Half a century ago there were warnings about the “population bomb”. The world had too many people and there was a fresh debate over the earth’s “population carrying capacity”. 

Some environmentalists asked whether Australia had too many people.

Now many countries seem to be running out of young people and there are concerns about a shortage of young taxpayers.

The Population Bomb was a 1968 bestseller by US scientist Paul Ehrlich. It tapped into the fears previously raised by the UK’s Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). Malthus challenged the prevailing notion that countries should have as many people as possible both to grow the economy and staff the military (to this day we comment on, for example, “140m Russians versus 44m Ukrainians”). 

Malthus warned of the dangers of too many people. His fears were countered by the 19th century’s western world’s expansion into agriculturally rich areas like US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and their provision of food for Europe.

By the late 19th century, there were population “safety valves” via emigration to the colonies, and a desire to build up population to maintain large armies in readiness for the next war. Malthus’ fears were then seen as outmoded and forgotten.

But by the late 1960s, there was a new concern about the environment. It is now hard to imagine but the “environment” was hardly discussed (and the word “environment” is not even mentioned in the 1945 United Nations Charter).

The post-World War II economic boom had been successful; the world was richer than ever before. But there were unexpected environmental consequences.

The Ehrlich book was controversial because it blamed the looming environmental crisis on population growth (especially in the developing world) – rather than the developed world’s consumption of raw materials.

What few predicted at the time was that we would see the “bomb” defused in the late 20th century and that by 2023 concern would be expressed that we were running out of young people and young workers!

Therefore: the “population” debate is undergoing yet another change.

The population bomb was defused by a number of factors. Education for girls and women has been very important. Education is the best contraception. The more intelligent a woman is, the fewer children she is likely to have.

There has also been improved birth control (which Rev Thomas Malthus could not canvas). There has also been improved healthcare: babies lived longer and so parents needed fewer of them because there was less need for “spares”. We now have societies in which children bury their parents, rather than parents bury their children.

Meanwhile there has also been the impact of consumerism: people prefer to spend money on themselves and not on costly children.

Now we are dealing with the implications of the new era. 

For China, there is the haunting question: will it grow old before it grows rich? Europe and the US were able to develop aged care systems while populations were young and there was plenty of money; but China is already getting old and so “cannot make the aircraft while it is flying it”. Does the fear of declining economic and population strength drive President Xi’s impatience?

In Japan (which is the world’s “oldest country”), there are too many elderly people and not enough young workers (which gives Japan an incentive to devise robotics to make up for the lack of young workers).

By 2050 Japan, China, Spain, Italy, Singapore, and Poland (all very different countries) will have 40 per cent of their population aged 60 and over.

Luckily the 19th/ early 20th century labour-intensive work patterns are easing, with machines now doing much of the brutal back-breaking work. Meanwhile people can work for longer in better health in the new service sector.

Therefore, the formal retirement age will continue to increase to keep people working – even in France. They are needed to pay taxes, and to receive less old age pension. (Governments will have increasing problems funding old age pensions).

Will older people campaign in Australia for a “Grey New Deal”, to stop being forced out of work too early, to end age discrimination, and for there to be a reduced emphasis on the young?

Looking to the longer term, are we failing to recognise population aging as a crisis as bad as, say, climate change? Demographics are destiny. The issues raised in this article have serious implications for Australia and elsewhere. 

Finally, populations are growing in many Islamic and African societies: will there be increased migration (legal/ illegal) from those areas into the richer world?  Some young workers will be welcomed in the western world, but many other migrants will not be: how are they to be kept out? 

Politicians will need to cease their “stop the boats” scare campaigns. The media should avoid adding to public anxiety.

Perhaps an Asian migrant family with enough courage, skill and initiative to sail to Australia in a rickety old boat should be welcomed as ideal entrepreneurs? They have the get up and go which an aging Australia needs.

Keith Suter

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