Declining birth rate is a concern or is that a myth itself?

Raising Rugrats

Lack of rugrats – a crying shame

There appears to be a consensus in Singapore that a persistently low birth rate is nothing short of calamitous, because in years to come there won’t be enough working people to support the elderly. Society and the economy will suffer as the support system crumbles.

But is the scenario really as bad as it sounds? Will Singapore really “fold up” if the birth rate continues to stay low without a massive infusion of immigrants?

I draw your attention to the paper Ageing populations and hidden unemployment [published 2003, updated 2010] by the UK charity and think tank Population Matters that seeks to debunk commonly held beliefs on declining birth rates and an ageing population.

The paper advocates a sustainable population on the basis that resources are finite and populations can’t keep growing forever. That sounds obvious enough to all of us but sustainability is not a word you will hear from a government whose primary concern is to keep the economy growing. I quote the paper:

“Postponing population stabilisation by encouraging higher birth rates or increased inward migration and settlement, however, defers an ageing population ‘problem’ and is likely to make it worse – because the additional cohorts of younger people will increase the numbers of older dependants when they too grow old.”

More noteworthy is the point made in the paper that as life expectancy increases, so does healthy lifespan. So a person in his seventies, for example, will likely still be healthy and in active employment. The idea of having to work to such an age may not appeal to many but it is unfortunately an inescapable reality as longevity lengthens (think of it as a fortunate problem to have). Therefore, the support ratio of workers to the elderly won’t be as severe as imagined because the working population will increase.

There is also the issue of having more babies:

“People start their lives as dependants -babies- and usually end their lives as dependants. But some analysts forget that dependants can be young as well as old, and that they also are supported by the working-age population.”

[snip]

“Increasing the number of young people to support older people is unsustainable: it is only a short-term solution, and if it causes population growth, will lead to yet more older people in 2050.”

The paper recommends augmenting the work force by various measure such as making better use of unemployed and vulnerable workers such as ex-offenders, creating more part-time employment for older people, and getting more young people to start work earlier instead of studying for low-quality university degrees.

Personally, I do not recommend treating every research paper, scientific finding or survey you read as gospel truth, no matter how credible the source. But it is good to know the differing viewpoints and not assume that just because birth rates are low, disaster will befall us in 30 years time if we don’t procreate like minks now or import half a million foreigners every year. In fact, the issue of world overpopulation is a hotly debated topic split between two camps – one that thinks it is unsustainable and problematic, and the other that believes the world will do just fine.

I was left unsatisfied from reading this paper, because it does not address the question of what happens when population reaches a sustainable level but birth rate remains below the replacement rate of around 2.1 (the extra 0.1 is to account for male-female disproportion and mortality before child bearing age). Will Singaporeans go extinct if it happens to us? There are already reports of the Japanese heading that way.

In my view birth rate is unlikely to stay low forever as it appears to have an inverse relationship with level of population. In general, a less crowded society breeds better quality of life and is more conducive to making babies. Also, where there are land and life there will always be migrants arriving and settling, so it depends on whether you count these new arrivals as ‘Singaporean’.

Incidentally, Population Matters also derives an Overshoot Index. Guess which country tops the list? That adds nicely to our proud list of world number ones. I might point out as well that, according to the list, Singapore’s sustainable population is zero.

Everybody stay calm… WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!

That was a quote from Shrek the Third by the way. The overshoot index calculates how a country can sustain itself from renewable resources, so it’s not surprising Singapore scores low on that account.

You can come out from under that bed now.