Everything you know about demographics is wrong

"Russia is suffering a demographic decline on a scale that is normally associated with the effects of a major war."

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Via Hilzoy at the Washington Monthly, The World’s New Numbers talks about current demographic trends and how they’ve suddenly changed. For instance, Britain and France are both seeing their birth rates skyrocket - in part thanks to 30- and 40-year-old mothers belatedly deciding to have children - and should catch up Germany by the mid-21st century (a situation that should be familiar to everyone who was aware of population statistics before Germany cheated by annexing East Germany). And this isn’t because of immigration, recent or semi-recent: “Broadly speaking, birthrates among immigrants tend to rise or fall to the local statistical norm within two generations.”

Meanwhile, though, Italy is still screwed.

And Russia is even worse off: an unholy trifecta of HIV, alcoholism and bad health care mean “a very large question mark must be placed on the economic prospects of a country whose young male work force looks set to decrease by half.”

Meanwhile, the epicentre of the population explosion is shifting from asia to sub-Saharan Africa, and China’s one-child policy may result in India overtaking it by mid-century. And here’s your grim meathook future moment:

There is another development that could affect future Indian and Chinese birthrates: the use of sonograms to ascertain the sex of a fetus. Wider availability of this technology has permitted an increase in gender- specific abortions. The official Chinese figures suggest that 118 boys are now being born in China for every 100 girls. As a result, millions of Chinese males may never find a mate with whom to raise a conventional family. The Chinese call such lonely males “bare branches.” The social and political implications of having such a large population of unattached men are unclear, but they are not likely to be happy.


In a recent paper Hudson and den Boer asked, “Will it matter to India and China that by the year 2020, 12 to 15 percent of their young adult males will not be able to ‘settle down’ because the girls that would have grown up to be their wives were disposed of by their societies instead?” They answered, “The rate of criminal behavior of unmarried men is many times higher than that of married men; marriage is a reliable predictor of a downturn in reckless, antisocial, illegal, and violent behavior by young adult males.” Resulting cross- border “bridal raids,” rising crime rates, and widespread prostitution may come to define what could be called the geopolitics of sexual frustration.

On a more positive note, the article posits one justifiable reason for putting back the retirement age (and thus saving money on paying for people’s pensions): people are living longer because of better diets, general health, and medical technology, but that also means that people aren’t as decrepit as they used to be when they reached 60, 65, or whatever the retirement age is in your country. So, rather than this being an attempt by corporate-friendly governments to claw back your hard-earned pension, it’s merely a reasonable correction to policies established in days where people died much younger. i.e. this isn’t just “Oh fuck, the Baby Boomers are all retiring at once”, it’s a far more interesting “hey, 60 isn’t when you punch out for the last time and expect to die soon any more” problem.

Which is not to say that evil corporate lobbyist scum whores aren’t out to get our pensions, of course. Of course they are. But consider this: many retirees look for new things to do after they retire (or adamantly refuse to retire), because they feel that if they stopped trying to do new things with their brain, they’d wither away and die. Is it so wrong to say “maybe you should carry on working, given that you can”?

And failing that, perhaps should we consider the flip-side of things like AmeriCorps and other schemes where we get young people to volunteer. I expect that when I’m 64 whoever was previously employing me may no longer need me around, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t have anything to give back to society; and after years of the rat race where Gordon Gecko-style levels of greed are only mildly condemned, rather than pilloried from a great moral height, perhaps some gentle nudging along the lines of “Why don’t you help this worthy project with their web site, rather than sitting at home ranting at bloggers?” would be a useful thing to attempt.

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