The alarming growth in population has always been fodder for serious discussions and somewhat risque humour alike. Sample this: In India, every 10 seconds a woman gives birth to a child, says a population control officer to a group of men he’s to pontificate to. Pat comes the unanimous, if not sexist, reply: “We must find and stop that crazy lady!” Jokes apart, every region, country and people has its own story of population woes to tell — how policymaking has failed to catch up with demographic concerns; how citizens have failed to understand the worries of mounting populations and optimise resources; the litany goes on.

When British economist and demographer Thomas Robert Malthus wrote and published (anonymously first) his epochal work, An Essay on the Principle of Population , in 1798, there were hardly a billion people walking on Earth. Today the United Nations estimates there are more than 7.7 billion humans breathing on the planet. “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio,” warned Malthus. He felt humanity would run out of resources to feed itself if people multiply beyond control.

Was Malthus proven right? To many, the alarming growth in population is one of the greatest concerns societies face today and if goes unchecked the population tide can turn into a tsunami and wreak havoc to the world’s economies.

But not everyone may buy this story of pop-explosion today, however stats-powered it looks. If you look around, you don’t see a population ‘explosion’ even in countries like India. Most couples you know have just one child. Many don’t have children at all. There are fewer marriages than ever and even among communities that have traditionally been pro-populate, the new generation goes single-child or no-child.

So, what’s exactly happening? In Empty Planet: The Shock of Population Decline Canadians Darrell Bricker (a researcher) and John Ibbitson (a journalist) present a fairly radical thesis and say “all of this is completely, utterly wrong” and the great defining event of the 21st century which could also be one of the great defining events in human history, will happen in just three decades when the global population starts to decline, changing the way we look at life, careers, planning of cities, legislation and social welfare.

Missing points

According to the authors, the UN population data, where pundits foresee a population calamity ahead of the curve, is something they call “vertical knowledge or everybody-knows knowledge”. And a clutch of demographers are already challenging such data, observe Bricker and Ibbitson, who challenge the UN’s forecasting model inputs of ‘fertility rates, migration rates and death rates’. They say the UN model doesn’t consider factors such as expansion of education for females or the speed of urbanisation. And when it comes to understanding trends in population, these factors are very important. And if you consider such factors (and many similar ones) you can see what’s in store for us. We sure will reach a stage where population numbers will soon start falling.

“Population decline isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. But it is a big thing,” the authors note. It is big because, for one, it will be coming after decades of efforts to control populations — by design (policies) and by accidents (wars, epidemics). In fact, calamitous events in the first half of the 20th century corrected population growth more than anything else.

“It was a time of unparalleled killing.” Over 16 million soldiers and commoners died in World War I. Over 55 million died in WWII. The Spanish flu that came at the end of the First World War killed some 30-40 million people. In such a context, forcing ourselves to ‘cull’ more through policies may not be a great idea and such a move could have far-reaching socio-economic ramifications in the future, the writers warn.

Indeed, it might sound bizarre today when someone says many of our current concerns around the demographic challenges are suitably unfounded and we are reading the future the wrong way. But Bricker and Ibbitson say all signs point towards a population decline and “we’re feeling it today in developed nations from Japan to Bulgaria..” These countries are trying hard to grow economies even as their young workers and consumers decrease.

In case you didn’t know, Japan’s birth rates have been steadily declining since 2011. The birth rate fell to historic levels, the lowest since Japan started collecting birth data in 1899. Now, legislators and businesses in Japan are trying to devise policies and models that address the rise in the population of the aged and decline of the youth. In 13 interesting chapters, which are a breezy read and can be read as a riveting travelogue that covers some of the most happening geographies of the world, from India to Brazil, Bricker and Ibbitson remind us to get past the stats and understand the problems of having a world where there are fewer young people.

An old problem

Bricker and Ibbitson argue such situations are already making making it harder for countries such as Japan “to provide social services or sell refrigerators”. The trend is visible in urbanising Latin America and even Africa, where women are increasingly “taking charge of their own destinies”.

This also means, very soon, an individual born today will reach middle age in a world which will have social and demographic conditions that would be starkly different from today. Her geographies will be more urban, have low crime rates, better environmental awareness but with “many more old people”. The person will get a job easily but a big chunk of her pay will go into taxes for the healthcare and pensions of the seniors.

Now, that may sound too far-fetched as we look at it from 2019 where geographies such as Africa, India and many other parts of Asia are grappling with resource crunch, but given the way population controls are kicking in, both by government diktats in countries such as China and through increasing levels of awareness among people, we are probably looking at light at the end of the tunnel. There is hope. That does not mean we should sit back and gorge resources; we must stay hopeful and plan better for a future where we will have a robust, young workforce and great social welfare systems for the aged.

Considering that life expectancy levels are increasing already, we must prepare for the dangers of a very old population which is also a “very expensive population”. What should we do then? Bricker and Ibbitson say that retirement ages will have to be raised to buttress the workforce, pension plans and tax revenues. “You’ll live longer, but you’ll work longer too,” they reason. “Automation, artificial intelligence, and other spurs to productivity could take care of the problem of labour shortages…” but we must know what AI can do and cannot. Population decline need not be a time of social decline, the book sums it up. “But we do need to understand what is happening to us and what is about to happen” rather than bemoaning a false spectre of demographic wrath.