The writer is the author of ‘Overtime: Ten Lessons for an Aging World’
The news this week that the population of India is forecast to surpass that of China is a powerful psychological moment. For three centuries, since the Mughal Empire outnumbered the Qing dynasty, India has been no greater than its rival. The Chinese Communist Party fears that China, whose population is experiencing rapid contraction, may grow old before it gets rich. Western fears of stagnation are generating agonizing debates on immigration and calls for ‘pro-natalist’ policies. But governments around the world should resist the temptation to arm the population.
Demographic changes are demolishing old certainties. At one point we are concerned about the 8 billion human beings wreaking havoc on the planet. The next, we begin to panic that falling birth rates and aging populations will slow economies and erode civilizations. In Japan I have sat through agonizing debates about the possible extinction of the breed. In the United States, which has so far been the exception in the rich and aging world, I speak with lawmakers who worry that immigrant groups are failing to drive the nation because they don’t have as many children as they used to.
India’s growing labor force is envied by aging nations. Forty percent of its population is under the age of 25, and about 1 in 5 of the world’s under-25s live there. Their median age of 28 contrasts favorably with the US’s 38 and China’s 39. But this huge, youthful group will only be a blessing to their country if they can find work.
India has a burgeoning middle class and is a world leader in IT, making it well positioned to win investment from companies looking to diversify out of China. But the leap into high-end manufacturing, which propelled countries like Taiwan and South Korea to prosperity, has so far been elusive in a nation where nearly half the workforce still works on the land, and 46 percent percent of adults age 25 and older did not. finish primary school. And its appeal as a democratic counterweight could diminish under the repressive policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Around the world, the race is on to secure demographic dividends before falling birth rates drag down economic growth. But many growing countries, from India to Egypt to Nigeria, may struggle to achieve the kind of demographic dividend reaped by the Asian tigers unless they can also reap productivity gains. Raw materials from Africa could be a boon for the continent, but for now, China is using its weight to safe resources there, establish influence and compensate your own aging profile.
In the next decade, countries in general will struggle to maintain GDP per capita as population growth slows. Canada has just welcomed the largest number of immigrants in its history, as part of a strategy to compensate for its low birth rate. Western European countries are raising the retirement age.
The fear is that we could be on the verge of a vicious circle. If governments tax the dwindling workforce more to support the elderly, it will become increasingly less affordable for younger citizens to have children. As nations grapple with demographics, a growing number are adopting formal policies to increase or decrease fertility. Of the world’s 197 nations, 69 have goals to reduce the birth rate and 74 have goals to increase or maintain it.
The danger arises when countries that are losing demographic ground begin to put unacceptable pressure on women to have children. Both India and China have been trying to control fertility for decades: India was the first country in the world to have a national family planning policy, which it launched in 1952, while China implemented its one-child policy in 1980. Both nations imposed brutal measures to restrict family size in pursuit of development goals. These have had far-reaching repercussions. Despite dropping his one-child policy in 2016, the Chinese Communist Party has not been able to reverse the trend. In India, most of the growth is driven by just 5 of its 36 states.
It is important to remember that human beings are not factors of production. The modern story of falling birth rates is very much one of women’s liberation. Many democracies are now paying “baby bonuses” to help with childcare costs. But the nastiest regimes can quickly revert to more repressive methods. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan denounced family planning, saying mothers have the responsibility to provide offspring. In Iran, child marriage is on the rise. Russia has revived the “heroine mother” award for women who have ten or more children.
Commenting on India’s milestone against China, UNFPA, the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, has called for a global emphasis on quality of life, not number of people. It has also found that countries without policies that seek to increase fertility rates score much higher on human freedom indices than those that do.
Governments fear losing influence in the world if their populations do not keep up with their rivals, and they fear stagnating economic growth. To begin with, they must accelerate the alternatives to boosting the birth rate. Keeping citizens healthier into old age allows them to work longer. Investing in technology and skills can maximize the potential of existing populations. The adoption of pro-immigration policies can revitalize a society, provided it is combined with concerted integration efforts.
The headlines hailing India’s leap forward were couched in macho language about ‘overtaking’ and ‘beating down’, showing how far the cold hard science of demography is tied to the psychology of ‘winning’. But big is not always best, as the next decade may prove.