Our unpredictable demographic future

Here is concise summary of the gloomy future forecast by some demographers:

“Within the next quarter century true depopulation — a persistent long-run excess of deaths over births — will manifest itself in nearly all the countries of Europe and in those non-European countries to which Western civilisation has spread. The present stream of concern over eventual depopulation—concern evident in the many European works dealing with depopulation, in the depopulationist inquiries being made in countries such as England and Sweden, and in the anti-depopulation measures already put into effect in certain countries—will assume the proportions of a deluge. The growth of alarm at depopulation in various countries will proceed along the lines of a rather definite and somewhat ‘naturally evolving’ pattern and will be accompanied by the enactment of a sequence of ineffectual measures designed to stem the decline in fertility.”
If this seems like conventional wisdom to you, it is. Or rather it was – because these are the words of Joseph Spengler, president-to-be of the Population Association of America, writing in 1938. And what happened? Ten years later came the baby boom and worries about demographic stagnation disappeared.

Writing in the Vienna Yearbook of Population Research 2008, William P. Butz, of the Population Reference Bureau, in Washington DC, uses Spengler’s mistake to declare that he is currently an agnostic about the demographic future of Europe. Bleak it may seem at the moment, but it is very difficult to predict with any certainty what will happen in the next 50 years:
Fertility in Europe is as likely to rise over the next ten years as it is to stay low or fall further. I argue that we do not know what will happen, that we do not know enough, in fact, to project one future over another.
And the conclusion that he draws is that governments should only choose pro-natalist policies which do not harm couples or society. They should be justified on grounds other than impending demographic collapse.


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