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Time to Defuse a Demographic Bomb

Concern Is Now About Population Decline

SOFIA, Bulgaria, JAN. 23, 2006 (Zenit) - A number of countries have published data revealing a serious deficiency in the number of children being born. On Jan. 9 a report by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences predicted that the country's population will fall from 8 million in 2001 to 7 million in 2020, according to Agence France-Presse.

If the current number of children being born per woman, 1.2 to 1.3, were to continue in coming decades the population could even drop to 4.5 million by 2050. Some European countries have seen birthrates increase. But others, such as Spain and Italy, are at the same level as Bulgaria.

Italy has seen a slight rise in its birthrate in the last couple of years, but the situation is still grave. According to official data, reported in the newspaper Corriere della Sera last Oct. 21, the average age of men when their first child is born is now 33. The average age for first-time fathers in Spain and France is 30 to 31.

Moreover, 40% of Italian men ages 30 to 34 still live at home with mom; the comparable figure for women is 20%.

The effects on the age structure of Italy's population are becoming ever more evident. On Nov. 4 Reuters reported that the ratio of those 65 years of age and over to those under 15 reached 137.7 to 100 in 2004. Other European countries -- Germany, Spain, Portugal and Greece -- also have more over-65's than under-15's, but the disequilibrium is not as severe.

Russia also has serious problems. The British newspaper Guardian reported Dec. 29 that a combination of high mortality (especially for men), lots of abortions and few births has led to an almost 7% drop in Russia's population in the last 15 years. Now at 143 million, it is predicted to drop by up to 20 million in the next two decades.

The Guardian cited a report by a business lobby group, Delovaya Rossiya, warning that the country will lose up to $400 billion in the next 20 years if it fails to tackle the population implosion.

"The deficit of labor is already being noticed," said Andrei Korovkin, a labor resources expert. "Even with a pessimistic view of economic growth, by 2010 it will become the most serious fact limiting the development of Russian industry."

Japan shrinking

Just before Christmas Japan announced that for the first time on record its population dropped. A Health Ministry survey showed deaths outnumbering births in 2005 by 10,000, the Associated Press reported Dec. 21. The current average number of children per woman, 1.29, is also at a record low.

Just prior to the publication of the statistics a government report warned that Japan's population could shrink by half by the end of the century, Reuters reported Dec. 16.

"Compared with nations that have recently boosted their birthrates, such as France and Sweden, we cannot say that our nation's policies are really sufficient," the report said.

In South Korea, government officials are also worried about the lack of children. In fact, after decades of promoting birth control South Korea and other Asian countries are now trying to persuade parents to have more children, the New York Times reported Aug. 21.

"In the next two or three years, we won't be able to increase the birthrate," said Park Ha Jeong, a director general in the Health Ministry. "But we have to stop the decline, or it will be too late."

The average number of children per woman in South Korea has plummeted to 1.19. Taiwan is not much better, at 1.22.

Not until last year did the South Korean government commit itself to raising the birthrate. "We should have started these policies in the late 1990s," Park said, "but we had been focused on decreasing the birthrate for 40 years and it was hard to change directions." It remains to be seen how much success the government will have in reversing fertility trends.

Aging trends

The population is also aging rapidly in Canada, announced the official body Statistics Canada. The number of people aged 65 and over will overtake those under 15 by 2015, the Globe and Mail newspaper reported Dec. 15.

By 2031, the number of seniors is expected to be 8.9 million to 9.4 million, almost 25% of the population compared with 13% now. The number of children, by contrast, is projected to be 4.8 million to 6.6 million. At the same time, the number of people of working age (15 to 64) will decline from the current 70% to about 60% in the years after 2030.

In the United States, the population is also aging. A Washington Times report Dec. 26 noted that the first of 78.2 million baby boomers, defined as those born from 1946 to 1964, are about to turn 60. And over the next 25 years the whole country will start to have an age structure like that of Florida, where 20% of the population is 65 or older.

This change presents serious challenges for welfare programs and government finances. The number of people receiving Social Security or Medicare will grow by 27 million in the next two decades, while those working, and paying taxes to finance these benefits, will grow by only 18 million.

Economic impact

"On the path that we're headed on today," said David Walker, head of the Government Accountability Office, a federal agency, "either there have to be dramatic changes in entitlement programs and other federal spending, or dramatic tax increases to close the fiscal gap."

In fact, over the next half-century health and welfare benefits could reach a combined level of around 24% of gross domestic product, which is about equivalent to the entire amount of federal government spending in all sectors currently.

Aging costs were also examined recently by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. An OECD study warned that global economic growth will decline to about 1.7% a year over the next three decades, the Financial Times reported Oct. 11. That growth rate would represent a fall of 30% compared with past decades, unless older people are encouraged to work longer to offset declining birthrates.

By 2050 there will be an average of more than seven older, inactive people supported by just 10 active workers in developed economies, compared with a ratio of four to 10 in 2000. In Europe the ratio will be one to one.

Faced with these facts some erstwhile supporters of family planning have recognized their errors. Adam Werbach, former national president of the Sierra Club in the United States, published an article Oct. 5 on the Web site American Prospect Online admitting that population control policies were a mistake.

In recent years a group within the Sierra Club attempted to adopt policies against immigration, a move successfully resisted by Werbach and others. "In the population-control frame, the number of people and their placement on the planet is the root problem that needs to be solved," he explained.

But, Werbach continued, this is not the key problem. He called upon "population activists" to change course and concentrate instead on working for improvements in conditions for women, and better health care and education. Instead of worrying about population control we need to unleash human potential, Werbach explained. A lesson many countries are only starting to learn as they face population decline.

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Population, Bulgaria, Children, Family

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