For most of the 20th century , ” population problem ” only meant too many people and how to control or , at least slow ,population growth. We were all only too aware of Malthus’ theory that “the populations of the world would increase in geometric proportions while the food resources available for them would increase only in arithmetic proportions”. It was understandable, given that the world population almost quadrupled in the course of the century. (It was 1.6 billion in 1900 and it crossed the 6 billion mark in 1999).However , the preoccupation with the overall numbers masked other population problems .
In Japan , the population trend has been downward rather than upward . From a peak of about 128 million in 2009 , the population of Japan is expected to decline to about 100 million in 2050 if present trends continue . For a varity of reasons , the fertility rate of Japanese women is very low : 1.35 compared to the replacement rate of 2.08 that is required for a stable population . I was in Tokyo recently and the effects are already visible . Riding the subway on a Saturday afternoon , I was struck by the relative scarcity of children and even of young people . The median age of the strap hangers appeared to be in the mid -forties whereas in New York City it is about 25 to 30 . This does not bode well for Japan because as the population ages , there will be less and less people to do the work and to support the elderly.
Japan’s problems with de-population are not unique ; they are a world -wide phenomenon . South Korea ‘s population is ageing rapidly too and this is true of all the developed countries of the West . As women acquire financial freedom , as their dependence on men lessens , as they eagerly pursue careers ,they are more apt to postpone starting a family or even cancelling plans to do so. And who can blame them ? For educated women , to give up their careers and stay at home to raise a family is a tremendous sacrifice. And to juggle family and career is very , very difficult.
The costs of bearing and raising children also give couples pause . In Japan , the results of such thinking are more visible because of strict immigration policies. The same is true of South Korea though there the immigration policies appear to have been relaxed . If countries in the West do not show a population decline , it is because of immigration , legal and illegal , and because immigrants tend to have higher birth rates.
All these factors put population planners in the horns of a dilemma . Not to heed Malthus’ warnings is dangerous but the alternative creates its own problems. In China and other countries which tried to enforce a “one family , one child” policy , there is an imbalance in the male-female ratio because of mankind’s age- old obsession with having a male child to continue the line. This in turn has caused stresses as these children grow to maturity and there are not enough brides for the young men. At one time, Vietnamese women would be kidnapped and spirited into China to be brides for rural Chinese . Similarly , Japanese farmers were forced to look to the Philippines for brides because Japanese girls did not want the rural lifestyle and the hard work assosciated with farming.
In India , where population edicts are difficult to enforce ( unlike China and Singapore),the population is still growing though at a slower rate , but the bulk of the growth is in the poorer sections of the population ; educated couples usually have only one child . So , India has a “demographic dividend ” for the next twenty years , as it is not an aging society . However , this is little cause for jubilation . Unless , those young people are educated and become productive members of society , the “demographic dividend” will become a ” demographic disaster” as Nandan Nilekani so aptly puts it .
To a large extent , these problems are a result of our successes in controlling disasters and finding ways to extend human life span . In 1400 A.D , the average age at death was only 35 and half of the people died before they were 16. In 1900, when the population was relatively stable , the average at death was only 47. Since then , we have been successful in controlling infant mortality , epidemics such as cholera and diptheria which killed millions, and the consequences of natural and man-made disasters such as earthquakes , floods, wars, and famines . All these have significantly increased the human life span. According to one source , that figure today is 78 for men and 81 for women . (I greatly doubt these figures and think they must be for the U.S only . However , the worldwide figure must be at least in the sixties ).
So , what is to be done ? It is a question that is exercising the best minds in the world . Sooner or later , they have to come up with a solution if mankind is to survive. I hope it is sooner.