Do you think the world has too many people or too few people? Chances are it’s the first. For decades, various types of Malthusians have been actively warning us that the population explosion will destroy us all. They are wrong; This will not be the case.
At this point, what is most likely to destroy us, in the West at least, is the opposite. Even a cursory check of the numbers makes the point. In the majority of countries in the world, the fertility rate has fallen below replacement level (meaning an average of 2.1 children per woman). In many European countries, it is well below the replacement rate. Think Italy at 1.27, Germany at 1.54, Spain at 1.24 and the UK at 1.6.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the world’s population won’t eventually get too high – the UN still predicts a peak of over ten billion people (up from 7.7 billion currently). It’s just that all the growth he predicts is coming from just nine countries, all of which have very high fertility rates.
Sounds plausible – until you actually look at the numbers. One of the main drivers is supposed to be India. But in India, the fertility rate has already fallen to 2.12. It’s already barely a generation to be Italy.
That’s not to say that the populations of countries with low fertility rates won’t grow a little more over the next few decades – it does. But the growth that there will be will not be driven by the birth of new people, but by the fact that old people are not dying – which means that the number of old people relative to young people will continue to increase.
This represents a huge change: instead of a small number of old people supported by a seemingly unlimited number of young people, we are entering a world where one of our most important resources – young people – is scarce. Between 2009 and 2019, the number of children in the UK increased by 8%; the number of people over 70 increased by 24%. Are we ready for this? The message of the Covid years is: no, not remotely.
Society has always been based on the fact that there were a lot of young people and not a lot of old people. The result was – more often than not – that the young looked after the old quite well, working to pay for their pensions and health care, listening to their opinions, etc. Here we are with things upside down – lots of old people; not so many young people. How will it work?
The first instinct might be to assume that society would adapt to be super youth-friendly. In a normal economic model, scarce resources are prized – and very expensive. In our world, our scarce resources are none of these. This was the case before Covid, of course: pensioners had a triple lock on their pensions, students had to pay an interest rate on their student loans based on the retail price index (a measure of inflation which is about one percentage point higher than the most commonly used consumer price index) plus up to three percentage points higher. Today it is 4.4%, but with inflation over 7%, it could soon climb to over 10%. But their parents can get a 2% mortgage.
The frenzied money printing of the past decade has been equally anti-youth – it has driven up the prices of assets owned by older people and has made it even more difficult than normal for young people to build up a heritage.
The tax system also seems to work against them. We are insisting in the UK – for reasons that after 30 years in personal finance I still don’t quite understand – to have lower rates of tax on income from assets (income from wealth) than from work (income from work), and of course to refuse to collect capital gains tax on housing.
But all the financial irritations aside, nothing has shown how we approach this weirdly biased as Covid politics. Instead of looking at our children, thinking carefully about how we depend on them and succeeding in the long term – and therefore doing everything in our power to ensure that they hardly notice a pandemic that would not have never much effect on their health, we have ruined two years of their life (so far). We closed their schools, restricted their movement, criminalized their socialization, forced them to wear masks that we know make no real difference. Worse still, we treated them differently – in a bad way – from adults.
Last week I received an email about a board meeting I had in Scotland. There I was reminded that I had to wear a mask in the common areas of the office building but also assured that once I was in the meeting room itself, sitting and talking with my colleagues, a mask was not necessary. At the same time, my daughter was in school. Different rules applied to her: When she sat in her classroom (without speaking), her mask was very necessary – as it has been for the past 18 months.
Scottish parents bitterly joke that you can spot a Scottish high school student anywhere: they’re the ones with mask-like acne around their nose and mouth.
Why different rules for adults and children? No idea. But it should be noted that the Scottish population is on average older than the English population (where children have been without masks for some time). Could it be that the older a population, the less politicians care about children?
Either way, the results are clear: the mental and physical health of the children has declined. During the Covid years, the percentage of foster children deemed obese or overweight rose from 23% (already high) to 27.7%. The biggest leap has been among the most deprived children.
The truth is that over the past two years adults have been bizarrely mean to children and young people – and that doesn’t bode well for the future. It might have made sense to prioritize the needs of the elders when there weren’t very many of them. Nowadays, when it is children who are becoming a scarce resource, this is really not the case. Our politicians have some thinking to do.