For Thomas Malthus, population was destiny. Malthus viewed periodic mass starvation as the inevitable result of the superiority of the power of population to grow over the power of the earth to produce food. Even today, Malthusian gloom about population growth continues to fuel global warming alarmism and much of the green movement.
Malthus’s prophecies have long been disproven. Political dysfunction – not the earth’s inability to bring forth food – causes most famine today. And declining populations present the greater threat to many countries.
Birthrates are plunging around the world – most notably in the developed world, but in underdeveloped countries as well. The average woman in Germany and Italy gave birth to five children in 1850; the figures today are 1.4 and 1.3, respectively. In more than 60 countries, current birthrates are inadequate to sustain present population levels. The population of Russia is projected to decline by 22 percent over the next 40 years; Japan by 21%; Germany by 14%; and South Korea by 10%.
(The following information is drawn from an article in City Journal by Steven Malanga entitled “Our vanishing ultimate resource: Plummeting birthrates threaten prosperity worldwide. Can America buck the trend?”)
The population of almost every country in the developed world will not only be smaller, but dramatically older, a few decades down the line. In Japan today, 20% of the population is older than 65. By 2050 that figure is projected to reach 40%. In Germany the percentage of those over 65 will grow from the current 20% to 33%, and in China from 8% to 25%.
As the percentage of elderly increases, fewer workers are available to support every pensioner. That means ever higher taxes on the dwindling number of workers, which constitutes a massive disincentive to work and increase production. Those living on pensions tend to be much more frugal than the young. As their percentage of the population increases, consumer spending necessary to sustain growth declines.
At some point, the pension payments to the growing elderly population simply become unsupportable. Yet cutting those pensions constitutes political suicide for any government that attempts to do so. Welfare entitlements, once in place, are notoriously hard to roll back, as demonstrated by the history of Social Security reform in the US and the riots that greet any government cuts in welfare budgets in advanced welfare states. Old-age pensions become even harder to reduce as the percentage of elderly in the population increases.
Some countries have experimented with upping the retirement age, but these efforts have proven to be only partial solutions. In Japan, 70% of the people in the 55-64 age group are in the workforce, as opposed to only 48% in the European Union (with Italy bringing up the rear with 36%). Yet for Japan to retain the same ratio of workers to retirees, the average Japanese person would have to work until 83 by 2050.
Aging workers are less productive. Japanese productivity (measured in terms of worker output per hour) was once the envy of the Western world. Today, however, it is only 70% of that the average American worker. When the Japanese economy failed to recover from the stagnation of the 1990s, it began to dawn on economists that they were witnessing the first long-lasting “low-birth” recession. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the Japanese economy grew 4%-5% a year after adjusting for inflation. In the 1990s that figure shrank to an anemic 1% a year, and today Japan’s economy is contracting and is expected to continue doing so from now on.
HARVARD ECONOMIST Greg Mankiw offers a concise answer to the Malthusian vision of people as a drain on resources: “People create resources.” And younger workers have a disproportionate contribution to make to that resource creation. They are the most daring and entrepreneurial, and usually better educated and technologically savvy.
Declining populations can spell not only economic decline but social upheaval. The declining number of native-born workers and resulting labor shortages in Europe has fed the massive Muslim immigration and thereby threatened the cultural patrimony of Europe. Those immigrant populations are proving increasingly incapable of being assimilated, as well as a further drain on the European welfare states. The French population is not declining due to the high birthrates among North African immigrants. But among the younger members of this community, unemployment ranges from 30% to 40% and soaks up resources required elsewhere.
Another population time bomb set to explode is the lack of baby girls. With the widespread use of ultrasound to determine gender and easily available abortion, couples planning on only one or two children are deliberately aborting female fetuses. Already in 1990, Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen estimated that there were 100 million women missing worldwide. In some provinces of one-child China the ratio of baby boys to baby girls is 5:4. That translates into 30 million-40 million more Chinese males than females under 19 by 2020. Such huge numbers of restless young males, with little hope of ever marrying, spell social upheaval – increased violent crimes, trafficking in women and more girls consigned to prostitution.
JUDAISM IS, of course, a famously pro-natalist religion. The Bible’s first commandment is “be fruitful and multiply,” and Jews took that duty very seriously until recent times. Even today, Israel enjoys by far the highest birthrate of any developed country. Its birthrate of 2.8 is 25% higher than the next closest developed nation. To be sure, the large Orthodox population contributes to that high birthrate, but even when the Orthodox are left out of the equation, Israeli birthrates are at the top of the charts.
The determination to continue to bring new life into the world no matter how dark the horizon is a trait first planted in our people in Egypt. Our sages teach that Amram, the father of Moses, separated from his wife Jochebed in response to Pharaoh’s decree that every male child should be thrown into the river. Only when his young daughter Miriam told her father that he was crueler than Pharaoh – Pharaoh only decreed destruction on the male children, but you have decreed that there will be no female children from the Israelites – did Amram take back his wife and was Moses, the redeemer, born.
The verse “under the apple tree I aroused you” (Song of Songs 8:5) refers, at one level, to the efforts made by the Jewish women in Egypt to arouse their husbands when they returned exhausted from their backbreaking labor. The mirrors that they used to beautify themselves for that purpose were considered so holy that they were used to form one of the vessels of the Tabernacle.
God rewarded the determination of Jewish women in Egypt to bring
subsequent generations of Jews into the world with preternatural
fecundity. And their example has been emulated by Jewish women
throughout history, even, where possible, during the Holocaust. As we
sit at the Seder table – often three generations gathered together – in
fulfillment of the commandment “And you shall tell it to your son...,”
let us remember that we have no more important task than the raising of
Jewish children to whom we can transmit the miraculous events so Egypt
and the joy of being a Jew.The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources. He has written a regular column in
The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.