The lottery of birth
The lottery of birth

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The lottery of birth

4.1.6 Over population, under population

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Figure 8

Today, population issues can be concerned with expansion, or stagnation, and there can be dire predictions about the lives of the upcoming generations within rapidly ageing societies, very low birth rates and high rates of international migration.

But, policies and predictions can both get it seriously wrong and can lead to some serious unintended consequences. Concerns about over-population and under-population have featured in public conversation and public policy for some time. Invariably, both seem to be sources of anxiety and pessimism.

For example, Paul Ehrlich predicted, in his 1968 book The Population Bomb, that millions would die of starvation in the 1970s and 1980s. What actually happened was what has been called the ‘Green Revolution’, a series of major changes to food production such as high yield cereals and use of pesticides lead to a tripling of food production in the 1970s and 1980s.

The effects of changes in the balance of young and old people in a country, the interactions between countries (for example with regard to migration) and power differentials between countries give rise to some huge and hugely important questions. Emerging population growth anxieties in the middle of the last century, lead to some top-down targets for ‘family planning’. By the 1960s and 1970s, the world’s most populous countries, China and India, alarmed by the projected figures, resorted to coercion and decided to pursue aggressive population control measure (as you heard about earlier in the course).

In this century, as before, poverty still means that some parents see a large family as a rational economic strategy, while other parents still consider children as offering security for their old age. And not everyone believes that population growth is an impediment to economic growth and development or that population growth can’t be adequately matched by the growth of the world economy.

However, by the 1980s and 1990s, there was a discernible shift to concern about the individual when considering population trends and predictions. By the time of the International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo in 1994, a global consensus was emerging that population objectives were more likely to be achieved if individual men and women’s needs and rights were to be taken into account (May, 2012). By the time of the setting of the Millennium Development Goals, the emphasis was shifting to the empowerment of women, improving maternal and child mortality, improving girls’ education and voluntary family planning (May, 2012) (as you heard about earlier in the course).

Population policies are those actions taken to prevent, delay or address misalignments between demographic changes and social, economic and political goals. Now in the 21st century, ongoing discussion of population policies, how to implement them and which policies are effective are subject to underlying social, economic and political changes particularly those main engines of socio-economic development, education, urbanisation and women’s empowerment.

The UN summarises the contradictory trends in government population policies thus:

Government policies to influence fertility, whether to raise or lower it, have changed significantly since the ICPD in 1994. There is now far more concern about fertility levels, with more low-fertility countries expressing concern about and adopting policies to raise fertility and high-fertility countries doing the same to lower fertility.

For some countries, the change in policy came about due to a realisation of the impact of continued fertility levels at either the high or low extremes. In other countries, in particular the low-fertility countries that had very rapid fertility transitions, policies changed to accommodate a new demographic reality. While demography is not destiny, the implications of fertility levels at the extremes will continue to reflect and shape the well-being of individuals, families, countries and, ultimately, the world.

(UN World Fertility Report 2013, 2014)

Difficult choices need to be made about whether a country is willing, or able, to avoid what appear to be damaging outcomes of population trends. But, in this century, as countries will be wrestling with the serious social and economic and political issues related to population changes (such as migration, unequal access to modern contraception, and ageing populations), individuals will continue to make choices about whether to have children at all, when to have children and how many children to have. These choices may, or may not, be influenced by the population policies of the countries in which they live.

Many demographers now believe that the demographic pattern will result in the world population stabilising by 2050 and perhaps even falling by the end of the century. Last week, you saw the video of Hans Rosling’s summary of the drop in births worldwide. In the next section, you’ll hear Rosling talk about the distribution of wealth and the growth of population.

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