NEW YORK, JULY 24, 2004 (Zenit.org).- While the United Nations and family planning groups continue in their efforts to lower birthrates, several recent books have drawn attention to the severe economic and social problems linked to having too few children.
One book, “Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population,” takes a look at the consequences of an overabundance of young adult males, called “bare branches” in Chinese. Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer observe that China and India, with 38% of the world’s population, have surpluses of young males far beyond what any natural forces could produce.
The authors devote a chapter on the history of sex selection, noting that female infanticide was practiced in many cultures and epochs. Asian culture has had a particularly marked preference for male offspring, and modern technology has allowed this preference to be applied much more radically than in the past.
A normal sex ratio at birth is 105-107 males born per 100 females. This generally evens out, with a ratio for the total population close to 100 males per 100 females. Reliable statistics on birth ratios are hard to come by, the authors note. In China, studies on the level of sex ratios at birth range from 115.62 to 121.01 males per 100 females. India shows levels of 111 to 113, with spikes of 132 and 156 in some localities. In South Korea, after reaching 116.9 in 1990, the number has stabilized at 109.6. In Taiwan, data from 200 show 109.5 males per 100 females at birth.
The imbalance at birth can be exacerbated in the following years due to a higher level of infant mortality among females, attributed to a lack of adequate medical care. Estimates on the numbers of “missing females” in Asia vary. The book puts the number of women eliminated in seven Asian countries at just over 90 million. India and China account for 43% and 45%, respectively, of this total.
The authors calculate that by 2020 India will have a surplus male population in the 15-35 year age span of between 28 million and 32 million. The corresponding surplus in China could be 29 million to 33 million.
What will be the implications of so many surplus males? Drawing on multiple studies, the authors describe a number of characteristics common to such a group: low socioeconomic status due to a higher level of unemployment and low-level jobs; a higher probability of criminal behavior; a distinctive bachelor subculture characterized by the pursuit of immediate pleasure and a lack of concern for the future; a tendency to turn to vice and violence.
Looking at historical evidence, the book observes that governments can take measures to counteract the negative effects of sex ratio imbalances, but only after long struggles and high costs. Asian countries, and in particular China and India, the authors argue, have a difficult task ahead if they wish to avoid a sharp rise in violence and social problems. Instability could also lead to military conflict, the authors opine.
A threat to prosperity
Philip Longman, in his book “The Empty Cradle,” concentrates on the economic disadvantages of a rapidly falling birthrate. Fears of a “population bomb” aside, modern economies have depended on ever-growing populations. New businesses flock to areas where population is growing, and social security systems depend on growing numbers of taxpayers to finance welfare for each retiring generation.
He notes that it may seem counterintuitive to worry about too few children at a time when the world population is still growing by around 75 million a year. Fertility rates, however, have plummeted in recent years and no industrialized nation has enough children being born to sustain its population. U.N. data show that currently 59 countries, accounting for 44% of world population, are not producing enough children to avoid population decline.
In the United States, even assuming high levels of immigration, by 2050 a fifth of the population will be over 65. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that costs for Medicare and Medicaid programs will soar from the current 4.3% of the nation’s economic output, to 21% in 2050. Longman warns that rising welfare costs may oblige governments to increase taxes on workers, making it harder for them to afford large families.
The problem is even worse in developing nations, which have seen the steepest drops in fertility in a short time, he contends. By midcentury, for example, populations in countries such as Mexico and Turkey could have a higher median age than the United States.
U.N. projections contemplate a median age of 39.7 in the United States by 2050, a rise of 4.5 years from the current level. Moreover, it took 50 years for the United States to go from a median age of 30 to today’s level. By contrast, in the next half-century Mexico’s median age will rise by 20 years, to 42. Projections for the entire Latin American and Caribbean region put the median age in 2050 at 39.8, a fraction higher than the United States.
Many other countries are in the same situation. In Algeria the median age is set to climb from 21.7 in 2000 to 40 by 2050. Another rapidly aging society will be China. By 2040 an estimated 26% of the population will be 60 or over. And if rich countries have difficulty financing an aging population, developing nations will face a much more difficult task, having become old before getting rich.
The fiscal crunch facing the United States due to the costs of an aging population is the subject of another book, “The Coming Generational Storm,” by Laurence Kotlikoff and Scott Burns.
The authors dedicate the greater part of their book to analyzing the financial burden for the federal government of an older population. They accuse politicians, of all parties, of deliberately ignoring the long-term financial burdens in favor of short-term political interests.
The fiscal gap, the difference between the government’s future receipts and expenditures, will be in the order of $45 trillion, according to Kotlikoff and Burns. Dealing with this gap, they calculate, will mean that the lifetime tax payments faced by today’s children will need to roughly double in size.
Increasing taxes on this order will lead to reductions in net incomes, and if taxes on businesses are increased they will have less money to pay for capital investment. They also point out that closing the fiscal gap will be more and more painful the longer decisions are put off.
An alternative proposed by the authors is to implement deep changes in the Social Security and Medicare systems, thus reducing future expenditures and aligning their payments more fully with people’s real needs. They also recommend that people stop spending so much and start saving seriously for retirement.
Some reviewers have found these three books too pessimistic in their predictions. But even if the future isn’t as bleak as some of these authors describe, mainstream economic opinion is in agreement that the dramatic fall in fertility will pose severe problems for the world’s economy.
If tomorrow’s governments find that the commitments they have inherited “have drained their fiscal capacity to respond to adverse shocks, economic crisis and political upheaval could be the result,” concluded Peter Heller, deputy director of the Fiscal Affairs Department of the International Monetary Fund in his 2003 book “Who Will Pay?” Society may well rue the day it embraced the logic of the family planning movement.