The Great Contraction Experts Predict Global Population Will Plateau



Part 3: Phase II: From the Masses to the Middle Classes

There's an old and a new way of measuring time, and for Maria Andrea do Nascimento, they are separated by the 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) her parents traveled on a truck bed from their home in Brazil's poor northeastern corner to Rio de Janeiro. Nascimento grew up in a favela in Rio. "My mother was always stressed out," the 39-year-old recalls, "because she didn't know how she was going to feed me and my five brothers."

Her mother scrimped and saved to feed her children, and she died at the early age of 56. But, for her daughter, moving to the big city offered a chance to move up in the world.

At first, Nascimento worked in a small optician's shop in the favela while going to school. Now, she is the branch manager of another optician's shop in a better neighborhood, in the suburb of Duque de Caxis, while her husband manages an auto-repair shop. This places the couple squarely among the roughly 20 million Brazilians who made their way up and into the lower middle class under the government of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The family earns 7,000 real (about €3,000) a month. After moving out of the favela, they now live in an apartment in Bonsucesso, a neighborhood in the poor northern section of Rio. The Nascimentos have a used 2008 VW Golf, and their two children attend private schools.

'The Century of Women'

Nascimento supervises 12 female employees at the optician's shop where she works. "The women are more careful and responsible than the men," she says.

Indeed, experts agree that women play the key role in the great transformation that has also taken hold in Brazilian society. Some even refer to the 21st century as the "century of women."

Nascimento took very little time off from her job to give birth to her second daughter. "It was tough," she says, "but I wanted to be financially independent." Many of her friends had themselves sterilized after having their first or second child. Brazilian women often have the surgery done in the course of a cesarean delivery. "Then the husband doesn't even find out," Nascimento says.

Women want to ensure that they and their children will benefit from increased prosperity, and not even religious morals can stand in their way. Even in Iran, the birth rate has dropped from 7.0 to 1.8 -- the fastest decline of any country in the world -- since the mullahs came to power in 1980. In western Turkey, the fertility rate has already fallen to 2.0.

The Demographic Dividend

With or without contraceptives, and with or without premarital sex, in more and more countries of the world, women are responsible for the sharp bend in birth statistics that is characteristic of the second demographic phase.

In Brazil, the economic boom has only just begun, buoyed by a large population of well-educated young people. "They are converting the demographic bonus into a demographic dividend," says Reiner Klingholz of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development.

Klingholz particularly likes to cite Bangladesh as an example. He calls the country of 150 million "the youngest tiger." Only a little more than half the size of the former West Germany, Bangladesh has developed into an enormous factory and sewing room for the world.

"It's all connected to enormous environmental problems and social injustice," Klingholz says. "And, yet, a middle class with educated children is taking shape that will move the country up to a new stage of development."


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