Thomas Robert Malthus died more than 150 years ago, so it's not surprising he's hardly a household name in today's world. But even those who don't remember the renowned English demographer have, perhaps unknowingly, encountered his legacy in many modern economic and environmental theories. Malthus was a vocal and prolific advocate for the idea that the human birthrate would produce unsustainable overpopulation and massive scarcity of food and other natural resources.
“The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man,” Malthus wrote, “that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”
Malthus represented the conventional wisdom of many in academia for a very long time, but while Malthusians, as they have come to be called, remain active in some circles, the fact is that subsequent centuries of empirical evidence to the contrary have not been kind to Malthus' theories. In fact, evidence now suggests that underpopulation, not overpopulation, is a critical problem facing the nations of today's world.
The Wall Street Journal, citing a study from the McKinsey Global Institute, recently reported that low birthrates in industrialized nations threaten to produce a lower standard of living in the future. “Declining population growth that shrinks the pool of available labor over the next 50 years will reduce by 40 percent the rate of growth in global economic output for the world’s 20 largest economies compared to the past 50 years,” the Journal wrote. “Later generations, in other words, would see less prosperity than their parents and grandparents.”
Other media outlets have taken notice, too. CNN has labeled the problem “an acute baby shortage” and found evidence that it is already having a severe negative impact in Japan, which has battled slow economic growth and recession for decades. Other countries recognize the problem and are proactively working to counteract it. Russia has gone so far as to offer women cash incentives to have more children. Denmark even launched a somewhat irreverent ad campaign in a desperate attempt to encourage Danes to reproduce.
Some perspective is needed here.
Make no mistake — this concern is a real one. As the world population ages, retirees rely on younger workers to support a system that is increasingly top-heavy, with more people taking out than putting in. Here in the United States, our entitlement programs for the elderly are mathematically unsustainable, largely due to these demographic realities. Politicians who ignore this undeniable fact are putting the future of the country at risk.
At the same time, all doomsday predictions risk looking as ridiculous as Malthus' does in hindsight. Human ingenuity prevented Malthus' famines that never materialized, and the same is likely to compensate for today's “baby shortage.” Rather than panic, it's time to recognize the problem and find practical ways to solve it.