Updated March 27 at 4:27pm

Slowing birthrates likely to alter global power structure

Guest Column: Ramesh Ponnuru
It isn’t quite true that demography is destiny. But if Nicholas Eberstadt is right, our destiny is going to be shaped by demography in ways we may not expect.

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Slowing birthrates likely to alter global power structure


It isn’t quite true that demography is destiny. But if Nicholas Eberstadt is right, our destiny is going to be shaped by demography in ways we may not expect.

Eberstadt studies demographics for the American Enterprise Institute, and makes projections in full awareness that the field has gotten the future wrong before. In the 20th century, the global population increased almost fourfold, to 6.1 billion from 1.6 billion.

“Nothing like this magnitude or tempo of population change had ever previously been witnessed in the history of our species,” he has written.

It was reasonable to fear, as many people did during that period, that the result would be mass famines. Instead, the world saw rising prosperity.

Today’s most important population trend is falling birthrates. The world’s total fertility rate – the number of children the average woman will bear over her lifetime – has dropped to 2.6 today from 4.9 in 1960. Half of the people in the world live in countries where the fertility rate is below what demographers reckon is the replacement level of 2.1, and are thus in shrinking societies.

As Eberstadt points out, we can make predictions about the next 20 years with reasonable accuracy. The United States’ traditional allies in western Europe and Japan will have less weight in the world. Already the median age in Western Europe is higher than that of the U.S.’ oldest state: Florida. That median age is rising 1.5 days every week. Japan had only 40 percent as many births in 2007 as it had in 1947.

These countries will have smaller workforces, lower savings rates and higher government debt as a result of their aging. They will probably lose dynamism, as well.

All these effects will, in turn, almost certainly make these countries even less willing than they already are to spend money on their armed forces, much less humanitarian missions.

But one country that worries American military strategists will also face serious demographic challenges. China’s rise over the last generation has been stunning, but straight-line projections of its future power and influence ignore that its birthrate is 30 percent below the replacement rate.

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that China’s population will peak in 2026, just 14 years from now. Its labor force will shrink, and its older-than-65 population will more than double over the next 20 years, from 115 million to 240 million. It will age very rapidly. Only Japan has aged faster – and Japan had the great advantage of growing rich before it grew old. By 2030, China will have a slightly higher proportion of the population that is elderly than Western Europe does today.

China, notoriously, has another demographic challenge. The normal sex ratio at birth is about 103 to 105 boys for every 100 girls. In China, as a result of the one-child policy and sex- selective abortion, that ratio has been 120 boys for every 100 girls. From 2000 to 2030, the percentage of men in their late 30s who have never been married is projected to quintuple. Eberstadt doesn’t believe that having an “army of unmarriageable young men” will improve the country’s economy or social cohesion.

He thinks demographic change will pose two problems specific to China. Its society has relied heavily on trust relationships within extended-family networks. In a country where fewer and fewer people will have uncles, those networks will rapidly atrophy. The government, meanwhile, relies for its legitimacy on a level of economic performance that demographic trends imperil.

All in all, Eberstadt concluded, “we might want to have some additional new friends and allies in the world.”

Foreign-policy thinkers can often lose sight of demographic trends, Eberstadt said, because from a policy makers’ view “they tend to look really glacial.” But “population change gradually and very unforgivingly alters the realm of the possible.” •

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review.


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