Why Young People are Important

Commentary, Workplace, Owen McShane

The population of the Earth now numbers more than 6 billion. That’s a lot of people.

This fact reminds us of the Malthusian population curve, the exponential line where the planet’s resources cannot meet the needs of an exploding populace. Despite the worries of doomcasters, this curve is simply bad history.

Once there were a handful of hunter-gatherers. As humans moved into new territory they would feast on the large animals and their numbers would boom until the large animals suffered a population collapse. This has been going on for a million years or more – the most recent example being the extinction of the many species of moa in New Zealand by immigrants from Polynesia. This collapse in protein source then leads to a reduced human population and the development of inter-tribal warfare, even cannibalism to restore the plenty of the "golden age".

So the population within a region tends to increase rapidly and then flattens out or even declines. Somewhere along the line, women – who are most disadvantaged by warfare and its associated culture – invented agriculture. Once again the population boomed. But part of the agricultural process is the domestication of animals like pigs and cows. Further, agricultural surpluses allowed the development of cities in which people could live in high densities. This led to two developments among the most successful life forms, bacteria and viruses. First, diseases leapt from animals into nearby human hosts, who had little resistance to these new parasites. Humans were available in such numbers that the parasites could afford to kill their hosts, and still have many left to provide new homes.

These great population crashes are recorded in history as great plagues. The most recent was the Black Death of the fourteenth century which killed 30 to 40% of Europe’s population. Some towns in Germany did not recover their pre-plague population until the 1930s. As Europeans travelled the world they took these plagues with them – with devastating results for the populations of isolated areas like the Americas and the Pacific. This history explains why Polynesian diseases did not travel back to Europe to wreak vengeance there. The Polynesians did not live in close proximity to their animals within high-density cities. They had no new diseases to share.

The great plagues of Europe finally passed and the subsequent loosening of social and religious shackles encouraged the Renaissance. This in turn led to the industrial revolution and another round of population growth. The industrial revolution generated the wealth which led to improvements in health and superior public sanitation and hygiene, and finally advances in medicine and surgery. The resulting increase in life expectancy and reduction in child mortality gave rise to the population explosion which has become deeply embedded in the doomcasters’ consciousness.

However, with unexpected rapidity the population explosion has turned into a population implosion. Around 1972, when Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, the rate of increase in population began to decline.

Wealth is the great contraceptive. Families in poor societies look on their children as an asset, both to labour in the fields and to care for their aging parents. Families in rich societies find they have to send their children to college – and they stick around. But once the parents are old, they find their children are on the other side of the globe.

Around 1980, population projections were revised down to a further doubling to about 12 billion around the middle of the next century. But then the other great contraceptive kicked in. Largely because of the increased wealth in the diverse countries and cultures of Asia, female literacy boomed – and birthrates collapsed.

Population projections have been revised downward ever since, until now it seems highly probable that human population will peak at something under 8 billion around the years 2030 to 2050. This means that we have to deal with no more than a twenty percent increase in population before the world’s population goes into quite steep decline.

The doomcasters are sad. Their dreadful prophecies have been heavily dependent on the notion of population exploding until there is standing room only. As this benighted future fades away they have turned their attention to "resource depletion."

This fear is totally based on fiction. Resources are infinite, because resources are the result of the interaction of the human mind on raw materials. While the amount of stuff on the planet is finite, the inventive capability of the human mind knows no bounds.

This is why the population has been able to grow from two to six billion without anyone running out of anything. This excludes the biosphere – humans are remarkably good at wiping out species, especially those too big to fence and hence too difficult to farm. But all resources are more plentiful and hence cheaper than they have ever been. We have never run out of a resource and never will.

If scarcity cuts in, the price goes up and substitutes are found. Frequently resource scarcity is never the issue. We switched from sailing ships to steam because steam was cheaper, not because we ran out of wind.

The only natural resource which keeps on getting more expensive is the human being. Wages keep on rising and will continue to do so. This is especially true for educated minds. It is even more true of minds which are also innovative and entrepreneurial. That means the minds of the young.

This argument leads to my conclusion that the young people of today are the most fortunate generation which has ever lived.

The collapse in population is a result of falling birthrates. The United States is the only country in the developed world which is reproducing itself – presumably reflecting that nation’s continued belief in its own future. In Europe, the Italians have the lowest birthrate, even though in Italy both contraception and abortion are illegal. Scotland comes next in the infertility ranks. Europe is highly dependent on immigration to maintain its labour pool.

Throughout this century the cost of the educated human mind has been increasing. Even at the height of the population explosion and the baby boom, wages continued to rise. But now we face a future in which this traditional scarcity is being increased by a falling away in numbers as well. The youth are in population decline while the old are still increasing.

Hence the most scarce resource will be our educated young. At the same time, wide-bodied jets make travel ever cheaper and the Internet makes overseas opportunities more accessible. The bidding war for our young has already begun. Canadians are losing up to 10,000 college graduates to the United States each year. The young will go where they can find jobs, higher incomes, low taxes and cheaper housing.

Future public policy will necessarily be driven by the need to keep our young at home or to encourage them to return. Oldies of the world unite – you have only your pensions to lose. Our children and grandchildren are the lucky generation. They are valuable and in ever decreasing supply. Therefore their price will rise – and we shall have to pay their price in whatever currency they choose to name.

Countries that fail to devise public policies which keep the young at home will face a demographic bomb more certain and subtle than any conceived by Malthus. They’ll lose their people.

Some notes on World Population

  • Plunging death rates, not soaring birth rates, are the main reason for rapid population increases in the last century. World average life expectancy more than doubled, rising from 30 years in 1900 to 63 years now. "World population increased not because people were breeding like rabbits, but because they stopped dying like flies."
  • World population rose from 1.65 billion in 1900 to 6.08 billion in 2000. If present demographic trends continue, the world’s population will top out at 7.5 billion in 2040 and begin to decline.