Population Growth

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Author: Mousumi Roy
Editor: Robert W. Kolb
Date: 2008
Encyclopedia of Business Ethics and Society
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Population Growth

According to the United Nations, the demography of world population will change dramatically in the near future. The changes will have a major impact on the economies and lifestyles of societies, particularly in industrialized nations, which may lead to the redistribution of global power and wealth. A brief history of population growth is first discussed and analyzed, followed by an analysis of consequences of the new demographic challenges of aging populations and varied birthrates throughout the world.

Population Growth

At the onset of the 21st century, a population explosion seems to be the biggest challenge of the years ahead. The long hours of morning and evening commutes, traffic jams, environmental pollution, the growing competition for parking spaces in malls during holiday seasons, and many other nuisances of our everyday life are making us realize that our planet is getting crowded. Furthermore, starvation in many parts of the world due to inadequate food supplies, residents living in areas prone to flooding, wars waged over scarce resources, illnesses, and so on, are other constant reminders of a burgeoning population, particularly in the developing world. But how fast is the population really growing? Should we be concerned? Will our children's lives be affected by it?

A review of history will reveal the true nature of population growth throughout the globe. During the first millennium, humans survived with minimal population growth. According to the demographer Massimo Livi-Bacci, from the University of Florence, the estimated growth rate of the world's population from CE 1 to 1750 was just 0.064% per year. The total world population in 1750 was less than 800 million. The life expectancy remained the same, at about 25 years, between the years 500 and 1750. Later in that century, infant mortality rates fell significantly, primarily because of improved pediatric care and better hygienic living conditions. This led to rapid population growth, especially in the European countries. The growing population of the poor and middle classes demanded a greater share of wealth, thus leading to the revolutions in Britain and France and ending monarchic rule in both countries during the 19th century.

The fast growth in population during the 18th and 19th centuries made the leaders of the European societies concerned about maintaining the balance between the human population and the availability of natural resources. A famous demographer and political economist during that period, Thomas Malthus, discussed the fate of humankind in his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. He famously predicted that because of the limited land on earth, food production in the world would not be able to keep up with the geometric growth rate of the human population. He did not, however, foresee the coming of the Industrial Revolution, which dramatically changed everything from food production to the standard of living in the next two centuries.

The Industrial Revolution started slowly in Europe but quickly gained momentum. By the late 19th century, people in Western Europe and North America were enjoying the prosperity brought to them by new technologies. The population growth enhanced technological progress, especially in medical science and practice. At the same time, the abundance of food, energy, and other useful goods and the efficiency of distribution of all commodities in these societies resulted in population growth in these parts of the world. Human consumption per capita also increased at a faster pace than ever imagined. Arts and science flourished in this century, resulting in a better lifestyle for humankind.

Though most of the innovations and industrialization processes started in the European countries and the United States, they were gradually diffused throughout the European colonies, located in different parts of the world. The life spans of people started to increase due to better food supply and improved social hygiene and public sanitation by the end of the 19th century. Even though we have had natural disasters and wars, the world population has increased sharply since 1900, according to UN estimates. The graph in Figure 1 indicates the nature of population growth since the beginning of civilization. It shows how world population more than doubled during the last half of the 20th century.

According to the latest UN estimate, if growth continues at the current pace, the world population will reach 11 billion by the end of 2050. Yet many Page 1628  |  Top of Article
Figure 1 World Population Growth Between 1750 and 2000 Figure 1 World Population Growth Between 1750 and 2000 United Nations Population Division. demographers have noticed that growth rates are not staying the same but are declining, particularly in most industrialized nations. Thus, the future population growth in many parts of the world remains uncertain.

Analysis of Population Growth Rates

As noted before, while the world population has been growing over the years, the population growth rate has been declining in most regions, particularly in the developed world. It reached its peak at 2% in the 1960s and had declined to 1.2% by 2005. According to the 2005 UN report, without any significant change in current trends, particularly in most regions of the developed world, population growth will slow down and eventually stop, and then the population will start declining. It has been projected that the world population will level off at just above 10 billion by the year 2200 before it starts declining. Many developed countries—for instance, Japan and Italy—already have zero growth rates, and Germany and Russia have negative growth rates. The United States is still able to maintain a growth rate of 0.91, compared with Canada and Great Britain at 0.88 and 0.28, respectively.

The main reason behind such low growth rates is the drop in fertility rates throughout the world. Most nations are unable to meet the minimum required fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman. Many developed countries, such as the United Kingdom (1.66), Germany (1.39), Italy, Spain, and Russia (1.28), Japan (1.4), Turkey (1.92), Canada (1.61), and Australia (1.76), are all below the fertility replacement level. The United States is one of the few industrialized nations that is still able to maintain the minimum required fertility rate of 2.1. The two most populous countries in the world, China and India, have current fertility rates at 1.73 and 2.73, respectively. In contrast, many countries in Africa and parts of Asia and the Middle East have maintained high fertility rates—for instance, Afghanistan (6.69), Bangladesh (3.11), Ethiopia (5.22), Nigeria (5.49), Pakistan (4.0), Saudi Arabia (4.0), and Yemen (6.58). This may result in a new demography in the coming years, with higher and younger population densities in these parts of the world. Nevertheless, the average fertility rate for the world today is 2.59, a little above the replacement level.

Some of the probable causes for this worldwide reduction of fertility rates are the rise of urbanization, feminism, female education and participation in the workplace, social and government policies for population control in developing countries, the availability of contraception and the legalization of abortion, and the rising cost of raising children. Also, reduced infant mortality indirectly is causing fertility rates to fall. A range of lifestyle and environmental factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and exposure to chemicals can also affect a couple's fertility, especially for women. Epidemics such as AIDS have also had a devastating effect on population growth in many areas. Women with the HIV virus have lower fertility rates than do women without it. In some Asian countries, governmental birth control policies and the use of modern medical technology for sex identification and abortion are resulting in a sudden increase of the male-to-female ratio. This is especially worrisome for countries with large populations, such as China and India. History has shown that Page 1629  |  Top of Articlehigher male-to-female ratios have resulted in increased violence in such societies.

Coping With Depopulation

Nations with fertility rates below replacement levels are trying different ways to improve their situations. Russia is planning to adopt a 10-year program that will encourage women to have children by providing them with financial incentives and subsidies. Australia is offering a $4,000 tax-free bonus for every baby and is also committed to pay all child care costs for women who want to work. Many of the developed countries (e.g., France, Italy, Poland, and Japan) have offered some combination of bonuses and monthly payments to families. Singapore spends $3,000 for the first child, $9,000 for the second child, and up to $18,000 each for the third and fourth children.

Immigration is another option for these countries, which they are considering with caution. Japan, Russia, Germany, France, Singapore, and other countries recently have liberalized their strict anti-immigration laws in response to their acute population implosion problem. At the same time, these nations are afraid of losing their identity by bringing in an influx of immigrants. Also, changes in their societies are needed to encourage and welcome immigrants. According to the UN population report, there is a growing interest among governments, civil society, the private sector, and others in capitalizing on the benefits and minimizing the negative consequences of migration.

The United States is the largest industrialized economy of the world that is still able to maintain its fertility rate at the minimum replacement rate of 2.1. The United States ranks third after China and India on current population count, and it is projected to stay in third place after India and China in 2050. Part of its success in maintaining a modest growth in population is due to its liberal immigration policy, which accounts for 40% of its population growth annually, up from 24% in the 1980s. Where many countries are fearful of losing their identity, diversity in population has been promoted as the unique identity for this nation.

Aging Nations

Life expectancies of the world's peoples have grown more over the last half century than in the previous 5,000 years, mostly due to the reduction in infant mortality rates, improvements in lifestyles, and the excellence of modern medical systems. Even the developing and underdeveloped countries are able to save their infants and children from many life-threatening diseases by providing vaccinations on their own or with the help of the United Nations. Currently, only 12% of the population throughout the globe is over age 65, but this is projected to reach close to 21% by 2050. Most of the European nations and Japan are already facing a faster increase in the number of retirees than in the number of new workers in industry. China will experience one of the fastest aging populations during this generation, making it older on average than the United States by 2015.

As per the prediction of the United Nations, the median age of the world population will rise from 26.4 today to 36.8 in 2050. More precisely, the median age will be 45.2 years in developed nations and 35.7 years in less developed nations. Currently, Japan has the oldest population, with a median age of 41.3 years. People age 80 and older are the fastest-growing segment of the population in this century.

The graying of its population poses a serious threat to any nation's economy. In all industrialized societies, working adults are providing for underage and retired nonworking populations. The public pension systems, similar to the social security systems in the United States, support the elderly when they reach their retirement age. This would probably work in the long run if the population of new workers and retirees remained the same. However, the enormous increase of retirees and the severe reduction in the working population will strain the tax burden of working adults over the next decade, since the latter are contributing to the social security system through payroll taxes.

Also, providing health care for the aged population will cost nations dearly. In the United States, people over 65 years of age, roughly 12% of the current population, are consuming 38% of all health care costs. With rising health care costs and the increase in the older population, governments of these aging nations will have to decide whether to reduce the promised pension and medical care benefits or increase payroll taxes on the shrinking numbers of workers. Providing the necessary benefits to the elderly without compromising the working adults' financial status poses a challenge to our political leaders and to our society.

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Most developing and underdeveloped countries are without established government programs for financial and health benefits for the elderly, who will face a more difficult challenge. For example, populous countries such as China and India will have a huge population of elderly people in the near future with neither any government benefits nor any personal savings. Moreover, the working adults in these countries are continuously migrating toward the mega cities, leaving their old relatives behind without any financial or medical help. Another drawback of aging nations is the short supply of creativity and innovation. Studies have shown that these qualities flourish in people of younger ages. The nations with higher median age will lose their competence in these sectors.

However, there are some positive outcomes in countries with an aging population. These countries will see a substantial reduction in their crime rates. New business options such as asset management, health care, cosmetics, plastic surgery, exercise training and equipment, and so on, will be created to cater to the needs of the vast elderly population. Marketers and media will continue to create a whole new set of products targeting these senior citizens.

New Demography Equals New Challenges

The combination of reduced fertility rates and the fast growth of the aging population has a tremendous effect on a nation's economic, military, and geopolitical situations. The declining labor force will result in reduced gross domestic product (GDP) growth, which has been projected to be 0.5% to 1% per year between 2010 and 2030. According to a study by the McKinsey Global Institute, the household financial wealth of the top two European nations, Germany and the United Kingdom, will decrease 25% and 34% in the next 20 years. The slowdown in savings and accumulation of financial assets in Europe's wealthiest countries could deter economic growth severely.

Military forces of today's powerful and wealthy nations will experience major changes in their internal and external security systems. Military expenses might be curtailed to pay for the needs of the ever-growing aging population. Also, reduced numbers of youths may result in smaller armies. Reductions in police forces could encourage more criminal and terrorist activities in the world. Nations will have to choose among a limited number of young adults and decide whether to send them to the military and police forces or keep them working in industry.

Governments will have to find new strategies to control their budget deficits, keeping taxes low for the working population and at the same time providing for the needs of retired people, and keeping their countries secured internally and as well as in the global arena. Since population density will increase in developing and underdeveloped countries, global powers among the nations will be redistributed depending on the economic and military strength of the nations. At the same time, these countries with higher populations will also have to struggle with ethical issues such as alleviating hunger for the poorer classes, putting the brakes on the overcrowding of cities, and eradicating contagious diseases, among other things. Bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots will be one of the most pressing problems for governments in these regions.

The forecasted recent population growth followed by future population decline presents a multifaceted challenge for our generation. The uncertainty and challenges of the future demographic mosaic portend an unclear and doubtful future. The result might be a redistribution of global power and an increased interest on the part of national governments in implementing effective economic, humanitarian, and environmental policies as well as evaluating their ethical and practical implications.

Further Readings

Bongarts, J. (2002). The end of fertility transition in the developed world. Population Development Review, 28, 419-444.

Bouvier, L. F., & Bertrand, J. T. (1999). World population: Challenges for the 21st century. Santa Ana, CA: Seven Locks Press.

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Ehrlich, P. R. (1974). The population bomb. New York: Ballantine.

Farrell, D. (2005, May). The economic impact of an aging Europe. The McKinsey Quarterly, Web Exclusive.

Farrell, D., Ghai, S., & Shavers, T. (2005, March). The demographic deficit: How aging will reduce global wealth. The McKinsey Quarterly, Web Exclusive.

Farrell, D., & Greenberg, E. (2005, May). The economic impact of an aging Japan. The McKinsey Quarterly, Web Exclusive.

GeoHive. (2007). Global statistics. Retrieved from http://www.xist.org

Global baby bust: Economic, social implications are profound as birthrates drop in almost every nation. (2003, January 24). Wall Street Journal, pp. B1, B4.

Lewis, W. W. (2004). The power of productivity: Wealth, poverty, and the threat to global stability. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Longman, P. (2004). The empty cradle: How failing birthrates threaten world prosperity and what to do about it. New York: Basic Books.

Malthus, T. R. (1826). An essay on the principle of population (6th ed., Vols. 1-2). London: J. Murray. (Original work published 1798)

Morgan, S. P., & Taylor, M. G. (2006). Low fertility at the turn of the twenty-first century. Annual Review of Sociology, 32, 375-399.

Peterson, P. G. (1999). Gray dawn: How the coming age wave will transform America—and the world. New York: Random House.

UN Population Division. (2005). World population prospects: The 2004 revision. New York: Author. Retrieved from http://esa.un.org/unpp

Wattenberg, B. J. (2004). Fewer: How the new demography of depopulation will shape our future. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.

Wilson, C. (2004). Fertility below replacement level. Science, 304, 207-208.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2660400643