On the peak person problem

The other day I was at a talk given by Mark Lynas, one of Britain’s foremost environmentalists, and hosted by the Long Now Foundation, so-called because it’s meant to foster long term thought. So I guess it was fitting that one of the questions Mark got was on the problem of shrinking human population.

Yes, you heard that right. The shrinking human population problem.

While environmentalists have been stressing out about our quickly growing human population, fertility rates have been declining. Fast. In fact, according to a recent column by David Brooks, Iran now has a birth rate similar to that of New England.

None of this should come as a surprise exactly. The population has been growing more slowly as of late going from 5 billion to 6 billion in 11 years and 6 billion to 7 billion in 13 years. Recent UN projections have us reaching 8 billion 14 years after that. The entire world population is supposed to top out at about 10 billion sometime in this century.

In less than a hundred years, we’ll have hit peak person. And by some accounts, we may have already hit peak child.

Many people continue to think of the overpopulation problem. And I think that for the time being, we do have to figure out how we’re going to feed 10 billion people, particularly 10 billion people who want to eat a lot of meat. But if current projections pan out (and they might not … we could dramatically slow the aging process or something else could case fertility rates to increase) 10 billion people is the max we need to feed. And then, the numbers will start to drop.

And that’s when we’ll be in no man’s land.

Because while environmentalists tend to view overpopulation as an issue for a variety of reasons, many social scientists view a falling population, and particularly an aging population, as problematic. That’s because our views on the economy, and many of our social policies —like say Social Security — are predicated on this idea that our population is going to continue to grow. Hence the worry about a shrinking population.

Personally, my view on the shrinking population problem is about the same as my view of the overpopulation problem which is … that it’s only a problem if we don’t figure out how to handle it. Just as we’re going to have to feed and provide energy for a world of 10 billion people, we’re going to have to figure out how to build a social safety net that reflects the reality of our changing demographics. And really, we’re going to have to figure out both in fairly short order.

Because in the end, overpopulation doesn’t automatically lead to environmental degradation and shrinking populations don’t automatically lead to economic doom. We should not coerce women to limit their reproduction, nor should we take away their birth control pills (ahem). Instead of looking at population as a terrible! problem! that must be fixed! we can just look at it as the driver of various issues that need to then be managed.

And then, you know, manage ’em. As best we can.

For a similar take, see Bryan Walsh’s great piece on population in Time.

One response to “On the peak person problem

  1. Thanks for that really interesting article! It really gives me hope as I’m fairly sure that we will come up with a solution – let’s just hope that it’s quickly and humane and non-discriminatory.

    I think that one major premise of the pension and health care systems is that retirement is around age 65. To be honest I don’t think that is realistic, necessary or desirable for future generations. A later age combined with more flexible working practices should see people working happily to 70 or 75.

    We will be healthier and more active, not nearing death as previous generations. Continuing to work keeps people involved in their communities and stimulates their minds.

    If people were allowed to cut back to fewer hours or work from home more, then this proposition would not be depressing but rather liberating – how many people do you know that have gone into major depressions, or simply dropped dead, shortly after retiring? Additionally, how many people do you know that totally retire when they hit that magic age? Many people I know have continued to work part-time (perhaps in a new or related field) or in a voluntary capacity well into their 70s.

    While I personally look forward to having more freedom of choice and flexibility, I do not look forward to sitting around twiddling my thumbs and I well expect to continue working in some capacity until I’m at least 75 (fingers crossed!!).

    Thanks for the thought provoking post, Ruchi!

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