In late 2022 or 2023, the 8th billionth person will be born on Earth. Yet as history has shown, the thinning of valuable resources necessary for sustaining not only life, but a good life, continues to drive wars, disease, and poverty. How can we use the 8 billion people we have on the planet today to shape the world we want tomorrow?
In her provocative and penetrating new book 8 BILLION AND COUNTING, political demographer Dr. Jennifer Sciubba mines a long academic career, including a stint as a Department of Defence demographer, to show how a deeper understanding of fertility, mortality, and migration trends point us toward the investments we need to make today to shape the future we want tomorrow. The challenges that besiege our interdependent, interconnected world easily touch us all: disease, climate change, economic crisis—but so do the good fortunes for all 8 billion of us.
In this interview, I speak to Dr. Jennifer Sciubba about how demographic trends (age, structure and ethnic composition) can signal crucial signposts for future violence and peace, repression and democracy, poverty and prosperity.
Q: How have demographics shaped society?
[Jennifer Sciubba]: Fertility, mortality and migration are the three ingredients affecting population change- and the outcome on the other side is composition, distribution, and size. There are connections to big historic events, whether it’s genocide in Rwanda – which was clearly a composition issue, and it’s overlaid with identity politics.
There are a lot of connections to economic fluctuations such as the Black Death and this tragic time was mortality, clearly. In under a decade, in the 14th century, a third of Europeans were killed. This was something on order of 25 out of 75 million people.
Since children and poor working age people were hit the hardest in terms of mortality, that devastated working age population which means that it reverberates throughout decades, because those are the workers of the future. When there are fewer workers, wages rise. Many people have thought a lot of the political changes that came afterwards could be driven by that as well, and just carries on for generations.
Q: Have demographics contributed to cultural attitudes?
[Jennifer Sciubba]: The cultural norms that we’ve seen through history is an interplay in terms of causality, it’s not just unidirectional, a strong example being the One-Child Policy in China. (In 2015, the government removed all remaining one-child limits, establishing a two-child limit, and in 2021, after loosening the two-child limit in May to a three-child limit, in July all limits as well as penalties for exceeding them were removed). The social norms trended towards lower fertility before that policy was put in place and after that policy is removed, the norms were there. In Asia, people had been responding to the environment around them with high cost of living in urban areas, a lot of the pressures about educating children and the high stakes for that. With or without the policy, people’s preferences for family size had indeed changed over time.
Q: Do people really understand demography and how it led us to where we are?
[Jennifer Sciubba]: It is essential to think about it systematically and to include demographics as it’s the study of people – who we are, where we are- people are the foundation of every society. It includes all your school children and all your workers, your decision makers. There is a lot of misunderstanding about demography and one of the biggest misunderstandings is that it’s destiny. If it’s, destiny, it is not that interesting to study, but it’s not destiny. I devoted to that about why it’s not destiny, but the context is important. As a political scientist I really evaluate and think about that context.
Q: Can demographics be used to predict as well as analyse?
[Jennifer Sciubba]: To get the fuller picture of the world today or tomorrow, demographics is essential as it is the best tool we have. The future is baked into the population of today, and that makes it very convenient for looking at the next couple of decades as our future soldiers are today in nursery school, and our future retirees are entering college. We also have general patterns and general associations with demographic trends including conflict as we might have more conflict in the future and age structure is a big guidance for us in terms of conflict. A society that has hundreds of thousands to millions of people expecting to enter the workforce and if at that working age there are no jobs, its effect within society will be that they will have no money to get married and raise a family. They would have no political voice as they would be outside of all these structures and institutions. We know that those countries have a higher likelihood of outbreaks of civil conflict. We can then map the world in terms of age structure to understand those regions that are more at risk for those kinds of outbreaks of conflict.
Q: How can the demographic lens shape investment?
[Jennifer Sciubba]: We need to recognise and think about the pattern that these demographic trends follow, and migration is one area where we are constantly surprised at large waves of migration. But how many years or months do we have to be surprised before we realise it’s not a surprise that this is a regular pattern? We will have massive waves of forced displacement. Systems get overwhelmed when we don’t make the investment to change the policy, to handle with future issues.
International aid deployment is one area because there are places in the world where fertility is quite high and women desire it to be lower. That is an area for policies to shape things as we know it’s a real challenge to have prosperity under conditions of tremendous economic growth. There is a better likelihood of prosperity if family size is smaller and a whole other host of opportunities are put into place to direct aid to places where fertility is higher. That would just be one example of that.
Absolutely a better equity of demographics at the table I hope that is one thing that people in the business community will take away from my book, because in the sense that it’s not destiny. How we invest today can really shape the world tomorrow.
Q: How is rapid urbanisation influencing demographics?
[Jennifer Sciubba]: For decades, economists told us very convincingly that the way to higher economic growth was through urbanisation. However, something has changed because we, even economists now, are raising the flag that you have this urbanisation without growth. Instead of being attracted to cities like during industrialising England, people moved to the cities to move into those jobs as they were displaced from rural areas. People are moving to the cities. But again, finding no jobs.
That points to the need for much more deliberate use of an urban population, deliberate treatment of an urban population, A lot of countries are trying to restrict urban growth intentionally to avoid that. There is an opportunity there to take advantage of these large young populations, possibly concentrated in urban areas, but without those economic opportunities, you’re really squandering that.
Q: How do we measure success for our society now?
[Jennifer Sciubba]: We are all headed towards aging populations because we are living longer and measuring GDP growth is not the way to decide whether a society or an economy are flourishing.
We need a new vocabulary to discuss that even demographic decline. Population aging is evidence that we’ve been doing a lot of things right. We’re confident that if we have children, they will live long lives as well and we’ve never had those trends before in all human history. We don’t have the language to talk about them, much less the theories. The theories that we developed about economics were developed under conditions of population growth. There is a need for a call to action for everyone to get much more creative and decide if you need GDP growth rates of two or three percent when the overall population might be shrinking by a million people a year.
Currently this system of the GDP in evaluating how healthy an economy is by whether or not consumption is up or down is used as an indication that the economy is going well.
With the population ageing and also thinking about the environment, they go hand in hand, and it is time that we need this new vocabulary and we shouldn’t be rewarding those measures anymore. The Economics that we operate under is all about the goal of attaining infinite growth, but we know we cannot infinitely grow and live a good life.
Q: How can we generate the political will to respond well to demographics?
[Jennifer Sciubba]: International competition will help drive it. And I think that because the countries that have aged first are ones that have more generous social welfare systems, that is what we assume all ageing countries will look like.
Countries like Singapore or China or other countries that do not have the same kind of democratic accountability with decision makers are able to enact reforms that perhaps not everyone in a democracy would tolerate at all.
I mean, it’s been so incredibly difficult for France to raise the retirement age, for example, because people take to the streets in protest and there is electoral accountability for that. But in a non-democracy, you can have the family as the last resort instead of the state. You can have less generous pensions and you can have higher retirement ages, and the individuals and families will pay a price there. Whereas in the social welfare states, the government budget pays the price. But as more countries that are non-democracies are ageing, which that is our future for the next couple of decades. If they can be economically competitive, I wonder if that’s what it will take to see more of our response in that first wave of ageing countries. Democracies are not very good at long term planning in general and population ageing is the utmost long term planning.
Q: What has COVID taught us about demographics?
[Jennifer Sciubba]: My greatest fear is that we have learnt nothing. Individually, we have learnt that the longer your population lives healthy, the better off your economy will be. In general, a great lesson is they take your overall life expectancy and your healthy life expectancy and try to make those years between them as small as possible.
In the U.K., in the United States one lives a lot of years in bad health, which is a drain on individuals, families and estate. We have not internalised the lessons from COVID particularly in the United States. USA already had declining life expectancy before COVID and yet it’s not as if the country had had some help revolution pre-COVID. As a wealthy country, life expectancy was not supposed to be going backwards. It was only supposed to be going better and we were not supposed to be deviating from our peers but COVID only exacerbated that trend.
Q: Does demography raise questions of ethics?
[Jennifer Sciubba]: When it comes to those ethical questions, I just jump to the individual level of analysis. At a stage in most people’s lifetime experience having had a very sick, older relative and in that moment, that person does everything in their power just to get that poorly relative time – another few weeks of life or months of life.
We just need to constantly redirect the conversation to say, let’s live longer, healthier lives. I do get instrumental with this at times in the book because of the audiences that I’m addressing.
On the topic of economic growth, it will be – the longer we live healthier lives, the longer we can be productive and a country like Japan, where they do have long, healthy lives the workforce ‘technically’ has shrunk. Japan people don’t automatically exit the workforce at 65 in Japan, their average age of exit is 71.
And so, they’ve been able to make up for some of that workforce decline through bringing in more older people into the workforce. And they’re happy to be in the workforce because they get their own individual fulfilment and economic fulfilment from working.
Q: What is the reality of demographic engineering?
[Jennifer Sciubba]: There’s no country in the world that hasn’t tried to engineer their population. This is democracy, non-democracy, rich, poor. Go back in history talk about today. It is tax season in the United States and Child Tax Credit that the government rewards me through a pro-natalist measure for my two sons. The most insidious forms tend to be the ones that we’ve learnt about. Romania’s Ceaușescu, for example, deciding that a large population of ethnic Romanians specifically would be the answer to a lot of their economic woes. Prohibiting abortion, requiring women to go for monthly check-ins at the doctor and that did raise the fertility rate in Romania, but it also had tremendous negative consequences.
In the 80s on TV news Romanian orphans were seen and those generation of people remember those very explicit and distressing images till this day. As soon as the policy was removed, much like in the one child policy, which was anti-natalist, it reverted to the social norm of preferring smaller families.
In conclusion these examples of these migration policy is or immigration policy is a form of demographic engineering. We want to bring in these certain kinds of people to fulfil a certain purpose in our society. But we want to control that as tightly as we can. Gulf state countries that say men can come in and do these jobs, but they cannot settle here, they can’t intermarry and then they must leave or even Singapore that puts people geographically you may live here, but we’re going to preserve our ethnic balance the way it is. All of that is demographic engineering.
Q: Can we make society work at the numbers we are?
[Jennifer Sciubba]: I started writing the book as a pessimist and finished as an optimist.
The optimism is because fertility trends have changed in the last two decades and at the same duration, I had been studying demographic trends and its implications. It’s evident that there is a preference for smaller families, alongside a longer life expectancy and an increasingly aging population. All of these signs exhibit human prosperity and human progress, and these trends give me hope but at the same time I also wary of the fact that overpopulation exists. It resurrects a lot of the discourse from the 1960s and 1970s, which led to policies such as forced sterilisation in India which is not constructive because the places in the world with the largest family sizes have the least consumption. Therefore, we must redirect the conversation towards consumption, and that is a wide topic and a challenge to which I have no solution for that at hand, but I do remain optimistic that there is the will to do something amongst these younger generations.