Elon Musk worries about population implosion

Marcus Roberts
July 14, 2017
Reproduced with Permission
Demography is Destiny

New Scientist recently released an interesting article about the world's population in 2076. It's title used the phrase "population bomb" which is usually liable to raise my hackles, invoking as the phrase does that doomsday book published in the 1960s by Him Who Must Not Be Named (no, not Voldemort.)

But this article was different: the population bomb hasn't exploded in a wave of humanity drowning us all and the Earth. Instead, the population has imploded and the world has the opposite problem, a declining population and economic collapse. The article notes that half the world's nations have fertility rates below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. Europe and East Asian nations are in a particularly bad situation, Japan is already in population decline while Germany and Italy could, if present trends continue, see their populations halve in 60 years.

The article continues:

"The world has hit peak child, says Hans Rosling at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. Peak person cannot be far behind."

Hmm, grim stuff, but nothing that you as a wise and discerning reader of this website over many years would not be unfamiliar with. The reason why I'm bringing this to your attention is that Elon Musk, the inventor and entrepreneur, tweeted (is that right?) his concern about the upcoming population implosion and linked it to the New Scientist article. According to Business Insider , Musk wrote to his ten million followers:

"The world's population is accelerating towards collapse, but few seem to notice or care".

Aside from being perhaps a symptom of a deeper, underlying cultural malaise the problem that is most prominent with a declining population is economic.

"If countries don't have enough babies, they won't produce a strong enough labour force to match the economic output of the older generations. And in the most extreme cases, low fertility rates create a vicious cycle of low spending and low reproduction. People who can't afford to have kids don't bolster the economy, which leads people to have even fewer children."

But is Musk right to worry? According to the UN, the world's population is heading upwards for the rest of the century and is expected to hit 11.2 billion by 2100. By that time however, the UN is predicting that the global fertility rate will have declined to no more than the replacement level. Much of the growth in the world's population between then and now is expected to come from Africa where fertility rates in most countries are still high.

Whether the world's population collapses within 50 years might come down to the rate at which the fertility rates of high-fertility countries declines. Will countries follow the United Kingdom's example in the 19th century and take 95 years to drop from over six children per woman to under three children per woman? Or will China's experience in the 11 years from 1967 be replicated when its fertility rate dropped by the same amount? If it is the latter, then Musk is right to worry, we might indeed be heading for a population "implosion" in 60 years.