The “decline of the West” due to ageing population is an exaggerated fear, new research from the University of Oxford suggests. The paper argues that some countries in Western Europe together with the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand now have birth rates that are relatively close to replacement, and that developed countries are well-placed to deal with ageing populations.
Security, stability, and relative gender equality combined with measures such as later retirement age means Western countries can address the problems of ageing in populations effectively. Demographic trends are “more stable and sustainable than supposed”, the researchers say.
In the case of the UK, population decline is no longer a concern. The impending general election has healthcare for an older population and record immigration figures as two major debating issues. Between robust birth rates and immigration, population is certainly not in decline.
The publication in the journal Population Studies by Professor David Coleman and Associate Professor Stuart Basten also suggests that fears of a future powershift to countries like China and India are exaggerated. Less secure civil society and politics combined with gender inequality means that population problems will be more difficult to deal with, while the economies will not grow quickly enough address the issues.
Half the world’s populations now live in countries where the birth rate is below replacement, including Brazil, Iran, Turkey, and the southern half of India, says the paper. It suggests Brazil, Iran, Thailand, and Indonesia may face decades of below-replacement fertility, an experience already familiar to China. It says the birth rates may fall in many of these populations to a level lower than that in much of Europe and the USA, because of the slow pace of change of traditional patriarchal society and the sexual inequality that goes with it.
The impact of climate change
The report also highlights the damaging impact of climate change in developing countries, with deteriorating environments adding to the population problems. India, soon to be the world’s most populated country, faces particular challenges of resource sustainability made worse by its vulnerability to climate change.
Co-author Professor David Coleman from the University of Oxford said: “Much has been written about the ‘Death of the West’, with its threatened demise reportedly due to the low level of reproduction in Western countries. We show that this so-called decline has been exaggerated and trends in European fertility have been misunderstood. With immigration, fertility rates have gone up in many European and English-speaking countries.”
“India and China and other fast growing economies have their problems too. Fast rising populations in developing economies do not equate with future success as demographic changes are difficult to absorb if they happen too rapidly. Countries with mature social and political systems will find such transitions easier to bear.”
Co-author and Associate Professor Stuart Basten added: “Many commentators focus on China as the future global superpower – ever growing in economic and political stature. However, China risks falling into a low-fertility trap coupled with severe levels of population ageing.”
“Even when allowed two children, couples prefer one child, with my research showing that this attitude has been reinforced by the urban conditions that families are forced to adjust to and policies that are not family-friendly. Both East and West have their separate different challenges which may mean painful periods of adjustment for everyone concerned.”