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Overpopulated? Aging? Interview with John F. May concerning the demographic future of the planet (Sens Public)

October 2, 2012

Visiting fellow John May is interviewed in the French web journal Sens Public about population policies.

The following op-ed originally appeared in Sens Public.

Abstract: Among the world top experts on population policies, John F. May, a Belgian citizen, has been a Lead Demographer at the World Bank from 1997 to 2012. Before joining the Washington-based institution, he has worked for various organizations such as UNFPA, UNICEF, USAID and the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population. He now collaborates with the Center for Global Development (CGD), a think-tank in Washington, while also teaching demography at Georgetown University. He has recently published a major volume, World Population Policies: Their Origin, Evolution, and Impact (Springer, 2012), the result of more than a decade of research, travels and experience. The book is already considered a reference in the field. John May has agreed to answer the questions of Sens Public.

Résumé: Comptant aujourd’hui parmi les grands spécialistes des politiques et des programmes de population sur la scène internationale, le Belge John F. May a été Lead Demographer à la Banque mondiale de 1997 à 2012. Avant d’entamer sa carrière dans l’institution de Washington, il a travaillé pour des organismes aussi divers que l’UNPFA, l’UNICEF, l’USAID et l’Union internationale pour l’étude scientifique de la population. Il collabore désormais avec le Center for Global Development, un « think-tank » de Washington, tout en enseignant la démographie à Georgetown University. Il a récemment publié un ouvrage, World Population Policies: Their Origin, Evolution, and Impact (Springer, non traduit), le fruit de plus d’une décennie de réflexions, de voyages et d’expérience, qui s’est déjà imposé comme une référence dans le domaine. John May a accepté de répondre aux questions de Sens Public.

Sens Public – First of all, can you explain to us what a population policy is? What purposes does it serve, and what are the tools available to decision makers for implementing it?

John May – A population policy is a set of interventions implemented by government officials to better manage demographic variables and to try to attune population changes (number, structure by age and breakdown) to the country’s development aspirations. Population policies attempt to modify the various components of population growth. This may concern mortality or fertility, when it is felt to be too high or too low. This may also involve regulating international migratory flows or fostering internal migration currents, as was the case in Indonesia with the transmigration policy (population relocations on the archipelago). Finally, we may think of policies to support urbanization and to try to manage slums. More recently, the developed countries have also focused on their aging population problem. The means used to implement population policies are “policy levers” or targeted actions such as vaccination campaigns or family planning to change certain key variables. *Vaccination campaigns are used to reduce mortality and family planning programs are used to reduce fertility.

S.P. – The public debate seems to oscillate between two extremes, some claiming that the earth is at risk of being overpopulated before long, while others claim that we are all aging quickly and that the weak population growth observed in many countries will merely make things worse. Where do we really stand?

J.M. – As Alfred Sauvy used to say, there is not a single global population, but various populations facing very different situations that are divided among some 240 countries and geographic entities. Currently, 16% of the world population lives in countries where fertility is high (more than 4 children per woman); 38% lives in countries where the fertility level is between 4 and 2.1 children per woman; and, finally, the rest, or 46%, experiences fertility below the generation replacement level (the famous 2.1). So here we have two opposite phenomena – strong population growth and rapid aging, even depopulation –that are occurring simultaneously in various parts of the world.

S.P. – Is the data available to us concerning this subject reliable and are the calculation methods uniform all over the world?

J.M. – We know the world population with a small margin of error, roughly the equivalent of the population of France, more or less. We also know fertility levels thanks to the demographic and health surveys program. As for the population projections prepared every two years by the United Nations Population Division, they are quite reliable (they are calculated using an identical method for the entire world). However, they become less reliable the more distant the final projection date. We know how many people will live on earth around 2050: for the most part, all these people have already been born. It’s more difficult to say for the year 2100, since the vast majority of people who will live in 2100 have not been born yet. It is fertility that is both the key variable for the final (projected) population figure and the phenomenon whose evolution is the most difficult to foresee. We used to think that fertility would decrease quickly in Sub-Saharan Africa; this was not the case, which also led the Population Division to change its fertility assumptions for this region of the world. We also used to think that the fertility levels of the industrialized countries would never fall much below 2.1 children per woman (the generation replacement threshold); we currently observe fertility rates barely higher than one in numerous countries and regions, for example Taiwan, South Korea and Eastern Europe.

S.P. – Japan, Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States, are aging. What will the consequences of this be for government spending, on the one hand, and for migratory policies, on the other?

J.M. – Sauvy’s witticism (1962 report on Wallonia), concerning the countries “of old people ruminating over old ideas in old houses” probably goes too far. It is, moreover, difficult to measure the loss of vitality that would result, it is said, from population aging. On the other hand, the economic and financial consequences of aging exist and are quite real: retirement and medical care payments are growing exponentially and are inflating government deficits, while the workers who are supposed to pay for them (actively working people) are declining inexorably compared to the non-working population (dependents). Let’s make no mistake: the current Euro crisis has an important demographic substrate. Furthermore, the rapid aging of the population will inevitably result in a questioning of the current migratory policies.

S.P. – It’s not really said, but China is also aging very quickly and risks “being old before being rich.” Is its one child policy a failure?

J.M. – The one child policy was launched in 1979 at a time when China already had a fertility rate below 3 children per woman. This policy, whose goal was first to pursue control of China’s demography, then attempted to “modernize” the population in order to produce citizens better able to accelerate economic development and integrate China into the global economy. On this subject, it is necessary to read the penetrating essay by Susan Greenhalgh, Cultivating Global Citizens: Population in the Rise of China (2010). This one child policy has also led to pernicious effects, essentially very rapid population aging, a future contraction of the working population (which will be felt as early as the end of the current decade), glaring social inequalities and, finally, the problem of the imbalance of the sexes at birth (abortions of female fetuses). To borrow the title of the latest work (2011) of Isabelle Attané, the well-known French sinologist-demographer, China has become a “country of rare children.” However it has also become a country afflicted by profound demographic imbalances, which will be very difficult to resolve.

S.P. – How much longer before India becomes the most populous country in the world?

J.M. – Around 10 years, based on the medium variant of the United Nations projections, when the total population of India should exceed that of China. Nevertheless, it is not a given that the population of India will stabilize rapidly. In fact, if we apply a much lower uniform fertility rate for the entire subcontinent (ultimately projected to fall below the replacement threshold), we get an Indian population that would stabilize at around 1.6 billion inhabitants. Things are very different if we project the population of each Indian state separately, even if we assume a replacement fertility level. The poor states of northern India, with high fertility rates, will continue along this path, and this movement will be amplified by the population momentum, when a very young age structure leads to additional population growth. In all, we could imagine India with 2 billion inhabitants around 2070, if fertility does not decline very rapidly in the states that are still experiencing high fertility rates.

S.P. – What about Africa, whose population growth, coupled with rapid urbanization, presents formidable challenges for the continent? What should the African decision makers expect and how must or can they react?

J.M. – During the 1960s and 1970s, Sub-Saharan Africa refused to set up organized family planning programs. The idea at the time was that socioeconomic development alone was going to bring about the drop in fertility. Unfortunately, development was not as rapid as anticipated. At present, population growth is so rapid that many countries no longer manage to build their human capital (education and health). Thirty or forty years of neglecting the problem of strong population growth have left traces that are found in the age pyramids. The problem of the unemployment among young people is more acute than ever, as stressed by the latest report from the African Development Bank. Burkina Faso, for example, is well aware of it and, at present, the government is making enormous efforts to create 50,000 jobs, although it would be advisable to create 200,000 per year, or 2 million over the next 10 years. Faced with this serious situation, the countries are beginning to wake up: some have achieved impressive improvement in their contraceptive coverage, thanks to targeted and decentralized programs such as in Rwanda or Ethiopia. Still, the continued decline in mortality, especially infant and child mortality, is going to intensify population growth in Africa coupled with the additional growth caused by the population momentum tied to the youthful age structure. This strong population growth can only be curbed by rapid urbanization (accompanied, unfortunately, by a probable increase in slums) and by large migratory streams. Population policies will have a hard time managing all these phenomena.

S.P. – In your opinion, which country has been able to implement an exemplary population policy?

J.M. – This award should go to an Asian country; I am thinking in particular of Thailand. This country has experienced a spectacular decline in fertility rates, which occurred with the consent of the populations and without coercion. Additionally, the family planning program broke new ground there, particularly by allowing the distribution of hormonal contraceptives by non-medical personnel. Furthermore, the family planning programs, and later those to fight AIDS, benefited from very talented activists like Mechai Viravaidya, known for his energy, his passion, and also his humor (he called condoms “weapons of mass protection”). In short, the Thai program has succeeded in combining effectiveness and respect for the rights of individuals.

S.P. – Faced with an aging world and, therefore, in need of labor, it is possible to imagine that countries will one day compete to welcome more immigrants?

J.M. – Yes and no. First of all, the demand to emigrate (the “push factors”) will remain very important and will probably increase. On the other hand, the projected decrease in labor in many countries with low fertility rates will inevitably create in these countries a call for workers. This is the case in Europe. The industrialized countries will also be looking for very skilled labor, and in this sense, they could, effectively, be in competition with other countries looking for the same categories of workers. Furthermore, some countries with a tradition of immigration will continue to welcome either unskilled or very highly skilled people (this is currently the case in the United States). The big question that will be raised in the future concerns the integration of the immigrant workers and their families in the host country.

S.P. – How many years of thought and experience did it take you to produce your voluminous and detailed work? And how does one become interested in demographic problems?

J.M. – The entire project took me 17 years of work, reading and thought, but also travel and time spent all over the world. It is the great French demographer, Jean-Claude Chesnais, who, at the Cairo Conference in 1994, persuaded me to do this book. He thought that I was one of the few people capable of successfully completing this type of project, for, in his eyes, I combined analytical rigor and field experience. Having begun with historical demography (by studying the plague epidemics in the 16th century), it was thanks to the judicious advice of Guillaume Wunsch, one of my teachers at the Catholic University of Louvain, that I turned to pure demography. Then I worked in developing countries. In doing so, I was acutely aware of the demographic variables as well as the interventions on the part of the government to manage them better, namely population policies.

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