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The Shrinking North

PARIS – “Demography is destiny,” Auguste Comte is reported to have said. Today, his maxim appears to encapsulate the fate of a number of the world’s richest countries. Indeed, the United Nations Population Division’s recently released biennial World Population Prospects sheds new light on the debate – ongoing for over a decade – about the consequences of low fertility rates in many developed countries. And while the UN figures do not provide evidence that proves the grimmest forecasts of doomsayers, nor do they leave much room for optimism.

Demography allows for a much greater level of certainty than does economics. The women liable to give birth within a generation are already among us. Only if the fertility rate (the number of children per woman) is above the generational replacement level, namely 2.1, will there be a natural increase in population. But the fertility rate hit a low of around 1.3 at the turn of the century in Germany and Japan – and even lower in Italy, Russia, and South Korea.

The slight increase witnessed in subsequent years still keeps the fertility rate a long way from generational replacement. Moreover, the damage is already done, and the base of the age pyramid continues to be eroded, especially in countries, such as Russia and Japan, that have a low tolerance for immigration.

The demographic impact of low fertility rates is counterbalanced by a steady increase in life expectancy. Japan, the world leader in that respect, nevertheless reached its population peak in 2008, before the number began a slow decline in absolute terms. The main exception is Russia, where, aggravated by declining life expectancy, population shrinkage started as early as 1993: the country has lost six million people since, hitting an astounding 170 deaths per 100 births in 2001.