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Are Ageing or Declining Populations Disastrous?

David Coleman identified some of the myths and fallacies that are currently influencing governments in deciding population policies (Newsletter, March 2001) when he described as a ‘Fable for our times’ the report on Replacement Migration from the United Nations Population Division1. Coleman listed and refuted many of the arguments put forward to replace declining populations by increasing immigration.

However, he concluded that ‘the UN has succeeded in showing dramatically that the demographic characteristics of the very low fertility countries must change if they are to end up with an economically sustainable age-structure’. He therefore recommended support of pro-natalist policies to avert a supposed disaster of ‘excessive population ageing’, since encouraging more immigration ‘evades hard decisions and ignores harmful consequences’. Yet encouraging more local births may also be ‘evading and ignoring’.

Other critics of the position of the UN report have included Jill Curnow in a monograph on ‘Myths and the Fear of an Ageing Population’2 and Henri Leridon writing in the bulletin, Population & Sociétés, of INED, the National French Institute For Demographic Studies, the primary public institution on demographic policy in France3. Leridon commented on the United Nations work on replacement immigration: ‘To want to maintain at all costs the ratio of [aged to youth] is truly to try and fill the Danaïde’s well’.

Part of the myth of disaster from ageing-populations is the fallacy that growth must be unending. This has been promoted by pressure groups that benefit from population growth through escalating values of real estate, mass markets, demands for building, and, in supporting immigration, importing cheap docile labour for unpleasant jobs, and already-skilled personnel that have not cost the reception country any expense in education and training.

However, there is less recognition that growth has downsides. The Galton Institute Newsletter has serialised Russell & Russell’s account of past civilisations which have grown beyond the resources available to them.4 The story of Easter Island is like a microcosm of what we can see elsewhere in the world today. Prosperity is not dependant upon continual quantitative growth and can be destroyed by it. ‘Growth’ is currently like riding an accelerating bicycle and having to keep pedalling because otherwise we would fall off. Yet at some stage there must be a stop – or a crash.

Many developed countries beside Britain show problems that are increasing by growing population further – excessive loss of arable land to urban development, the social problems of congested cities, a huge pool of the unemployed and even unemployable – much of it recent immigrants who are on the lowest rung of the jobs ladder – inhumane and risky methods of mass food production, intractable traffic, and a cultural malaise that can infect the second generation of immigrants even if the first-comers bring ‘fresh blood’ and energy.

Growth can stop without disaster. There are alternative opportunities for profits and employment in a stable or even declining society. A look around Britain – or any country – shows so much qualitative improvement that is needed and possible that there should be no shortage of jobs and profits without requiring continual increased consumption and waste of diminishing resources. If all the jobs that needed to be done were being done, including conserving resources and preventing waste, there need be no unemployment, even if there were fewer people needing new housing and commodities.

But the arguments for fearing an ageing population paradoxically include lack of younger workers to support them. Coleman cites mind-boggling figures thought up by the United Nations Population Division report on ‘Replacement Migration’ such as that to keep the support ratio of workers to dependants constant, South Korea, for example would need 94 million immigrants per year, ‘almost twice its current population, adding up to 5.1 billion by 2050, that is 5/6ths of today’s world population’. Immigrants themselves age – and so according to the growth myth, even more immigration would then be needed to support them.

There is overwhelming evidence against the myth that without continuing population growth, an ageing population could not be supported by its working members. I cite Australian research, since this is most readily available to me. Over the last fifty years the proportion of Australians aged under fifteen has shrunk to 20% while those aged over 65 has increased to 12%, with no noticeable difficulties, and over the next fifty years, proportions are expected to be 16% and 24%. Support ratios of workers to the elderly of 4:1 are not a problem for Western countries. The total dependency of old people in nursing homes is only on average 7 months for men and 2 years for women. On average, people require two years of substantial health care before their deaths – regardless of whether they are young or old. Aged pensions are only one third of the total value of Commonwealth income support payments (1996-7 figures) and the proportion of self-funded retirees is increasing as superannuation becomes nearly universal.

Most old people contribute to the community and the economy in inestimable voluntary work in every area, including as grandparents, who provided 68% of all informal child care in Australia in 1997. Today with better health, a higher proportion of older people are still capable of regular employment in many fields – the irony is that enforced retirement can now commence at 45 or 50. So much for the threatened shortage of workers. On the other hand, the degree of total dependency of children is increasing – even up to 24 years old. Their rearing and education costs far more in worker time and in expense than costs of the elderly. Fewer children and more elderly would be less burden on the ‘workers’ in between. We can think – why should populations remain constant at their present possibly unsustainable levels? World population only reached one billion in the 19th century and it is now 6 billion and rising – and there are now no more ‘empty’ continents to pour into, only more extending deserts. There are good reasons for considering that the only good reason for immigration to developed countries is humanitarian. Since population problems globally are ‘too many people’ rather than ‘too few’, it is also practical as well as humane to take international action about the growing millions of economic and political refugees by stopping the social, economic and political causes that are producing such distress, so that people can live prosperously in their own countries. Refugees in Africa alone now outnumber the total population of Australia.5 At present Britain as well as Australia has pretty unnatural methods of segregated child-care and much needs to be done to make being a child and having children more enjoyable in shared community. The social drawbacks to one and two-child families are needless. It is also desirable that the most civilised features of our Western heritage should not be submerged, but shared with the world – regardless of the races who inherit it. But it should be faced that to promote pro-natalist policies in countries still prosperous is openly callous and even ‘dog-in-the-manger’, in view of the misery at the gates from burgeoning populations elsewhere.

Valerie Yule


1. Chamie, J. Director, Population Division, United Nations, New York, was the spokesman for the widely-reported press release, ‘Replacement Migration: Is it a Solution to declining and Ageing Populations?’, January, 2000 and for the final report, March, 2000.

2. Curnow, J. (2000). Myths and the fear of an ageing population. Occasional paper prepared for Sustainable Population Australia.

3. Leridon, H. (2000) Vieillissement démographique et migrations: quand les Nations unies veulent remplir le tonneau des Danaïdes.... Population & Sociétés, No. 358. Translation by Sheila Newman

4. Russell, C. and Russell, W. M. S. (1999). Population Crises And Population Cycles. London: The Galton Institute.

5. The common assumption that Australia can be ‘filled up’ ignores three facts – unpredictable and occasionally enormous droughts; generally poor soils; and Australia’s rim of habitable land does not even encircle its vast and growing aridity.