December 8, 2023

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On November 15, 2022, Earth’s population hit 8 billion people.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: That’s right. Every one of these…


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: …Today takes humanity past 8 billion human beings.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The traffic jams…


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: …The crowded trains, the crowds – if you’re noticing more people everywhere, that’s because there literally are. The United…

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Eight billion and counting as the global population hits another milestone.

KELLY: It took 12 years for Earth to grow from 7 billion to 8 billion people. And sure, there are a lot of challenges associated with population growth – food security, for example. But on the plus side, Andrea Wojnar calls the 8 billion milestone a triumph of human development. Wojnar is the India representative for the U.N. Population Fund.

ANDREA WOJNAR: The number of human beings is more than ever due to increasing life expectancy, but also declining infant and maternal mortality. So for us, that’s a mark of progress in medicine and in health systems. So this is a landmark in human survival.

KELLY: Many countries around the world are fueling the growth. India is one; another is Nigeria. The United Nations projects that over the next three decades, Nigeria’s population will jump from its current 200 million people to more than 375 million. That’ll make Nigeria the fourth most-populous country in the world after China, India and the United States. However, while it is true the global population continues to grow, overall, the rate of growth is actually slowing down. That is because in some parts of the world birthrates are falling.


ADRIANA DIAZ: The U.S. has recorded its lowest rate of population growth since the nation’s founding.

PETER STEFANOVIC: Well, Australia’s quarterly population has fallen for the first time since these records were taken in 1980s…

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Now or never – this is how Japan is describing its population crisis. The country is on the brink of not being able to function as a society.

KELLY: Both these trends – population growth in some places, falling birthrates in others – they are reshaping the world around us. For example, China has long been the most populous country on Earth. But the United Nations says that sometime this year, India will officially take the No. 1 spot. And as the global population shifts, there will likely be significant economic ripple effects.

JACK GOLDSTONE: The fact that global population is 8 billion and is going to be 9 or 10 billion, that’s not the critical issue.

KELLY: Jack Goldstone is a professor of public policy at George Mason University, and he writes about global population trends.

GOLDSTONE: I think what’s important about the 8 billion is that we’re going to be connected. And so we have to get used to the idea that what happens in other places will directly affect our quality of life here.


KELLY: CONSIDER THIS – China has the world’s second-largest economy, but its population is shrinking now for the first time in 60 years. That raises concerns that if the Chinese economy shrinks, so could the global economy. We’ll hear more about that – and then, what role immigration could play in resolving the world’s population imbalances.


KELLY: From NPR, I’m Mary Louise Kelly. It’s Monday, January 30.

It’s CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. China’s population shrank in 2022 for the first time since the 1960s. It’s a trend the Chinese government has been worried about for some time. In 2016, China relaxed its one-child policy, allowing married couples to have two children. And as of 2021, married couples can now have three. But that does not mean people are choosing to have more children. And China’s population is getting older overall. NPR’s Emily Feng reports that all of this is expected to have serious consequences in the long term.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The last time China’s population shrank was in 1960, and that was because of a man-made famine under the ruling Communist Party called the Great Leap Forward. Tens of millions of people starved to death. This time, China is shrinking again, not because significantly more people are dying, but because birthrates are dropping.

NICHOLAS EBERSTADT: According to official numbers, China’s birth totals have plummeted by over 40% since the year 2016.

E FENG: This is Nicholas Eberstadt, a senior researcher at the Washington-based think tank American Enterprise Institute.

EBERSTADT: That is a larger percentage drop than births during the famine after Mao’s Great Leap Forward. We are seeing an absolutely seismic shock. That’s something that usually only occurs in societies when there is a sudden convulsion from total war or an upheaval due to a terrible, terrible plague.

E FENG: A seismic shock because China’s meteoric economic growth the last 40 years was hugely dependent on being a big, populous country with lots of young workers that gave them a big domestic market to sell to and a pool of cheap labor that could build cities and make goods for export. But anyone who’s followed demographics in China has known for at least a decade that someday China’s total head count would drop – just not this soon.

YI FUXIAN: OK. To me, it’s a little surprise.

E FENG: That’s Dr. Yi Fuxian. He’s a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And in the last few years, he’s become kind of a demography whistleblower. He believes China’s own data shows the population actually started shrinking in 2018 and that the state willfully inflated its numbers by more than 100 million people.

FUXIAN: At that time, (inaudible) government was very angry with me.

E FENG: Angry at him because his predictions played into Beijing’s fears that a decline in the working-age population would make it hard to sustain its ambition to overtake the U.S. China’s latest GDP data, announced this week on the same day, shows economic growth continues to slow, even before the full effects of its looming demographic crunch have hit. At this point, you’re probably wondering why China’s birth rate has slowed so drastically.

WANG FENG: It’s because of what’s called a echo effect.

E FENG: Dr. Wang Feng is a sociology professor at the University of California Irvine. And he explains birth rates were already falling in the 1970s, well before China imposed a one-child policy cap in all families. And now the people descended from those generations are also having fewer children, an echo from the past, though for new reasons.

W FENG: There is the drastic postponement of marriage among young people. That change has accompanied this vast expansion in education, higher education, urbanization and changes in attitudes.

E FENG: The state has tried to incentivize having more children but only between married heterosexual couples. And so far, it’s had no luck. Statistics announced showed birth totals dropped another 10% this past year alone.

KELLY: NPR’s Emily Feng.


KELLY: Parts of the industrialized world are also facing a long-term demographic crisis. As incomes rise, birthrates fall, which leads to economic challenges associated with an older, shrinking population. Lant Pritchett is a development economist who studies labor markets and migration.

LANT PRITCHETT: The problem isn’t so much that the overall population shrinks. It’s that during the period after the birth rate falls, it’s something we call inverting the demographic pyramid, which instead of there being a lot more young people than old people in it, the relative population start to shrink. And you go from having lots of people in the labor force to support the elderly to headed towards equality of people in the labor force and people in the aged population. And that just has never happened in the history of the world. And it’s not clear it’s a sustainable way to sustain the social contract we have in which the young support the old.

KELLY: At the same time, parts of the developing world have the opposite challenge. Their populations are young and booming. The 10 youngest countries in the world are all in sub-Saharan Africa. My colleague Ari Shapiro spoke to Pritchett and asked if those countries could provide a solution to the demographic problems of industrialized nations.

PRITCHETT: They definitely could and definitely would. Gallup surveyed people around the world of whether they would be willing to move to another country, and something on the order of a billion people in the world said they’d be happy to move and work in another country. So no question that there’s an ample supply of workers who’d be willing to move and take up the jobs that the rich world needs and just don’t have youth to take.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: And yet immigration is not just an economic question. It’s a political one. And political sentiment seems to be going in the opposite direction. Anti-immigrant attitudes are growing across Europe and in many parts of the highly developed world.

PRITCHETT: That’s true. But I think in part, that’s because we’ve traditionally forced two really high-tension questions to be the same answer. One question is, who are the future citizens? Who are the future members of what we regard as us, our society, our nation? And the other question, though, is, who are we going to allow to be legally present on our territory to do labor services? My feeling is if we allow those questions to be separated and we have a discussion about, who are the immigrants that we want to form our future society, as a separate discussion about, who are we going to allow to come to our country and work – I think once those questions are separated, we can manage the political and social consequences of migration while still meeting the very dire needs that these economies have to, you know, fill jobs that just won’t otherwise be able to be filled.

SHAPIRO: You’re talking about something like temporary work visas. I was recently in the strawberry fields of southern Spain, which tried that kind of a program. And Spanish officials told me a lot of people skipped out and stuck around when they were supposed to have gone back at the end of harvest season. Is that inevitable?

PRITCHETT: That is by no means inevitable, but it is a pressure. There is no question that once people are in a country where wages are four, five times their home country, there will be a tendency to stay. But I think the prospects for building a good industry that recruits, prepares, places, protects and ensures compliance – I think we can build a good industry to do this. This is not impossible. I feel – we’re sort of in the position now that America was with Prohibition. We wanted to ban all alcoholic beverages, and it just wasn’t enforceable. And so the path to more control of alcohol was through less control of alcohol, through legalizing these flows. I feel the path to better migration is through more migration. We have to acknowledge that these economies really need these workers. And if we really need these workers, we should set up fair, transparent, legally enforced ways in which they can come and in which we can ensure reliable compliance with return if that’s part of the legal agreement.

SHAPIRO: Does this serve the developing world, too, or is it just a brain drain where talent goes to wealthier countries with an aging population?

PRITCHETT: What I’m talking about is mainly labor mobility to meet the low-skill needs. If you look at the U.S. economy, over the next 10 years, the Labor Department says we’re going to have 5 million jobs that don’t require a college degree. And yet, over that same period, we’re going to have 3 million less workers 20 to 40. So what the rich world needs is not, in fact, high-skill, high-talent, brain drain kind of people exclusively. They would love to get those people. But what I’m talking about is the people with core work skills. And I think that isn’t a brain drain. That is a wonderful thing for the developing world ’cause people just aren’t going to be able to create the numbers of jobs they need to in the developing world, and hence, it’s super-win-win.

KELLY: That was Lant Pritchett, research director with the think tank Labor Mobility Partnerships, speaking with my colleague Ari Shapiro.


KELLY: It’s CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I’m Mary Louise Kelly.

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