Is a nation’s destiny set by its fertility rates? The announcement that Japan’s population fell by almost a quarter of a million in 2013 – the fifth consecutive annual fall – brought warnings that the country may be in terminal decline.
“The stagnation of the lost decades is a symptom of problems brought on by demographic change,” wrote Reiko Aoki, an economist at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, last year (Population and Development Review, doi.org/qrc).
Japan has the world’s oldest population, with a median age of 46 years, an average lifespan of 84, and a quarter of the population over 65. But this doesn’t have to mean a gloomy future. What happens in the coming years might even point the way for other countries.
Japanese longevity can’t compensate for its ultra-low fertility rate – just 1.4 children per woman. Hard-working Japanese society has “embraced voluntary mass childlessness”, says Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. One in four don’t have children. Some European countries also have low fertility rates, but top up with migrants. Insular Japan does not.
The conventional view is that this is bad news: shrinking numbers hobble economic growth and the ageing population is a major financial burden. But Eberstadt says there is another side. The proportion of Japan’s population that is dependent on those of working age isn’t unusual, he says, it’s just that it has almost twice as many over-65s as children. Consequently Japan spends less on education. And because the Japanese are the world’s healthiest, care bills are also lower than in other nations.
Japan’s economy has been growing slowly for two decades now. But that too is deceptive, says William Cline of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington DC. Thanks to the falling population, individual income has been rising strongly – outperforming most US citizens’.
With 127 million people, Japan is hardly empty. But fewer people in future will mean it has more living space, more arable land per head, and a higher quality of life, says Eberstadt. Its demands on the planet for food and other resources will also lessen.
Japan isn’t alone in demographic contraction: Russia, Romania and Hungary all follow the trend. For many more, it is being delayed by immigration. But the global population bomb is slowly being defused. As Swedish statistician Hans Rosling first noted, the world recently reached “peak child” – the point where the number of children aged 0 to 14 around the globe levels off. Global fertility rates have halved in 40 years – they are now below 2.5 children per woman – and global population may peak soon.
So, far from being a demographic outlier, Japan is “the world leader in demographic change”, says Aoki. For some this sounds like a disaster. China last year relaxed its one-child policy fearing that predicted population decline in the 2030s would choke its economic development. But others believe that peak population is a necessary first step to reducing our assault on the planet’s life-support systems. In that case, following Japan’s example may be just the ticket.