We are fast approaching a turning point in world history. The population of the world’s biggest country, China, is about to start shrinking this year, according to the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, a decade earlier than forecast. Beijing, which abandoned its draconian one-child policy in 2016, has been scrambling to find ways to persuade families to have more babies, offering tax breaks, better natal care, and cutting IVF treatment costs. But nothing is working. China’s rate of births per woman has slipped to just 1.15 — lower than the US’s 1.6 births and even below rapidly ageing Japan’s 1.3 births.

How does the world tackle a problem that’s the exact opposite of what it has been facing for years? India’s population, it should be noted, is expected to keep growing for at least the next two decades. India’s population was 361 million according to the 1951 Census. Now we’re at 1.4 billion and the UN’s World Population Prospects 2022 tells us: “India is projected to surpass China as the world’s most populous country during 2023,” possibly a crown we could do without.

Mind you, the World Population Prospects almost seems in two minds about the population crisis. On the one hand, it outlines how the world’s population is still soaring and will cross 8 billion on November 15, 2022 (an amazingly precise date). The climb will continue, says the report, to 8.5 billion by 2030 and 9.7 billion by 2050. By 2100, the world will be full to bursting with a population of 10.4 billion. But note the slowing pace of growth. The UN report says the world’s population will probably touch 10.4 billion in the 2080s but won’t move up much afterwards.

But after grimly noting populations will keep climbing in the poorest Least Developed Countries (LDCs), the World Population Prospects abruptly changes tone and points out that in 61 countries, populations will fall between now and 2050. In many smaller European countries like Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Serbia, populations will tumble by more than 20 per cent.

Already the birth-rate situation is dire in countries like South Korea where the population fell for the first time in 2020 by 21,000. Partly, this was due to the “Covid Effect” which drove up deaths and reduced births by 11 per cent. South Korea already had the world’s lowest fertility rate at 0.8, far below the replacement rate of 2.1. Ever since the early 2000s, Korea has been pursuing “pro-natalist” policies, offering generous maternity-leave subsidies and better childcare but these aren’t enough to overcome costly housing challenges and poor job prospects,

Cross the Sea of Japan and the story is more dire. On October 1, 2021, Japan’s population was 125.5 million, down by 644,000 from the year before. The population has decreased in all except one of the 47 prefectures — even bustling Tokyo.

The Chinese realised their population predicament relatively late. Even though they now have a “three-child policy”, introduced last year, they’re having difficulty shifting gears. “Philosophically, the Party continues to see population policy simply from the prism of labour as a factor of production,” says Manoj Kewalramani, China Studies Fellow at Takshashila Institution. They’re also attempting to make education less expensive — hence the controversial ban on for-profit education apps.

But blandishments to encourage more babies are falling on deaf ears in a country where the one-child policy has left young couples supporting four ageing parents and where many consider child-rearing costs unaffordable.

Similar reasons

Everywhere, government sweeteners can only have a limited effect. The reasons for falling birth numbers are the same around the world. As people become more educated they want to improve their economic prospects by having fewer children. Also, in the modern world, career demands make having a large number of children almost impossible.

In recognition that their baby campaign may not bear results, the Chinese are turning to subsidising manufacturers to turn out more robots to combat worker shortages. (Elon Musk has been pitching his “Tesla Bot” humanoid robot to the Chinese). Other countries like Japan, Korea and Germany are looking to plug employee gaps with robots too.

Where does India figure in all this? There are many scenarios on offer. One reckons there will be 1.5 billion Indians by 2042 and from there the numbers will fall. Another calculation comes up with a peak of 1.7 billion Indians by 2061 and only then moving downward. But the fall will be equally dramatic and by 2100 India’s population is likely to be around 1 billion. By then, China’s population is seen at 700 million or lower. (The Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences sees China’s population at 587 million in 2100).

The numbers are declining faster in south India and it’s reckoned the five southern States where birth rates have fallen dramatically would only make up 12 per cent of the population, down from 15 per cent by the 2050s. In Kerala, future patterns have been visible for years: A fast-rising number of older folk, matched by fewer working-age people. In 2012, there were 1,087 babies born daily in the State. By 2021 it was just 767.

In Kerala’s case, the worker shortage has been filled by migrants who came first from Tamil Nadu in the 1990s and later from further afield like Odisha and West Bengal. Other States where birth rates are falling must “also adopt-migrant friendly policies and abandon concepts like sons of the soil,” says Irudaya Rajan, chairman of the International Institute of Migration and Development.

What should the richer countries do to keep their economies ticking when there aren’t enough working-age people? Countries like Canada, long dependent on immigration to drive the economy and support an ageing population, last year took in a record 405,330 immigrants and will exceed that number this year. In Germany, in 2021, there were 22.3 million immigrants who were either foreign-born or had foreign roots — numbers went up steeply after the Syrian refugee crisis. Now, also, Germany’s just taken in their one-millionth Ukrainian refugee.

It’s a different story for poorer countries like the ones in Sub-Saharan Africa where populations will keep growing the fastest. That could obviously mean more global imbalances and more illegal immigrants attempting to reach richer countries. And what about the ‘demographic dividend’ that Indian politicians have been so fond of talking about? We will have to move at high speed, improving education, healthcare and creating jobs, to get demographics to work in our favour.