The conventional wisdom for a long time has been that population is going to explode and we are going to drown in people. However, for awhile now, there has been increasing belief that population will reach a peak at around 9 billion and then start to decline, (this chart shows and projects the slow down in growth). Despite these trends and projections, I still hear many people talking about overpopulation, or about population control or reduction.
However, while many people are still concerned about overpopulation, they are experts warning of the disaster that could result from depopulation. Philip Longman is a prominent example. He has spoken at Seminars About Long-Term Thinking (SALT)(sponsored by The Long Now) and has been discussed over at The Weekly Standard (which covered the topic again recently here). In his SALT talk, Longman paints a distressing picture of the consequences of falling birth rates, bulging aged populations, overspent governments, economies strained to the breaking points, and the rise of anti-secular groups which promote fertility.
The statistics hold up in my mind. A low fertility is the hallmark of industrialized nations and its a statistic I've touted in arguments for free trade. Low fertility is also a hallmark of increased freedom for women.
But, could these rights be our doom?
At a gut level, I can't buy-in. The long-term benefits of having one-half of the population now fully participating in society in the economy, I think, are essential. If we restrict ourselves to half our potential creative output, I think we lose in the long-run. But, besides a gut-feeling, what is the counter-trend to overwhelming pull of demographic deflation?
I recently listened to a Singularity Summit Podcast of Ray Kurzweil discussing seeing Al Gore's global warming charts and being frustrated that Gore had not factored in technological advances. I think Longman is missing out on the same principle. Some researcher have shown that job loss is due more to productivity than to outsourcing. Technological advances are slashing the workforce needed to carry the economy. This trend will continue and may accelerate.
In addition, as Rodney Brooks stated at The Singularity Summit 2007 (another podcast), market pressures will fuel innovative (and automated) solutions to growing problem of caring for an aging population. In addition, with advances in health care may extend life and make people a viable part of the workforce for a longer period.
So, if all goes well, at 55 I will be worrying about the next twenty years of my working life rather than retirement (and I will barely remember depopulation concerns).