RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico — The line used to be clearer between rich and poorer nations when discussions turned to a country’s ideal population size. In the industrial global north and the tiger economies of East Asia, family sizes shrank steadily over decades and economies grew. Small was good. In poorer countries, fertility often remained high, family size was larger, and traditional explanations clarified why bigger was better: uncertain survival of children or more hands needed at the family homestead, shop or market stall. Poor nations resented being told they were “overpopulated.”
Lately, some long-held attitudes are turning upside-down. Richer industrial nations with aging populations – from Japan and China, across Russia, into Western Europe and most recently the United States – fear that declining numbers of young people (or the proportion of young to older citizens) threaten continued economic growth and prosperity. Meanwhile, demographers and policy makers in some large developing countries are rethinking their assumptions that a large population heavily weighted toward youth is a sure-fire way to fuel an economic boom.
Very simply, while more analysts in the most developed nations panic at the thought of population shrinkage, people in the poorest countries are taking a harder look at rising numbers of young people and viewing them as a strain on their slender resources and perhaps harmful to political stability.
The concept at the center of debates about population is known as the demographic dividend. Demography, the study of people, is the tool of census-takers, scholars and policy makers who deal with topics like education, health services – how many schools or hospitals will be needed as demographics change – and, of course, the estimated provision and cost of social security and pensions services, where they exist.
In the industrial global north, the cost of aging populations is discussed mostly in two ways: the effect of more retired people living longer while the youthful work force declines, and the real danger that governments can no longer afford to support the old, who depend on social security and subsidized health programs. From that perspective, demography offers no dividends. Some governments have even adopted “natalist” policies that reward women who have more children, even though incentives for more pregnancies is controversial among women, who see it as a step backward into the kitchen and a financial burden in later years.
In the global south, the belief in an inevitable demographic dividend from high fertility has been around for at least a generation, and government leaders in many countries have pointed to the benefits of a youth bulge in the national population profile, in particular the abundance of young workers to build an economy for years to come. Only recently have more cautious voices been raised, saying that too many young people are rapidly reaching adulthood without education or skills and that governments can’t keep up with the numbers. Fewer births, not more, are needed now, government planners are saying more often.
In December, the Population Reference Bureau, an independent organization with global reach that provides timely information about population, health and the environment, published a report showing that while countries like Brazil and Thailand did, in fact, benefit from a youthful population bulge, it did not happen willy-nilly. Social policies made the difference and must be part of the package, according to the report, “Achieving a Demographic Dividend,” by James N. Gribble and Jason Bremner.
“But many policy makers mistakenly think that a demographic dividend results automatically from a large population of young people relative to the population of working-age adults and without the needed population, social and economic policies,” they wrote. “This is not the case.”
Better health and education systems and a government committed to equity for women are all needed to make the most of youth.
Family planning services are another essential tool; it is estimated that one-quarter of women in the developing world who want to avoid pregnancy are not using modern contraceptives often because they are not available to them. Like so much else in development, a holistic approach is necessary. The Population Reference Bureau focuses in this new report on a few countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America and what lessons they offer for other countries still struggling to find a demographic balance.
Beyond this report, the two giant population centers of China, with 1.3 billion people, and India, with 1.2 billion, are interesting to compare. Once seen as rivals on similar tracks, they are now moving, demographically, in almost opposite directions and possibly different futures.
China now falls in the category of richer nations, in that Chinese demographers and government officials share many of the concerns of Europe and the United States: aging populations, a shrinking labor force and, lately, the reluctance of well-educated young people to take jobs they consider beneath their qualifications. Inequalities persist, as they have in the West. Demographers in China say that “we are getting old before getting rich.”
India, by comparison, has a huge population of young people but has fallen short in education, health and training for a majority of them to take the jobs that spur economic growth in the 21stcentury. Women’s rights and opportunities lag, limiting their economic participation. Despite decreases in fertility, India also faces a continuing population growth that will make the country more populous than China, probably within a decade. Furthermore, there is a sex differential in births – more boys than girls – because of a preference for sons (and sex-selective abortions to facilitate that end), which is expected to increase disaffection and frustration in a generation of men who are also seeing good jobs elude them.
In 2011, C. Chandramouli, the registrar general and census commissioner of India, told me in an interview for the UN Population Fund’s annual State of the World Population report that there may still be time to be optimistic about India’s future industrial growth because of its potentially large labor force. But he added: “Now the question is, how the youth bulge is handled. What kind of skills do you give them? How do you make them into assets?” The country’s future rides on the answers.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.