New World Population Numbers Have a Big Impact on Social Security, Foreign Policy

New analysis challenges huge assumptions about Muslim and American growth as well as U.S. policy.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The latest issue of the Wilson Quarterly, the in-house publication of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars based in Washington, D.C., includes a provocative analysis of global demographic trends that challenges the conventional assumptions about where the planet is headed.

Written by Martin Walker, a Wilson Center senior scholar and former editor-in-chief of United Press International, "The World's New Numbers" walks through global birthrates in a way that suggests many dire predictions—for example, the idea that wave after wave of Muslim immigration into Europe will eventually overwhelm the native-born populations—may be flat wrong and that policymakers need to begin now to revise their assumptions about the future.

"Something dramatic has happened to the world's birthrates. Defying predictions of demographic decline, northern Europeans have started having more babies. Britain and France are now projecting steady population growth through the middle of the century," Walker writes, noting that the phenomenon of rising birthrates is not exclusive to Europe. "In North America, the trends are similar. In 2050, according to United Nations projections, it is possible that nearly as many babies will be born in the United States as in China. Indeed, the population of the world's current demographic colossus will be shrinking. And China is but one particularly sharp example of a widespread fall in birthrates that is occurring across most of the developing world, including much of Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East."

Allowing that sub-Saharan Africa remains the one notable exception to the trend, Walker suggests this change in birthrates should force governments and international organizations to revise their predictions about the size of the global population and that they, as well as the private sector, need to adjust their planning models for everything from agricultural output to energy consumption to healthcare spending to the size of global investment needed to pay for it all.

He also explains, and this is important in a political sense as well as in terms of economics and sociology, how the new numbers challenge several leading—Walker calls them "misleading"—assumptions that "have become lodged in the public mind."

"The first is that mass migration into Europe, legal and illegal, combined with an eroding native population base is transforming the ethnic, cultural, and religious identity of the continent. The second assumption, which is related to the first, is that Europe's native population is in steady and serious decline from a falling birthrate, and that the aging population will place intolerable demands on governments to maintain public pension and health systems. The third is that population growth in the developing world will continue at a high rate.

"Allowing for the uncertainty of all population projections," Walker says, "the most recent data indicate that all of these assumptions are highly questionable and that they are not a reliable basis for serious policy decisions."

Policymakers here in Washington would do well to read Walker's analysis. The idea, for example, that the birthrate among Muslim immigrants living in Europe and elsewhere is declining should have a profound impact on U.S. policies in Iraq and Afghanistan and toward Iran and Israel. The uptick in the U.S. birthrate, which reached 2.1 children per woman in 2006—2.1 being the "magic number" to keep a nation's population steady, sometimes called "the replacement rate"—could have a major impact on a number of government entitlement programs, like Social Security, where the retirement of the baby-boom generation is projected to bankrupt the program when there are far too many retirees in the system for each person still working to make the books balance.

"Perhaps the most striking fact about the demographic transformation now unfolding," Walker reports, "is that it is going to make the world look a lot more like Europe.

"The world is aging in an unprecedented way. A milepost in this process came in 1998, when for the first time the number of people in the developed world over the age of 60 outnumbered those below the age of 15. By 2047, the world as a whole will reach the same point," he says, while the United States may be the only country in the West "to have been in the top 10 largest countries in terms of population size in both 1950 and 2050."

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