Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Coming Population Crash

Over the holidays I worked my way through a few books. Most were trashy fiction but I did run across The Coming Population Crash while wandering the shelves of my local library. The crux of Fred Pearce’s book is that birth rates have dropped significantly and, in developing countries, are frequently below the replacement rate. He predicts a global population plateau just below 8 billion and a population drop to 5 billion by 2100.

Pearce canvasses a number of issues in the book, including evaluating the uncharitable assumptions of Malthus about the poor (of which we continue to see echoes in right-wing policy). Some reviewers have called him overly optimistic—I was certainly struck by his optimism (a nice change!)—a bit light on analysis and prediction. There are two implications in the book for labour policy and human resource management.

The first is that, in developed countries where the cost of social reproduction is mostly borne by women (i.e., women face a choice between having children and having a career), women are increasingly opting to have a career. This creates the conditions for (and in some cases the fact of) a population crash. By contrast, in countries with social policy that supports women, women choose to have children.

Australia is an interesting example. Unsupportive social policy over the past 30 years (which an analysis of generational effects suggests were unnecessary ) now faces a significant baby deficit, which has ripple on effects for the future labour force and the tax base. How a country that is relatively xenophobic towards immigrants (at least non-Anglo immigrants) will cope with that is an open question.

This leads to the second implication: developing countries will increasingly rely upon immigration (or, in cases like Alberta, perhaps migration) in order to maintain their workforce and population. Pearce provides an accessible but nuanced consideration of migration at the macro-level, attempting to dispel uncharitable assumptions about migrants and migration (shades of Malthus!). Overall, a pleasant read and reasonable introduction to the inter-relationships between birth rates, public policy, the environment and migration.

-- Bob Barnetson

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