If Growth is Essential to Success, What Happens When our Birthrate Declines?


It’s not surprising that most of our measures of success are based on growth. Stop growing, even if you’re a giant corporation, and you’re punished for it. Fail to scale in Silicon Valley and your company’s toast, even if your idea is a world-changer.

The grow factor applies to countries too. Japan in the 1980s was touted to become the world’s largest economy, and American business flocked there to learn how to be successful. In the 90s Japan’s economy stalled, and the luster went away. Fail to keep growing and the world kicks you to the curb.

For generations now, as the earth’s population has soared (we just passed 8 billion sometime last week), demographers have warned that our planet is threatened by over-population, that we’re using up all its resources, and that our sheer numbers are a threat to all life. And still, the capitalist model, indeed the model for any successful civilization, is growth, the very thing that might be our biggest threat.  

Enter John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker, a social scientist and a journalist, who in 2019 wrote “Empty Planet,” which reimagines our demographic future based on worldwide population statistics. UN population models suggest that human populations will peak late in this century before starting to decline. Ibbitson and Bricker have run the birthrate numbers and believe we are actually in a precipitous demographic decline already in many parts of the world. While this suggests good news for the planet (fewer of us consuming fewer resources, and a corresponding healing of the environment), they detail a whole set of new problems that arise in managing decline.

First the evidence: Replacement birthrate is somewhere around 2.2 children per couple. In the US, between 1980 and 2007, the U.S. birth rate was between 65-70 births per 1,000. But as of 2020, the U.S. birth rate was 55.8 births per 1,000 women, a decline of almost 20. The last decade recorded the lowest birthrate in American history at about 1.6.

Not just America, either. Over the past 70 years, fertility rates have decreased 50% worldwide. Canada’s birthrate has failed to reach replacement levels since 1965. China’s birthrate is currently about 1.3 (or 1.1, according to some), and its population of about 1.4 billion is expected to decline to about 700 million after mid-century, half what it is today. Russia has fewer people today than when it was part of the Soviet Union. Numerous European countries are below birth replacement rate. Even India, now the most-populous country after overtaking China, has seen its birthrate decline to barely replacement level. Only Africa continues to grow. By 2050, Nigeria will likely be the most populous country.

Canada has recognized the problem and has decided as official policy to address it with immigration. Indeed, as Canada has grown from 20 million in 1967 to around 38 million today, the growth is accounted for by immigrants, which has helped make the country much more diverse.

Japan, on the other hand, allows practically no immigration. Its population peaked in 2010 at 128 million and has been declining gently ever since, and the decline is picking up speed. It now has one of the oldest populations in the world, and there are fewer workers supporting retiring seniors.

There are many reasons for the population bust. In rural cultures, having children means more workers means better prosperity. As countries urbanize and standards of living rise, children go from being an asset to being a cost center, a luxury. Birthrates plunge as living standards go up.

All of which is to return to my original point: if measures of success across our culture – economic, social, cultural — are built on the imperative of growth, what happens when centuries of growth as a norm are replaced by persistent perpetual decline? How do we recalibrate what the measure of success is?

This is, of course, a question constantly asked in the arts, where the biggest-selling culture isn’t necessarily the best, and where the best art doesn’t necessarily appeal to the biggest audience. It’s actually good for the health of the planet that there are fewer of us. But it’s going to require some serious rethinking about the fundamental measures of our health.

Douglas McLennan
Douglas McLennanhttps://www.artsjournal.com
Doug is a longtime journalist who writes about journalism, the arts and technology. He's the editor and the founder and editor of ArtsJournal.com and co-founder and editor of Post Alley. He's a frequent keynoter on arts and digital issues, and works and consults for a number of arts and news organizations nationally.


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