Today, Sweden provides parents with up to 240 days of paid parental leave and Japan gives new parents with a lump sum of some $4,000 for each child. While no policy has dramatically reversed their demographic trends, arguably the problem would be even worse without them. Religion and culture can also play a role. In many cases, for example, the highly religious tend to have higher and more stable fertility rates. There’s also some evidence religious leaders can have an influence.

The fertility rate in Georgia received a boost after the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church announced he would personally baptize every third-or-higher child born to married parents in the country. It was a creative solution to a problem that will continue to reshape the economic and geopolitical dynamics over the next century.

Demographics, as the saying goes, are destiny. And if governments and societies don’t start thinking about and acting on this issue, the demographic trends will decide their futures for them. In addition to other threats to our global wellbeing, our national leaders must become focused on reversing “fertility trap” trends. The future of civilization depends on it.

(Hal Boyd is executive editor of Deseret National at the Deseret News and Deseret Magazine. He was an associate professor of family law and policy at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life and previously worked as the opinion editor and as an enterprise reporter for the Deseret News. He is a fellow of the Wheatley Institution. Twitter: @halrobertboyd)

Disclaimer: This article has been authored by Hal Boyd, executive editor of Deseret National. The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer, and it does not have journalistic/editorial involvement of Hindustan Times.

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