Peter McGraw talks to you about depopulation, its potential costs to humanity, and whether singles and others who don’t have children might be to blame.
Listen to Episode #128 here
Solo Thoughts 8 – Is Depopulation a Problem and are Singles to Blame?
I occasionally host episodes in which I share my thoughts without a guest, solo. I want to talk to you about depopulation and its potential negative effects on humanity. Demographers are projecting that the world’s population will stop growing and begin to decrease. The concern is that we will not have enough people on the planet to sustain a thriving human society. Those of you who are single and who don’t have children might be to blame.
A note before we get going, this is a complex topic. It lies outside my primary expertise. Moreover, I’m reluctant to predict the future. Smarter people than me try and fail. If you have clarification or differing opinions, I welcome hearing them as part of the private Solo Community, which you can sign up for at PeterMcGraw.org/Solo, or you can tweet me @PeterMcGraw. To give you a preview of my thinking on this topic, I believe that the threat of depopulation is overblown because of technology in general, and the rise of robots specifically will eventually make it easier for people, even single people to have children.
Moreover, coupled with the improvements in technology, improvements in men’s participation and family life will further facilitate people having children, though the former, men’s participation, will not happen without the latter improvements in technology. The threat of depopulation came to my attention as a result of two experiences.
The first experience has been an ongoing conversation with a friend and audience who works in wealth management. He’s concerned about depopulation and its effects on economic growth both in the US and globally. In brief, adding people to the planet creates growth. There are more workers and consumers, and they feed each other. Though the data is equivocal, scholars and non-scholars alike tend to believe that countries with increasing populations thrive and countries with decreasing populations don’t.
The second experience has been seeing and hearing Elon Musk tweet and talk about the threat of depopulation. He’s not concerned about economic growth, however. He’s concerned about a population crash. People have been typically concerned about a population bomb brought to prominence by the 1968 book by the same name that would lead to famine and a lack of natural resources.
Nowadays, there lies the concern about the effects of population on climate change. It appears there’s no population bomb. It turns out the reverse is occurring. Depopulation is a real phenomenon. The fertility rate or the expected number of births per woman in the United States has been at or below the replacement rate since the 1970s. Notably, responses to COVID have facilitated this drop in fertility rate lately. Depopulation creates problems at the country level.
Replacement is already a profound problem in Japan, for example, with birth rates dropping even faster than demographers have predicted. Indeed, the country’s fertility rate declined to 1.34, among the lowest in the world. Consequently, Japan is a super-aged nation. More than 20% of its population is older than 65. The country’s total population is close to 126 million but by 2065, it’s expected to drop to about 88 million.
The super-aged nation has a variety of problems, especially not having enough labor or consumers. There’s also the strain when the dependency ratio goes up in which the elderly outnumber young people, which increases financial pressure on health and social services. Even China, which has 1.4 billion people, is expected to peak at around 1.45 billion around 2030 and subsequently decline due to the country’s one-child policy.
Some European countries such as Italy, Finland, and Estonia have been concerned about this phenomenon for years. All three countries offer financial incentives for people who have children. What is, or rather, who is to blame for a potential population crash? First, it’s not due to mortality rates. The opposite is occurring. Life expectancy is on the rise fueled by decreases in child mortality, fewer wars, lower homicides, and improvements in hygiene, healthcare, and medicine.
One big culprit, obviously, is birth control. It allowed China, for example, to enact that one-child policy. Another reason is married people are having fewer kids of their own volition. Elon Musk likes to point out that the wealthier people become, the fewer kids they have. With six children, he’s the exception. A relevant reason to those of you who read this is the rise of singles. You know the stats by now. Nearly half of American adults are single, and of them, half are not interested in dating or relationships at the moment.
Even more notable, 1 in 4 Millennials are projected by the Pew Center to never marry. People who are not getting married in the first place overwhelmingly do not have children. As discussed in the Otherhood episode with Melanie Notkin, it was a group of women who would like to have kids but are unable to because they can’t find the right partner. They’re single by chance.
Some countries have a gender imbalance that also creates a class of singles by chance. In China, there are an extra 35 million men largely due to that one-child policy, which means that many men who would like to have a family will be unable to. Whether someone is single by choice, single by chance, or whatever reason they’re not having children, I’m not ringing alarm bells about depopulation or overpopulation for that matter.
Besides the obvious difficulties predicting the future, there are other scarier threats than depopulation, including nuclear war, viruses, and even a stray meteorite. The last mass extinction event, which wiped out 50% of plants and animals, occurred millions of years ago due to a meteorite strike. To digress for a moment about extinction, before people get too down on singles for the role in depopulation decline, these very same singles are a potential solution for a mass extinction event.
Biologists note that singles are more likely to be loners and dispersed humans, for example, out there in the world away from others, and thus serve as an insurance plan against extinction events because these loners are spread out and away from viruses or nuclear damage. They can become the solution by finding each other after and starting society anew. Speaking of solutions, what are solutions to the problems caused by depopulation?
For my wealth management friends’ concerns about near-term growth, there’s a political solution, immigration. Simply allow more people into the countries that are struggling with replacement rates. Immigrants supercharge economies. The US is among the most appealing locations for immigrants. Immigrants are disproportionately likely to be entrepreneurial. They start businesses at twice the rates of regular citizens. Immigrants also happened to be disproportionately single.
Returning to Japan, part of the problem the country faces is that it has very low immigration rates due to government policy. It’s only something that the Japanese are now reconsidering. Another solution to depopulation is at odds with another concern. Some smart people are hand-wringing about what happens when robots and artificial intelligence start taking so many jobs that most people no longer need to work. What will people do?
Introduced by Thomas Paine and supported by people such as Andrew Yang, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg, there may become a need for UBI or Universal Basic Income as these robots take over and shift society to become more leisure-focused. It is in the concern that tech will take jobs lies one solution to depopulation. Herbert Simon and other scholars have argued that the concerns about overpopulation were always overblown because the solution for overpopulation is contained within the population itself.
That is, human creativity can solve the problem associated with overpopulation such as dwindling resources. The more people there are on the planet, the more likely that the genius or geniuses will be born who will solve the problems. These solutions will typically be technological. For example, the predicted famines never happened. Farming and food distribution have drastically improved due to innovation. If anything, more people die from too many calories rather than not enough.
While climate change is real, there are ongoing improvements in technology, policy, and behavior that gives one hope. I’m no tech bro but I believe that technology and innovation are the keys to human thriving. Supply chain, farming, vaccines, and medicines already meaningfully contribute to a better world. I believe climate change will be best addressed by tech, especially when coupled with conservation.
In short, technology and innovation tend to make the world better. For example, the rise of singles is facilitated by innovation. I already mentioned birth control but the list of technologies that facilitate single living is endless from time-saving devices such as dishwashers and clothes washers to mobile phones and DoorDash to the invention of the apartment building itself. They all make it easier to live without a partner.
What’s going to happen? I suspect that when the robots take over, partnered people and single people, for that matter, will be better able to have a family. They will have more time and energy to raise children. The cost of having children will go down. The time spent raising children will replace time spent at work rather than being an addition to work. The cheeky way to say this is that family will become a pastime.
It’s incredibly difficult to have it all, a job, a family, and leisure. The story of the rise of singles is a story about the rise of women, which was discussed in-depth in The Rise of Single Living episode with Kris Marsh. The countries that are most affected by fertility decline are also the countries that are most equitable that tend to treat women well. Not surprisingly, when you give women access to education and economic opportunities, some women decide they don’t need a man, at least not to survive.
You get some singles by choice. Another reason that women are opting out of families is that educated and economically successful women often find it difficult to do both work and a family well. Returning to Japan, Japanese women are opting out of motherhood to work because doing both is nearly impossible. Japanese men do the least amount of housework in the world. Thus, mom’s second shift is brutal.
Besides the technological solution, there’s another ironic solution to get fertility rates higher. It’s more equality. Greater equality helps, for example, by giving men paternity leave so that they can better contribute to family life. Having husbands simply do more around the house like caregiving, cleaning, etc. would go a long way to easing the burden on women. This would especially be the case that men didn’t need to work as much thanks to robots.
How should you feel about your single status and risks of depopulation or even population growth? Are you the bad guy in this scenario contributing to the demise of society by not having six kids? I rely on two standards by which to govern moral decisions. One is consent. The other is to do no harm. If those two conditions are present, then people can do as they please without judgment for me.
The issue of no harm is more relevant here. If someone such as myself decides to forego a family, it’s not clear there’s harm or some cost at the individual level. Give or take a person from the planet of nearly 8 billion people, my choice has little effect. In short, I believe you’re doing little harm with your individual choice. Make your choice and do what you can to minimize harm within your lifestyle.
In conclusion, I’m not overly concerned about depopulation. I am concerned when there’s not enough support however for equality and emerging technology. When done well, we can have people who want to have children, and they’re going to be able to do so successfully. Perhaps this all sounds too utopian for you. It is one possible future, however. I would be happy to hear your thoughts on Twitter or the private Solo Community. Thank you for reading. Cheers.
- @PeterMcGraw – Twitter
- Pew Center
- The Rise of Single Living – Previous episode
About Peter McGraw
Peter McGraw is the host of Solo-The Single Person’s Guide to a Remarkable Life.