(Original post by Thw Wilson Quarterly)
The World's New Numbers
by Martin Walker
“Here lies Europe, overwhelmed by Muslim immigrants and emptied of native-born Europeans.” That is the obituary some pundits have been writing in recent years. But neither the immigrants nor the Europeans are playing their assigned roles.
Listen as Martin Walker discusses demographic change on dialogue.
Something dramatic has happened to the world’s birthrates. Defying predictions of demographic decline, northern Europeans have started having more babies. Britain and France are now projecting steady population growth through the middle of the century. In North America, the trends are similar. In 2050, according to United Nations projections, it is possible that nearly as many babies will be born in the United States as in China. Indeed, the population of the world’s current demographic colossus will be shrinking. And China is but one particularly sharp example of a widespread fall in birthrates that is occurring across most of the developing world, including much of Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. The one glaring exception to this trend is sub-Saharan Africa, which by the end of this century may be home to *one-*third of the human *race.
The human habit is simply to project current trends into the future. Demographic realities are seldom kind to the predictions that result. The decision to have a child depends on innumerable personal considerations and larger, unaccountable societal factors that are in constant flux. Yet even knowing this, demographers themselves are often flummoxed. Projections of birthrates and population totals are often embarrassingly at odds with eventual reality.
In 1998, the UN’s “best guess” for 2050 was that there would be 8.9 billion humans on the planet. Two years later, the figure was revised to 9.3 *billion—*in effect, adding two Brazils to the world. The number subsequently fell and rose again. Modest changes in birthrates can have bigger consequences over a couple of generations: The recent rise in U.S. and European birthrates is among the developments factored into the UN’s latest “middle” projection that world population in 2050 will be just over 9.1 billion.
In a society in which an average woman bears 2.1 children in her lifetime—what’s called “replacement-level” *fertility—*the population remains stable. When demographers make tiny adjustments to estimates of future fertility rates, population projections can fluctuate wildly. Plausible scenarios for the next 40 years show world population shrinking to eight billion or growing to 10.5 billion. A recent UN projection rather daringly assumes a decline of the global fertility rate to 2.02 by 2050, and eventually to 1.85, with total world population starting to decrease by the end of this *century.
Despite their many uncertainties, demographic projections have become an essential tool. Governments, international agencies, and private corporations depend on them in planning strategy and making *long-*term investments. They seek to estimate such things as the number of pensioners, the cost of health care, and the size of the labor force many years into the future. But the detailed statistical work of demographers tends to seep out to the general public in crude form, and sensationalist headlines soon become common *wisdom.
Because of this *******ization of knowledge, three deeply misleading assumptions about demographic trends have become lodged in the public mind. The first is that mass migration into Europe, legal and illegal, combined with an eroding native population base, is transforming the ethnic, cultural, and religious identity of the continent. The second assumption, which is related to the first, is that Europe’s native population is in steady and serious decline from a falling birthrate, and that the aging population will place intolerable demands on governments to maintain public pension and health systems. The third is that population growth in the developing world will continue at a high rate. Allowing for the uncertainty of all population projections, the most recent data indicate that all of these assumptions are highly questionable and that they are not a reliable basis for serious policy *decisions.
In 2007, The Times of London reported that in the previous year Muhammad had edged out Thomas as the second most popular name for newborn boys in Britain, trailing only Jack. This development had been masked in the official statistics because the name’s many *variants—*such as Mohammed, Mahmoud, and *Muhamed—*had all been counted separately. The Times compiled all the variants and established that 5,991 Muhammads of one spelling or another were born in 2006, trailing 6,928 Jacks, but ahead of 5,921 Thomases, 5,808 Joshuas, and 5,208 Olivers. The Times went on to predict that Muhammad would soon take the top *spot.
On the face of it, this seemed to bear out the *thesis—*something of a rallying cry among anti-immigration *activists—*that high birthrates among immigrant Muslims presage a fundamental shift in British demography. Similar developments in other European countries, where birthrates among *native-*born women have long fallen below replacement level, have provoked considerable anxiety about the future of Europe’s traditionally Christian culture. Princeton professor emeritus Bernard Lewis, a leading authority on Islamic history, suggested in 2004 that the combination of low European birthrates and increasing Muslim immigration means that by this century’s end, Europe will be “part of the Arabic west, of the Maghreb.” If *non-*Muslims then flee Europe, as Middle East specialist Daniel Pipes predicted in The New York Sun, “grand cathedrals will appear as vestiges of a prior *civilization—*at least until a *Saudi-*style regime transforms them into mosques or a *Taliban-*like regime blows them up.”
The reality, however, looks rather different from such dire scenarios. Upon closer inspection, it turns out that while Muhammad topped Thomas in 2006, it was something of a Pyrrhic victory: Fewer than two percent of Britain’s male babies bore the prophet’s name. One fact that gets lost among distractions such as the Times story is that the birthrates of Muslim women in Europe—and around the world—have been falling significantly for some time. Data on birthrates among different religious groups in Europe are scarce, but they point in a clear direction. Between 1990 and 2005, for example, the fertility rate in the Netherlands for Moroccan-born women fell from 4.9 to 2.9, and for *Turkish-*born women from 3.2 to 1.9. In 1970, *Turkish-*born women in Germany had on average two children more than *German-*born women. By 1996, the difference had fallen to one child, and it has now dropped to half that number.
These sharp reductions in fertility among Muslim immigrants reflect important cultural shifts, which include universal female education, rising living standards, the inculcation of local mores, and widespread availability of contraception. Broadly speaking, birthrates among immigrants tend to rise or fall to the local statistical norm within two *generations.
The decline of Muslim birthrates is a global phenomenon. Most analysts have focused on the remarkably high proportion of people under age 25 in the Arab countries, which has inspired some crude forecasts about what this implies for the future. Yet recent UN data suggest that Arab birthrates are falling fast, and that the number of births among women under the age of 20 is dropping even more sharply. Only two Arab countries still have high fertility rates: Yemen and the Palestinian *territories.
In some Muslim *countries—*Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Lebanon—fertility rates have already fallen to *near-*European levels. Algeria and Morocco, each with a fertility rate of 2.4, are both dropping fast toward such levels. Turkey is experiencing a similar trend.
Revisions made in the 2008 version of the UN’s World Population Prospects Report make it clear that this decline is not simply a Middle Eastern phenomenon. The report suggests that in Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, the fertility rate for the years 2010–15 will drop to 2.02, a shade below replacement level. The same UN assessment sees declines in Bangladesh (to 2.2) and Malaysia (2.35) in the same period. By 2050, even Pakistan is expected to reach a replacement-level *fertility rate.
Iran is experiencing what may be one of the most dramatic demographic shifts in human history. Thirty years ago, after the shah had been driven into exile and the Islamic Republic was being established, the fertility rate was 6.5. By the turn of the century, it had dropped to 2.2. Today, at 1.7, it has collapsed to European levels. The implications are profound for the politics and power games of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, putting into doubt Iran’s dreams of being the regional superpower and altering the tense dynamics between the Sunni and Shiite wings of Islam. Equally important are the implications for the economic future of Iran, which by *mid*century may have consumed all of its oil and will confront the challenge of organizing a society with few people of working age and many *pensioners.
The falling fertility rates in large segments of the Islamic world have been matched by another significant shift: Across northern and western Europe, women have suddenly started having more babies. Germany’s minister for the family, Ursula von der Leyen, announced in February that the country had recorded its second straight year of increased births. Sweden’s fertility rate jumped eight percent in 2004 and stayed put. Both Britain and France now project that their populations will rise from the current 60 million each to more than 75 million by *mid*century. Germany, despite its recent uptick in births, still seems likely to drop to 70 million or less by 2050 and lose its status as Europe’s most populous country.
In Britain, the number of births rose in 2007 for the sixth year in a row. Britain’s fertility rate has increased from 1.6 to 1.9 in just six years, with a striking contribution from women in their thirties and *forties—*just the kind of hard-to-predict behavioral change that drives demographers wild. The fertility rate is at its highest level since 1980. The National Health Service has started an emergency recruitment drive to hire more midwives, tempting early retirees from the profession back to work with a bonus of up to $6,000. In Scotland, where births have been increasing by five percent a year, Glasgow’s Herald has reported “a mini baby boom.”
Population growth on a scale comparable to that which frightened pundits and demographers a generation ago still exists in 30 of the world’s least developed countries. Each has a fertility rate of more than five. With a few *exceptions—notably, *Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories—*those countries are located in *sub-*Saharan Africa. Depending on the future course of birthrates, *sub-*Saharan Africa’s current 800 million people are likely to become 1.7 billion by 2050 and three billion by the end of the *century.
One striking implication of this growth is that there will be a great religious revolution, as Africa becomes the home of monotheism. By *midcen*tury, sub-Saharan Africa is likely to be the demographic center of Islam, home to as many Muslims as Asia and to far more than inhabit the Middle East. The *non-*Arab Muslim countries of *Africa—*Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal—constitute the one region of the Islamic world where birthrates remain high. In several of these countries, the average woman will have upward of five children in her lifetime.
Christianity will also feel the effects of Africa’s growth. By 2025, there will be as many Christians in *sub-*Saharan *Africa—*some 640 *million—*as in South America. By 2050, it is almost certain that most of the world’s Christians will live in Africa. As Kenyan scholar John Mbiti writes, “The centers of the church’s universality [are] no longer in Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York, but Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, and Manila.”
The lower the birthrate, the greater the likelihood that a given society is developing—investing in education, accumulating disposable income and savings, and starting to consume at levels comparable to those of the middle classes in developed societies. Absent a shock factor such as war or famine, a society with a falling birthrate tends to be aspirational: Its members seek decent housing, education for their children, provision for health care and retirement and vacations, running water and flush toilets, electricity and appliances such as refrigerators and televisions and computers. As societies clamber up the prosperity chain, they also climb the mobility ladder, seeking bicycles, motor scooters, and eventually cars; they also climb the protein ladder, seeking better, more varied foods and more *meat.
This pattern is apparent in China, India, and the Middle East. China’s new middle class, defined as those in households with incomes above about $10,000 a year, is now estimated to number between 100 million and 150 million people. Some put the figure in India as high as 200 million. But it is apparent from the urban landscape across the developing *world—*whether in Mumbai or Shanghai, São Paulo or Moscow, Dubai or *Istanbul—*that a growing proportion of consumers seek to emulate a *Western-*international lifestyle, which includes an air-conditioned house with a car in the garage, a private garden, satellite TV, and Internet access, along with the chance to raise a limited number of children, all of whom will have the opportunity to go to college. Whether the biosphere can adapt to such increases in consumption remains a critical *question.
Perhaps the most striking fact about the demographic transformation now unfolding is that it is going to make the world look a lot more like Europe. The world is aging in an unprecedented way. A milepost in this process came in 1998, when for the first time the number of people in the developed world over the age of 60 outnumbered those below the age of 15. By 2047, the world as a whole will reach the same *point.
The world’s median age is 28 today, and it is expected to reach 38 by the middle of the century. In the United States, the median age at that point will be a *young*ish 41, while it will be over 50 in Japan and 47 in Europe. The United States will be the only Western country to have been in the top 10 largest countries in terms of population size in both 1950 and 2050. Russia, Japan, Germany, Britain, and Italy were all demographic titans in the middle of the 20th century. Today, only Russia and Japan still (barely) make the top 10. They will not stay there long. The world has changed. There is more and faster change to *come.
Martin Walker, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.