If you’re anything like me, you’ll hear one word echoing through America’s playgrounds and kindergartens: “Liam!”
It’s not that Americans have rediscovered frontman Liam Gallagher’s underrated contributions to 90s Brit pop band Oasis, and as far as I know, we are still waiting for the actor Liam Neeson for his very specific set of skills to the next episode of the Taken franchisee. Rather, it’s because for the fifth year in a row, “Liam” is the most popular name for baby boys in the US, according to data released on May 6 by the Social Security Administration. “Olivia” topped the baby girl charts for the third year in a row.
You can see the full list here, but if you told me these very classic names were from 1921, not 2021, I wouldn’t be surprised:
Whatever American babies are called, from the hordes of Liams to the occasional “Davian” (number 1,000 for 2021), this fact is indisputable: There are fewer of them. In 2020, the overall fertility rate in the US reached its lowest level everand preliminary data for the first six months of 2021 showed a 2 percent decrease in the number of births compared to the same period in the previous year.
And what’s happening in the US is happening in much of the rest of the world because people are marrying more slowly and having children more slowly.
That trend has contributed to what will become one of the dominant themes of the 21st century: the slowdown in population growth, especially in developed countries, and the eventual shrinking of the number of people on the planet. It’s a theme addressed by Jennifer Sciubba, associate professor of international studies at Rhodes College, in her excellent new book 8 Billion and Counting: How Sex, Death and Migration Shapes Our World†
Demography is not fate – but it is close
For thousands of years, the number of people barely increased, at just 0.04 percent per year between 10,000 BCE. and 1700 AD. Our world in data†
As the Industrial Revolution and the resulting increase in human life expectancy began to spread around the world, the population started to grow exponentially, leading to the hockey stick graph to end all hockey stick graphs.
Today, Sciubba writes, the world is on the brink of 8 billion people, meaning the people alive today “represent about 7 percent of the 108 billion people who have ever breathed.”
But the days of exponential growth are behind us. In China, still the most populous country in the world, the number of babies born has fallen for five consecutive yearsdespite the government’s withdrawal of its one-child policy.
In South Korea, the birth rate has fallen to a record low of 0.92 and in 2020 the country’s population fell for the first time in its history† In the US – which has long been more fertile than many of its educated peers – the fertility rate is already well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children, and will probably keep falling†
While countries in sub-Saharan Africa still have huge and growing young populations and much higher fertility rates than more developed countries, the slowdown is universal, with “fertility tending downwards pretty much everywhere,” Sciubba told me in an interview. We know that we are moving towards a world with smaller families and older people – and ultimately with fewer.
Why? That’s a trickier question. Sciubba notes that while demographics is the study of large-scale population change, “it’s ultimately about individual people — just aggregated.” And individual people around the world – responding to changing economic, cultural and even religious factors – have made the decision to: fewer or even no children†
Governments can and will try to influence those decisions in the desired direction, but Sciubba told me that publicly policies — be it anti-natalist like China’s mandatory one-child law or pro-natalist like the many countries now paying citizens to have children – generally took a backseat with the individual preference. Policies “may speed things up for a while, but it won’t work” in the long run, she said.
Old world, young world
If the global trend is largely in one direction – fewer children – the consequences of changing demographics in the 21st century will be anything but shared.
Developed countries will be forced to grapple with the effects of an aging and ultimately declining population — Japan, Sciubba writes, “could eventually disappear altogether” if current trends continue. They will have to figure out how to keep their economy functioning with a shrinking pool of young, productive workers, a problem no country has ever seen before.
But even if fertility is expected to continue to decline, many countries in the South still have decades of exponential population growth ahead of them. The population of Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to increase sixfold in the 21st century, while by 2050 countries like Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are likely to be among the ten most populous countries in the world.
That burgeoning young population could be an economic boon to the world’s poorest region. The East Asian economic miracle was partly built by a demographic transition that led to a huge pool of young workers, greatly increasing production capacity per capita. We can hope that the declining number of young countries of the 21st century can enjoy the same demographic dividend.
However, there is no guarantee. If young employees cannot be properly deployed, that dividend can become a fine. Many of the world’s youngest countries are also one of the most vulnerable and most susceptible to the worst effects of climate change† Crowds of young people with little to do is a historic recipe for instability.
we have to move
If government policy is unlikely to be significant changing the choices individuals make about reproduction can help mitigate the effects of demographic change. Sciubba suggests that aging, developed countries could raise the retirement age, lower benefits, increase the percentage of the population working and increase immigration — all fairly controversial policies.
The last option is especially loaded. If the future is one of empty rich countries and overcrowded poor countries, it would allow many more people to move from the global south to the north, meeting both challenges. Think of it as globalization, just for people.
The problem, as Sciubba points out, is politics. Even in an era of unprecedented refugee flows, migration remains rare – just barely in 2015 3.3 percent of the world’s populationn lived outside the country where they were born. The political barriers to migration tend to increase, not decrease.
“While it makes sense on paper that we would do to people what we do to capital, and let them flow freely to where they would get the most bang for our buck, economic concerns aren’t the biggest concerns,” Sciubba told me. “It’s always political.”
Every day we actively choose to create the future we will have. The choice to have fewer children is in many ways, as Sciubba points out, “a sign of human progress,” the result of the fact that many of us can be far more confident that a child born today will grow up to our ancestors had. through most of history. How the world handles the consequences of those decisions will also be a choice.
A version of this story was originally published in the Future perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!