Baby Boom Ahead?

The Idea: The recent UN projection that global population will level off at 9.5 billion is based on the flawed assumption that a recent phenomenon — families having fewer children than they want due to economic and political constraints — will continue throughout the century and become a global phenomenon. Remove those constraints and the linear growth of nearly a billion more people per decade will continue, and precipitate a great ecological challenge to our planet.

Take a look at the historical demographic trends and you see that, with only a few exceptions in different places and times, people have the number of children they want. During pioneer times in North America, fifteen children were needed to run the farm, so that’s how many most families had. In Niger, Africa today men want 12-15 babies each, and women want almost as many, and that’s how many they have. In the last thirty years, a remarkable and global gap has arisen between the ideal number of children wanted and the number of children actually born. This gap has a number of different explanations, all of them transient. There is no precedent for such a gap continuing, and no reason to believe it will continue. When that gap closes, the average number of children per family will rise by between 0.50 and 0.75. The chart above shows what that will mean to world population. The entire basis for the projection that global population will peak at 9.5 billion and then level off is based on the assumption that this recent anomaly — families having 0.5 children fewer each than they want — will continue as a global phenomenon for the rest of the century and beyond.

Every year a whole set of surveys are taken throughout the world on what people consider the ‘ideal’ family size. Here are some of their findings:

  • In the US, adults say on average that ideal family size is 2.6 children; those wanting children at all want an average of just under 3.0; and younger Americans want an average of almost 0.5 children more than the previous generation had.
  • In Canada, average ideal family size is also 2.6 children, and this number has been rising steadily since it bottomed out a generation ago.
  • In the UK, France and Germany, average ideal family size among non-immigrants is 2.5, 3.3 and 2.3 children respectively (among immigrants from South Asia and North Africa it is much higher).
  • In India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Egypt, average ideal family size is 2.7, 2.5, 4.1 and 3.1 children respectively.
  • In Latin America, ideal family size is 2.7 to 3.5 children.
  • In most of Africa, ideal family size is 7.0 children.
  • The UK and Germany are the only countries in the world where more than 10% of families hope to have 0 or 1 child (the percentages in those countries are 12% and 11% respectively). Two or three children are overwhelmingly preferred even in countries where population is temporarily stable or declining, and 80% globally say having children is essential to their personal fulfillment.
  • Immigrants from third world to first world countries typically plan to have at least two more children on average than non-immigrants, and significantly more than the countrymen they left behind.

These ideals are, on average, between 0.5 and 0.75 children more than actual fertility rates. In other words, people are having fewer children around the world than they would like to. The 2004 UN population projection says “In the medium variant, fertility is projected to decline from 2.6 children per woman today to slightly over 2 children per woman in 2050. If fertility were to remain about half a child
above the levels projected in the medium variant, world population would reach 10.6 billion by 2050 and 14 billion by 2100“. The red line on the chart above shows therefore what global population will be if people have the number of children they say they want. An average of 2.6 children per family with growing average life expectancies will double world population every 60 years.

What are the reasons for the recent phenomenon of families having 0.5 to 0.75 children fewer than they want? They vary from country to country:

  • In China, having more than one child is strongly discouraged, and due to abortion and infanticide of girls the ratio of girls to boys has now reached 0.84 to 1. That means there would be about 50 million more young girls in China without the availability of prenatal gender-detection technology (illegal in China but still widespread) and without the social acceptability of female infanticide.
  • In India, the dowry system and perceived lower labour value of girls has produced the same situation as in China, with the ratio of girls to boys now as low as 0.77 to 1 in several areas of India. That means there would be about 30 million more young girls in India without the availability of prenatal gender-detection technology (illegal in India but still widespread) and without the social acceptability of female infanticide.
  • Throughout the world, as participation by women in the workplace has risen, driven mainly by economic necessity, women have deferred their first pregnancy by an average of about five years from when they hoped to initially conceive. Data suggests this delay of first pregnancy might account for the entire drop in fertility rates in the past generation in the third world.
  • In the US, gender preference among expectant parents has the same male bias as in India. And over 40% of Americans say they would have more children if they were wealthier.
  • In Europe, over 30% of women report they actually had fewer children than they wanted, with affordability being the overwhelming explanation for not having more.

From this data, a very troubling hypothesis presents itself. We have taken great comfort from reports that correlate lower birth rates with higher education, especially of women. But it appears we may have missed the real cause and effect here: Higher rates of education for women mean, as the Two-Income Trap so eloquently explained, higher rates of participation of women in the workforce, which means more supply of labour relative to demand and hence ability to offer lower wages, and also means more price-pressure on housing in prestige areas especially near good schools, driving up the price of housing and forcing women to stay in the workforce longer and defer having children longer, or even until it is too late. So it is possible that it is the cost of living, not education, that has temporarily slowed soaring human population.

That deferral will eventually start to crimp the availability of cheap labour (although offshoring could sustain it a bit longer). When that happens, wages will have to rise and women will once again be able to leave the labour force long enough to have the children they want. And then we’ll see a baby boom, leading to the red line in the chart above — 14 billion people by the end of the century. That will happen even with HIV and other epidemic diseases and famines — historically human population has always ‘bounced back’ from these setbacks by having more children to compensate for the ones that die young.

Of course there’s always the possibility that the Two-Income Trap could become a permanent and global phenomenon, with wage increases always pushing housing and other prices up to negate any real increase, so people will forevermore have fewer children, and start having children later in life, than they would want to. Except that the Trap is not sustainable without the pressure of more and more people competing for wage-slave jobs and scarce resources. Alas, the 14 billion human population isn’t sustainable either.

I know readers of How to Save the World don’t like my ‘pessimistic’ posts, and I suspect some will jump in with reasons why the red line forecast won’t happen, or say I’m just being an alarmist. I think expecting people to have the families they want is realism not pessimism, and while the idea of 14 billion humans troubles me, I think it makes sense to consider the possibility, and how to deal with the fact that our species, for the past several millennia, seems predestined and biologically driven to procreate at more than replacement levels until we hit a wall.

Sources: Gallup International polls of ideal family size; the Guttmacher Institute family values studies; papers to the 2004 World Congress on Bioethics; Johns Hopkins INFO project reports; papers to the 2001 World Population Conference; the European Foundation quality of life studies; UN Population Prospects 2004 Revision report.

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8 Responses to Baby Boom Ahead?

  1. Once again Dave i think you are exagerating, because ine thing its the number of sons thepeople WANT and other its the number of sons the people HAVE because based on your wayto take conclusion Mexico will be one of the richest countries in the world the next yearsbecause our Consumer confidence Index has been growing in the last years.. your article its fallacy…. you have to take conclusion based on FACTS no WiSHES.(i hope you dont propouse to get the womens back home because they are increasing the su-pply of labor and producing a decrease on wage as you use to do with the offshoring case)

  2. Ken Hirsch says:

    During pioneer times in North America, fifteen children were needed to run the farm, so that’s how many most families had.According to this source, women in America had 7 children back in 1800, not 15.In Niger, Africa today men want 12-15 babies each, and women want almost as many, and that’s how many they have.According to these statistics, it’s 6.83 children born per woman in Niger.

  3. Joe Deely says:

    Ken,Thanks for those sources. I had looked up the Niger number but forgot to mention it. As for women from pioneer times… obviously many of those children were unplanned and unwanted since those women had no modern methods or contraception.The European Commission released a report yesterday – see – about the large drop in population that Europe will be experiencing over the next 50 years.From the Report -Fertility ratesThe EU’s birth rate has been falling for 30 years. The total fertility rate for the EU in 2003 was 1.48 children per woman.Of the ten countries in the world with the lowest birth rates, * three are EU Member States: the Czech Republic (1.17 children per woman), Slovakia (1.2 children per woman) and Slovenia (1.22 children per woman) * and one is a candidate country (Bulgaria, 1.24 children per woman).Italy, Spain, Germany and Poland have a fertility rate of less than 1.3 children per woman.Europe is depending upon massive migration to make up for the shortfall in births. However, I think they are being overly optimistic in this. Germany, which wasn’t supposed to lose population for a few years yet has seen its population decline in both 2003 and 2004. Germany had been expecting a balance of 200,000 migrants a year. However like their births the net migration numbers are falling too… 143,000 in 2003 and 70-80,000 in 2004.see-, net inward migration, too, was further down in 2004. In 2003, the number of in-migrations to Germany was by 143,000 larger than that of out-migrations. In 2004, that balance of migration is expected to be down to about 70,000 to 80,000. This means that the migration surplus is not sufficient to offset the deficit of births, so that the total population (end of 2003: 82,532 million) will presumably have decreased to just under 82.5 million.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Joe/Miguel/Ken: Nothing you have said refutes in any way the validity of my arguments. Why in the world would you suppose people would continue to voluntarily have smaller families than what they really want? Do you really expect me to believe that people decide to have children on the same basis they decide to buy cars? Europe isn’t ‘depending’ on immigration to make up for a shortfall in births — In fact their policies are quite immigration-hostile. The data that Ken quotes are averages for America as a whole, not for pioneering farm families settling in new areas. The Niger stats actually support my argument that many people want more children than they are now having, although because of infanticide, poor reporting techniques, high infant mortality, polygamy and a host of reasons my guess would be the actual number of births per woman there is a lot higher than the ‘official’ numbers. The UN global projections are just like the US Census Bureau population projections in the 70s that said population in the US would be declining by 2000 — simple projections that didn’t allow for people’s actual preferences. Sorry, guys, you are all just so hell-bent on denial of the very real possibility that we’re going to breed ourselves into oblivion simply by obeying our biological imperatives, that there’s simply no point in arguing with you. It’s like arguing with Lomborg about global warming. The very idea that we should be more concerned about underpopulation than overpopulation would be laughable if it weren’t so sad.

  5. Joe Deely says:

    Dave, I would turn it around on you and say that you are the one in â

  6. Paul says:

    Rest assured:The line will stay below the black UN Median line, because well before 205 there will be a massive die-off. If you look closely at the current world situation you will recognize that there is no other conclusion.

  7. Paul says:

    Sorry it should be 2050 of course

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