Demography is politics

Population change is poised to be one of the most crucial political issues of the 21st century. How future societies are affected by declining populations will be largely predetermined by decisions already made by previous generations and by choices we make today.

Ipsos | Almanac 2024 | Demography
The author(s)
  • Darrell Bricker Global Head of Public Affairs - Ipsos

The aphorism "Demography is Destiny" is commonly associated with the French late-enlightenment philosopher Auguste Comte. Comte believed that understanding the demographic structure of a population provides valuable insights into its future. While Comte was mostly correct, he overlooked the fact that the individuals within a population can influence their own demographic future through their choices and actions. This is how demography intersects with politics.

Many people fail to recognize that humans are, at their core, a biological species. Like any biological species, the future of humanity depends on the decisions made by the current generation in order to create the next generation. This may seem like a simple truth, but it is surprising how often it is forgotten or misunderstood by those who claim to understand the future.

Over the past 18 months, there have been two significant announcements about population trends that received limited attention. The first announcement came from the United Nations, stating that the human species had reached a historic high of eight billion individuals. However, the UN failed to mention that this number would not continue to grow. Rapidly declining fertility rates and population aging are putting a halt to the future growth or replacement of humanity.

Ipsos | Almanac 2024 | DemographyThe US Census Bureau confirmed the UN's results, albeit with a slight discrepancy in timing. They estimated that humanity reached eight billion in September 2023, 10 months later than the UN's estimate. This difference may seem insignificant, but it highlights a growing skepticism among demographers regarding the UN's view of humanity's future size.

The second announcement came from the Government of China, revealing that the absolute decline of the Chinese population – which was expected to start in the mid-2030s – had already begun. This decline is largely due to Chinese potential parents choosing not to have children. While China's one-child policy has contributed to this trend, other Asian countries without such policies, like Japan and South Korea, are also experiencing similar declines in fertility.

There have been numerous announcements from national statistical agencies and think tanks cataloging declining fertility rates and unexpected population declines worldwide. Even the traditionally conservative population experts at the UN have revised their 2100 projection for global population, reducing it by nearly a billion people since their last projection in 2017.

When John Ibbitson and I published "Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline" in 2019, the idea that the world's population would soon peak and then decline was considered counterintuitive. However, accumulating evidence since then has shifted this notion from counterintuitive to the new conventional wisdom, particularly among those closely observing these issues in the public sector, academia, and think tanks.

As these ideas gain momentum, they are starting to enter broader public discussions. The conversation is evolving from confirming demographic trends, especially declining fertility, to exploring potential solutions. Three coalitions are emerging based on their perspectives on demographic futures.

The first coalition, primarily progressive in orientation, believes that reducing the population is essential for the planet's survival. They view the current population of eight billion as unsustainable for Earth. This perspective aligns with the UN's Social Development Goals (SDGs) and underpins environmental and sustainability policies in both government and the private sector.

The second coalition, also progressive, shares concerns about the climate but recognizes the practical challenges that come with managing a shrinking and aging population. They understand that the journey down from eight billion will have significant effects on society, just as the journey up did. This coalition advocates for increasing fertility rates and immigration to delay population peaks and better manage the consequences.

The second coalition attributes fertility collapse to market failures caused by sexism and the financial burdens of parenthood. They advocate for improving work-life balance, reducing career penalties for motherhood, and making childcare and raising children less financially burdensome.

Ipsos | Almanac 2024 | DemographyThe third coalition, dominated by conservatives, agrees with the second coalition on the significance of declining and aging populations. However, they attribute fertility collapse to the abandonment of social values that prioritize marriage, children, families, and the nation. They argue that society puts too much emphasis on individualism and not enough on community, leading to a decline in birth rates.

While both the second and third coalitions recognize the need for incentives to support working parents, they have different motivations. The third coalition wants to reduce the financial burden on working women to discourage them from pursuing higher-paying careers. Their incentives align with those proposed by the second coalition, but for different reasons.

Demography is becoming a political issue, like climate change. What started as a niche discussion among scientists and activists is now gaining traction in the realm of population change. Opposing sides are emerging, and it has already become an election issue in countries like Italy and Spain. President Xi of China even highlighted population decline as a concern at China's recent National Women's Congress, urging delegates to have more children.

Population change is poised to be one of the most crucial political issues of the 21st century. The outcomes are largely predetermined by the decisions made by previous generations and the current one. Whether this trajectory can be changed depends on which of the three coalitions prevails. This is why demography is now politics.