Will demographic winter bring world peace?

 

 

Compulsively curious sort that I am, one question crawled into my cranium many moons ago that continues to bug. Why do human beings wage war? Wars kill, maim, and destroy.

But wars also make money, and money matters more in today’s topsy-turvy world than human life. The military-industrial complex makes out like a bandit when the killing commences. Wars are a wonderful distraction from failing economies and failed presidencies. 

Some say wars are started by regimes, not by “the people.” But governments are composed of people. Quite often when people rise in government a micro-dose of authority brings on a superiority complex. The bureaucrat or politician becomes hubristically confident that he knows best what is best for everyone else. Put those unwashed hordes to good use! War will do.

American psychologist William James (1842-1910) said that war brings on common purpose, social cohesion and camaraderie, inspiring patriotism (popular support). He also noted that courage and self-sacrifice beget heroism, glory and respect, things not easily attained in civilian life. Perceptive. 

Will an ageing population lessen war fervor? Does peace have a chance? Maybe.

A recent headline: “Ukraine’s War is Causing a Demographic Crisis”.

No kidding! Wars kill (I repeat myself) and make it horrific for families – not good demography-wise.

Yours truly’s most definitive treatise ever written on Ukraine’s demographic crisis appeared in these pages last year. (Well, maybe not the most definitive.)

But since last spring, things have gotten much worse. According to the World Bank:

 

The ever-present proximity of death or Russian occupation, family separation, and financial as well as physical insecurity is having a dire effect on Ukraine's already-declining birth rate.

The UN says more than 8 million have left Ukraine during this war, an exodus of at least 20 percent of the prewar population. About 5.5 million decamped for Europe and elsewhere, with 3 million moving to Russia. Ukraine’s military is strapped for soldiers. Their economy contracted by at least a third in 2022, with the “official” poverty rate rising to approximately 50 percent. Probably much higher.

Hundreds of thousands are dead from the carnage. There are now more people in Ukraine age 65 and over than 18 and younger. The median age is supposedly 45. Bottom line: War is a demographic disaster. As one of the 19th century’s preeminent war criminals put it, “War is hell.”

Another headline: “Russian Armed Forces Face Severe Demographic Challenges”:

 

[T]he total labor pool in Russia, made up of those people who should feed into the armed forces, also decreased from 93.1 million in 2010 to 89.1 million in 2020. And the number of those employed decreased from 71.5 million in 2010 to 69.5 million in 2020 (Rosstat.gov.ru).

Headline a year before Russia’s “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine: “The Russian Military is Facing a Looming Demography Crisis”.

 

According to the UN’s World Population Prospects report from 2019, there were a projected 14.25 million men aged 20-34 in Russia in 2020. By 2050, the median estimate predicts there will be only 12.91 million. A nine percent decrease in the recruiting pool will obviously complicate the military’s recruitment efforts. However, the true disaster is far closer than mid-century; in 2025, there will be only 11.55 million and in 2030, 11.23 million. This means there will be a roughly 20 percent decrease in the number of eligible male recruits during the 2020s. This problem predated the coronavirus and the associated budgetary constraints.

In early 2021 the Russian Finance Ministry proposed cutting military personnel by 10 percent. It didn’t fly. Just like in the US, favoring military cuts is “unpatriotic.” Talk about a sacred cow!

Now before you Russophobes start high-fiving over this, know that the USA has a similar problem. With an ageing population there’ll be a smaller military recruitment-age cohort, ultimately decreasing the active-duty force. CNBC reported:

 

The [US] Army missed its recruitment goal for fiscal 2022 by 25% or 15,000 soldiers, the military service said earlier this month. In July, it also cut its projection for the overall size of its force for this fiscal year by 10,000 and projected that it would likely see another decline in 2023. [Emphasis added]

The US fertility rate is about 1.6 and hasn’t been at replacement level for decades. Immigration is not helping. Also, a growing number of young folks are turned away due to drug abuse, obesity, educational deficits, and criminality. Standards have been “modified” to increase the number of those eligible for recruitment.

China has a similar problem. South China Morning Post: “Chinese military faces challenge from falling fertility rate”.

And from Valerie M. Hudson at The Institute for Family Studies:

 

China aspires to become a regional hegemon, if not a world hegemon. Unfortunately, no nation has ever achieved that status with a sub-replacement birth rate and declining population. Right at the historical moment when China should be reaching out to grasp the brass ring, its working age (and military age) population is shrinking. China has already raised the retirement age in an effort to mitigate this decrease. Given current birth rates, that working age cohort will continue to shrink for the next quarter century at minimum, at the rate of about 0.5% per year. 

So the planet’s three most powerful militaries are on track to contract. High-tech weaponry like robotics and artificial intelligence will – to an extent – compensate for lower recruitment. Robotics and AI are as proficient at killing/destroying things as they are at making things. They reduce the need for people. Russia has done much fighting in Ukraine with high-tech missile barrages. Sure beats sending masses of soldiers into a meat-grinder. However, there comes a point where high tech can no longer cover the absence of flesh and blood humans.

But the question arises: will fewer “fighting age” people lead to an outbreak of peace? Don’t bet on it. There were far fewer people around in previous centuries, and war continued unabated. However, those folks were much more prolific, vigorous and hardier populations with young’uns to spare.

So we’re back to “demography is destiny.” Does this hold for the military? Will smaller fighting forces, fewer people and a higher median age take the edge off militarism? And could this, somehow, some way, diminish the urge for war?

Time will tell. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. All the same, don’t bet on it.

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