On 31 May 2021, the Chinese Communist Party explained its decision to allow families to have three children by citing the need to “keep China’s natural advantage in human resources.” Many scientists already fear de-population in the long term due to economic stagnation (Figure-1). Practitioners of the ‘Dismal Science’ have struggled with the relationship between population increase, natural resources, and long-term living standards, at least since the time of Reverend Thomas Malthus at the close of the 18th century. Economies crumbling under the pandemic duress, global reduction in fertility rate and depopulation fear are some of the issues that are bound to gain greater attention. The pertinent question is how welfare systems can cope with declining fertility rates around the world.
Normatively, depopulation speculation has a loaded connotation. Reduced fertility and increasing life expectancy as well as possible depopulation hypothesis seem to project critical consequences on the global economy, labour market and on a range of socio-economic activities. Given the Covid-19’s death toll, this article examines the issue of global life expectancy, reduced fertility rate and possible depopulation theory as to how they are going to impact the world economy.
Apart from increasing mortality rate, decrease in life expectancy is also experienced after pandemics. During the 1918 Influenza Pandemic average life expectancy dropped by 12 years in the U.S. in a year (National Archives and Records Administration). Generally, after the pandemic life expectancy rates usually return back to normal. However, according to many experts this has not been the case with COVID pandemic. This is due to the difference of the age group of people who died in these crises. For instance, during the 1918 Influenza the majority of those who died fell between 20 to 40 years of age. On the other hand, the novel Coronavirus is targeting more of elderly people. In this way the present pandemic is decreasing the life expectancy rates. (Masquelier 2020)
Given the 3rd wave speculations, Coronavirus may lead to further low life-expectancy. Factors for reducing cases include better healthcare, improved socio-economic conditions, and education gains. Thus, governments need to strengthen the public health delivery system with accessibility and affordability since ‘increasing life expectancy’ is a key Sustainable Development Goal.
Pandemics generally follow cyclic processes of steep decline in births followed by a gradual increase afterwards, the so-called baby-boom, as happened during the Spanish-Flu of 1918-19. However, the Covid-19 pandemic does not have the classic drivers to create a baby boom as the pandemic focused on adults.
Due to the disruptions, lockdowns and uncertainties caused by the pandemic, couples are increasingly postponing childbearing. Millions of adults have been unable to work and unemployment rates have increased significantly. It is a proven theory that when the labour market is weak, aggregate birth rates decline and vice versa. For instance, the 2008 recession saw a 9% fall in births over the next four years, and the 1918 Spanish Flu resulted in a 12.5% decline. COVID-19 may result in even more significant reductions in births than the 1918 pandemic, primarily because of the more damaging economic effects (James Pomeroy 2021).
The world’s population was already expected to shrink, but the pandemic means this could happen a decade earlier. This can be good news for classical economists and ‘dismal scholars’ as well as dependency theorists as they advocate population control. However, the neo-classical economists advocating a curious case in favor of more people and the baby boom seem alarmed. They see a larger population as a case of higher labour, higher productivity and higher economic welfare gain. Population for them is a labour asset for a country holding economic growth and development prospects.
As suggested by evidence from previous pandemics, natural disasters and recessions – if the birth rate falls by 10%-15%, the impact on the global population would be nearly 10 times greater. (Pomeroy 2021) For example, decreasing fertility rates paired with rising mortality could contribute to an aging population. Thus, in a scenario where governments are already burdened by debts because of the pandemic, the result would be slower growth, higher taxes, lower public spending or later retirement. In such a situation having enough labour force isn’t enough. Human resource is the need of the hour which is built on a skilled labour force.
Undoubtedly, there are two sides to the population growth debate. However, having seen public finances stretched by the pandemic the last thing governments may want is shrinking working-age populations to shrink earlier than currently envisaged.
Pomeroy, James. 2021. “How pandemic will impact population.” HSBC. 29 January. Accessed August 2021. https://www.gbm.hsbc.com/insights/global-research/how-pandemic-will-impact-population.
“The Deadly virus The Influenza Epidemic of 1918.” National Archives and Records Administration.
This article was written by Research Interns, Aastha Rathi and Saumya Avasthi under guidance of Dr. R P Pradhan, CPPR Distinguished Fellow. Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.