Photo Gallery: Is the Population Bomb a Dud?

Foto: Rafiq Maqbool/ AP

The Great Contraction Experts Predict Global Population Will Plateau

The 7-billionth human being was born last week as the UN issued dire warnings of an exploding global population. But birth rates are actually in free fall worldwide. Experts predict that the world's population will start shrinking in 2060 and that -- with a bit of imaginative policymaking -- the birth and death rates could actually balance out.

A very special child was born in Kaliningrad, Russia, shortly after midnight on Oct. 31. To celebrate its birth, the child was given a certificate, a play rug from the government and a package with a number of practical items from the mayor.

As the Russian statistical service Rosstat decreed, this child was the 7-billionth person on earth -- though "only symbolically, of course," as Alexander Mordovin of the Moscow office of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) points out.

The UN left it up to each country to determine how it wished to commemorate this important milestone for mankind. The Russians decided to select a specific child to represent the event. "We want to draw attention to the country's demographic problems," Mordovin says.

The Kaliningrad baby is meant to testify to the fact that Russia's population is in decline. The birth rate is at rock bottom, while the mortality rate is one of the highest in Europe. In 40 years, the world's largest country by area will have only 100 million citizens instead of the 142 million it has today.

A very different message came from UN headquarters in New York last week, when it published its latest projection for global population growth. According to its forecast, by 2100, the world's population will grow from its current level of 7 billion to more than 10 billion.

The headlines reflected the UN revelation. The cover story in the Berlin daily newspaper Tagesspiegel was titled "Megalopolis Earth," and the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung wrote, with some concern: "How many more people can the Earth support?" With a sense of foreboding, the website of Focus, a German news magazine, asked: "Is this the beginning of the end of mankind?"

A Global Turning Point

An entire generation grew up in a world in which everything was on the increase, from the world's population to mankind's consumption of energy, food and land. Fears of a "population bomb" were reflected in the things we learned in school.

To a certain extent, the fears are justified. The global population will continue to grow for decades. "But," says Wolfgang Lutz, "that shouldn't distract us from the fact that an entirely different development has been underway for some time." Lutz is the director of the Vienna-based International Institute for Applied System Analysis (IIASA) and one of the world's most prominent demographers. As he sees it, it is "highly probable that mankind will begin to shrink by 2060 or 2070."

It will be a global turning point. For the first time since the Black Death raged in the 14th century, the world's death rate will be higher than its birth rate.

A boom in the number of births will be followed by a shrinking population in surprisingly quick succession. Someone in his mid-40s today has experienced the doubling of mankind in his lifetime and, if Lutz is right, he could also witness the first day of the Great Contraction.

Of course, Lutz's predictions contradict those of the UN. But, he says, particularly in Africa, birth rates will decline much more quickly than mankind's New York-based counters-in-chief want to admit. Lutz attributes the error to the pressure some countries put on demographers. Indeed, in many places, the command "be fruitful and multiply" is not just religious dogma, it's state doctrine.

A Birth Rate in Free Fall

Lutz's message, that the population boom will come to an end, isn't necessarily a happy one. In addition to the old challenges, such as feeding the masses, there will also be new ones, such as caring for aging baby boomers. Instead of AIDS and malaria, medicine will be faced with the challenges of diabetes and dementia.

The demographics of the poorest countries are still shaped by population growth, which is supported by three factors: First, life expectancy is on the rise, increasing statistically by three months each year. Second, child mortality is declining. And, finally, the children produced by the population boom are now reaching reproductive age.

But how many children does the average woman in this boom generation give birth to? Indeed, it is this number that will shape the long-term future -- and, in most countries, it is in free fall. In 1950, the average was five children per woman, a number that has since declined by half, to 2.5. This is alarmingly close to the so-called replacement fertility rate of about 2.1 children per woman, the value at which the size of a population remains constant.

Europe's industrialized countries dropped below this rate some time ago. Japan, the country with the highest life expectancy, also has one of the lowest birth rates, at 1.2 children per woman. The population is also beginning to decline in countries like Russia, Bulgaria and Ukraine. Without immigration, Germany's population would also number among the countries with declining populations.

Rapid Decline in Asia , Slowing Growth in Africa

The delivery rooms are particularly empty in the emerging economies of Asia and Latin America. In the so-called Asian Tiger nations -- made up of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan -- birth rates have already reached Western levels. In South Korea, for example, the average woman gave birth to five children in 1950, as compared with only 1.9 today.

In China, the one-child policy has caused the birth rate to plunge even more rapidly. Even in Shanghai, a city of 23 million, couples are not taking advantage of new rules that allow them to have two children. Statistically speaking, Chinese women here are having only 0.6 children, which is the lowest rate among all major Asian cities. "From a population standpoint," Lutz predicts, "China will begin to stagnate in 10 to 20 years."

Only Pakistan, Afghanistan and the countries in sub-Saharan Africa are still reporting significantly higher birth rates. Niger leads the pack with a particularly impressive rate of seven children per woman. Indeed, by the end of the century, Africa is expected to be home to more than 2 billion people. But the demographic pendulum is shifting even there, as women begin to have fewer children.

An Astonishing Demographic Pattern

But what are the causes of these epochal changes, and how rapidly will they progress? With their reams of figures, statistics and graphs, demographers are trying to get to the bottom of what is probably the most intimate moment for billions of people: the moment of reproduction.

Part of their job requires examining customs, cultural habits and religious convictions stretching back thousands of years. Education levels and economic growth also play an important role, as does the rate of medical progress.

The notion that all of this can be forecast may seem presumptuous. Nevertheless, scientists are convinced that they have detected an astonishingly similar pattern in all ethnic groups, from the Abkhazians in the Caucasus to the Zulu in South Africa.

The radical demographic changes that scientists believe are taking place can be divided into five phases. Step by step, these phases describe the transition from agrarian societies with large numbers of children to the saturated world of industrialized nations with disproportionate numbers of older people. The five stages are revealed on a trip to visit five families on four continents.

Phase I: A People Before the Transformation

Abraham Kasyibwami, a farmer, lives in a country that holds the dubious distinction of being both the most densely populated country in Africa and the site of the biggest genocide since World War II. Many say that the fact that there were too many people on too little land helped to exacerbate tensions between Rwanda's two main ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi. Is the Rwandan genocide a portent of the bloody future of an overpopulated continent?

With his five children, the 47-year-old Kasyibwami is the father of an average-sized family in Rwanda. When he started his family, quantity was still the key factor when it came to having children. "Who knew how many children would survive?" he asks.

He could have certainly used a few extra pairs of hands to help run his small farm, where he grew just enough food to survive. His story was typical in the small hamlet of Gasharu, a 90-minute drive south of the capital, Kigali. According to Kasyibwami, there are 86 women capable of bearing children in the village. "Sometimes we had 20 births a year," he says. But it was a vicious cycle: Poverty would bring forth many children, but feeding them would plunge the parents deeper into poverty.

But then something happened in Gasharu and, today, only two or three children are born there each year.

The radical shift began with the rice seedlings that farmers in the village received from the German aid agency Welthungerhilfe (German Agro Action), together with a few kilograms of chemical fertilizer and some tips on how to increase crop yields. Soon, farmers were producing enough to sell some of their harvest. "I could afford to buy two cows and 10 goats," Kasyibwami says. In fact, today he says that having two children would have actually been enough, adding: "You have to work much harder when you have a lot of children."

Education, Stability, Contraception

The example of Gasharu's farmers shows that Africa's growing population could by all means feed itself in the future. Agriculture is still very unproductive in many places, admits Harald von Witzke, an agricultural economist with the Berlin-based Humboldt Forum for Food and Agriculture. But, he adds, "harvests can be greatly increased with a little fertilizer and a few technical tricks."

As Witzke sees it, the vision of doom associated with a rapidly growing population merely blinds us to the actual solutions. "The causes of underdevelopment and hunger don't lie in large numbers of people," he says.

What the world needs is education, political stability and giving all women access to modern forms of contraception. Joel Cohen, a demographer at New York's Rockefeller University, estimates that this would cost about $6.7 billion (€4.9 billion) a year. "That's as much as Americans spend on Halloween parties on Oct. 31," he adds.

"We have a vision," Rwanda's undaunted health minister, Agnes Binagwaho, proudly announces. "The vision of a modern country with a large middle class that doesn't have to go hungry, and with enough schools, hospitals and roads."

Enjoying the 'Demographic Bonus'

Demographers see her country headed in that direction. In only five years' time, Rwanda's birth rate has declined from 6.1 to 4.5, which places it on the threshold between the first and second phases of the Great Transformation.

In the case of Kasyibwami, the farmer, this threshold runs directly through his family. His five children are going to school, and they are growing up as part of a younger generation that is better educated. Researchers call this the "demographic bonus" and consider it an important factor that positively affects the rise of a nation. Since life expectancy is still low, when the baby-boom generations reach working age, there are relatively fewer old people to take care of, which frees up the working population to be more productive.

Will Africa be able to make this ascent? If it does, Europeans will be able to benefit from an enormous market of more than 2 billion people. If the experiment fails, millions of migrants will be arriving on Europe's doorstep. "We should invest in the development of the continent," Cohen says, "if only out of self-interest."

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."

Phase III: Booming Stock Markets and a Crisis in Delivery Rooms

Nanny Eliana is a child of the demographic dividend. At only 33, she is already extremely successful. For the last nine years, this citizen of Singapore has been the owner of a PR agency. She publishes fashion magazines and has even written an award-winning novel.

With its 5 million residents, Singapore is a symbol of the success of the Asian tigers. As recently as the 1960s, Singaporeans had a lower annual per capita GDP than Kenyans; but today, the figure stands at $44,000, putting them among the world's top 10. In the '60s, the average birth rate of seven children per woman was also similar to that of an African country. Women were married young, usually to the man their parents had selected for them, and their place was in the household.

Eliana is unmarried and childless -- and happy about it. "I make a lot of money, and I have a career," she proudly says. "Many women in my generation feel the same way. More and more want to remain unmarried, work and get rich." Her parents eventually had to accept it. "At least they don't have to worry about me financially anymore," she says.

'Make More Babies!'

In Singapore, it used to be the parents who chose a daughter's future husband. But, today, the government is trying its hand at matchmaking.

"Have three or more children!" urge government billboards. The government prints guides to hidden parking lots where people can have sex in their cars, and it organizes matchmaking parties for singles only.

On the website Lovebyte, operated by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, one "Dr. Love" gives clever advice. When a 41-year-old career woman asks about what men are looking for, he advises her to first ask herself what she wants.

When she was a student, Nanny Eliana says she was also invited to government-sponsored singles' parties and speed-dating events. But she never went. "The men there were all boring," she says. "Just engineers and accountants, shy and socially underdeveloped." Or at least that's what her friends told her.

Singapore's birth rate has declined to 1.25 children per woman, but that is still higher than that of many other large Asian cities. The birth rate in Hong Kong, for example, is just 1.0.

Danger on China's Horizon

Southeast Asia's economic ascent is breathtaking, and the education of women is viewed as a driving force behind the region's success. South Korea, for example, was once a developing country devastated by war, which explains why hardly any women over 60 have a high-school diploma. Today, half of all college-aged Korean women are attending university. "This is more than in Europe," notes Lutz, the IIASA demographer.

China probably benefits from the demographic dividend more than any other country, although the tide is already turning there. This is a result of the rigid one-child policy, which will soon translate into the country's having a disproportionately large elderly population.

In the United States and Europe, it took 70 years for the share of the population over 65 to increase from 7 percent to 14 percent. In China, the same process will take place in 25 years.

"Social scientists there are very aware of this danger," says Klingholz, the demographer with the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, who is regularly invited to conferences in China. "The Chinese financial investments in the West are a pension plan of sorts," he explains. "It will enable the Chinese to care for their future army of the elderly."

Phase IV: Emptying Out the Countryside

Some scientists thought that the decline in the birth rate associated with demographic change would stop at two children per woman. A visit to the German village of Hemeln shows what a big misconception this was. Many of the half-timbered houses in this hamlet on the banks of the Weser River in central Germany are listed in the registry of protected historical houses.

Walter Henckel has a view of the river from his window. In this spot, the Weser is also the border between the states of Lower Saxony and Hesse. "It used to be like a foreign country for us," Henckel says with a laugh, referring to the town across the river.

Henckel, a 79-year-old retired architect, is a polite old man with a round face, alert eyes and carefully parted white hair. He has been the town's honorary official in charge of historical preservation for the last 41 years, or almost half his life.

He remembers better days. In 1989, for example, he helped lead Hemeln to victory in a contest called "Our Village Should Become More Beautiful." Today, the contest is called "Our Village Has a Future," and the village council is about to decide whether it's even worthwhile to apply.

Henckel recently went from door to door, once again, with his leather folder under his arm. "At the moment, we are fighting to keep our elementary school from being closed," he says. The school board in the nearby town of Hannoversch Münden announced that the current student body of 35 children was not enough to warrant keeping the school open. This year, there were only nine first-graders.

'They Won't Come Back'

When Henckel arrived in Hemeln as a newly married young man, there were lots of children playing in the streets. Today, many of its 966 residents have gray hair, and almost a third of them are older than 60.

There hasn't been a doctor in the village for a long time. Indeed, someone from the village reportedly once said: "In Hemeln, pigs get better treatment than people." Although there is a mobile market today that also takes order for cakes, the only supermarket was shut down three years ago. And there is also a bakery that doubles as a small post office.

These are the symptoms of the fourth phase of demographic change, and Henckel can no longer fend them off. Decline has reached rural Germany, but the ailment is also expected to take hold in the cities soon. In 2050, only about 70 million people are expected to be living in Germany, whereas today's figure is roughly 82 million.

The changes could even affect the country's largest cities, where the shrinking trend is currently offset by the younger people migrating from rural to urban areas. The situation in Henckel's family is no different. One of his children lives near Dortmund, in western Germany, and the other one lives in Berlin. "They won't come back," says Henckel.

He has already taken steps to address the possibility of declining health in the future. His house is designed to be wheelchair-compatible. "If we ever become dependent on care," he says, "we'll mortgage the house and use the money to pay for an outpatient nursing service."

'Replacement Migration'

Germany's future is gray. Except for Japan, no other country has a higher average age.

This prospect causes many demographers to shake their heads in disbelief over the German immigration debate. The census takers at the UN have already coined the term "replacement migration." For Germany, they have calculated that the country will need 24 million new immigrants in the coming 40 years to keep the working population at its current level.

The depopulation of rural areas will also affect the capital and real-estate markets. Elod Takats, a Hungarian economist with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), estimates that houses in Japan, Italy and Germany will soon start losing 1 percent of their value every year.

Of course, our knowledge of such relationships is nothing new. Indeed, Frederick William I, the king of Prussia from 1713 to 1740, is reported to have once said: "A country's population is its greatest asset."

When asked if economic growth can still be achieved with fewer and fewer people, Klingholz, the demographer from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, says: "We will have to abandon the idea of measuring our country's success by its GDP."

Phase V: Mankind in Equilibrium

Demographers hope that the contraction will eventually come to an end. But whether this actually happens will depend on women like Ida Solheim.

Shortly after 4:30 on a sunny fall afternoon, the 36-year-old Norwegian swings into the driveway of her gray wooden house on a hill north of downtown Oslo. Her two older daughters, aged 3 and 5, look a little sleepy in their car seats. Her youngest, a boy, is sleeping on the front passenger seat. "I got stuck in traffic," she says a few moments later to the neighborhood girl in the kitchen, who has already prepared dinner. "Johan is getting in from the airport later this evening," she tells the girl. She is referring to her domestic partner, who is on an all-day business trip.

Solheim has three children, is a corporate consultant and is unmarried. This makes the Norwegian woman a ray of hope for all family-policy experts.

In other places, women like Solheim -- well-educated, with successful careers and unwilling to entrust a man with their well-being -- would hardly have more than one or two children, if any, and would often have them relatively late.

But that's not the case in Norway and Sweden, where the birth rate is approaching the magical replacement rate. "But to achieve this we need as many women as possible with three children," says Kari Skrede, a sociologist with the government-run Statistics Norway.

The Equal Rights-Children Ratio

Skrede has studied an effect that also sparks hopes among German family-policy experts. "Equal rights in the workplace and in child-rearing leads to an increase in the birth rate," Skrede says.

What initially sounds like a contradiction, based on demographic experiences after almost half a century of emancipation, makes perfect sense after a visit with Solheim's family. "Three months after giving birth," she says, "I was really going nuts."

She wanted to get back to work. Her partner, Johan, saw it as an opportunity to take some parental leave of his own. "Now I can talk to Ida on an equal footing about raising kids because I know what it's about," he says after returning home from his trip. This simply isn't the case with fathers who get home from work late and give their children a goodnight kiss, he says.

In the early 1990s, Norway became the first country to enact legislation under which the state would only provide full parental-leave benefits if fathers spent a portion of the leave period at home. "It was about equal rights at the time," says Skrede, the statistician. "No one was thinking about the birth rate."

Likewise, when fathers and mothers divide up the parental-leave period, it's no longer advantageous for employers to give hiring preference to male applicants. As a result, having a child is no longer potentially detrimental to a woman's career.

What's more, in Norway, working hours are geared toward family life. Meetings are rarely held after 3 p.m., and employers don't look askance at employees who go home at 4. "And no one minds when you work from home once in a while and the children are squealing in the background," Solheim says.

Finding Balance in Death and Birth Rates

Things are still far from perfect in Scandinavia when it comes to gender equality and birth rates. But the path being taken there seems to be the right one. "The number of women with high levels of education and more than two children is increasing," Skrede says. She is convinced that once women have triggered demographic change, men will also have to change to make sure it turns out well.

Can an example like Norway point the way to an affluent future in which the birth and death rates balance each other out? Lutz, the IIASA demographer, thinks it's possible. At some point in the next century, he says, the world population could stabilize at a level of about 6 billion people. "That would put us within a range that environmentalists view as tolerable for our planet," he says.

Lutz admits that it will require some imagination when it comes to policymaking. But he also thinks that "people aren't just mouths to feed. They also have brains that can find new solutions."


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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