The “picture” you see here is based off the picture in Ross Douthat’s column. I asked Dall-E to create this one, of course.
Without clicking on the link, can you guess what his column is about?
For some time now, South Korea has been a striking case study in the depopulation problem that hangs over the developed world. Almost all rich countries have seen their birthrates settle below replacement level, but usually that means somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5 children per woman. For instance, in 2021 the United States stood at 1.7, France at 1.8, Italy at 1.3 and Canada at 1.4.
But South Korea is distinctive in that it slipped into below-replacement territory in the 1980s but lately has been falling even more — dropping below one child per woman in 2018 to 0.8 after the pandemic and now, in provisional data for the second and third quarters of 2023, to just 0.7 births per woman.
It’s worth unpacking what that means. A country that sustained a birthrate at that level would have, for every 200 people in one generation, 70 people in the next one, a depopulation exceeding what the Black Death delivered to Europe in the 14th century. Run the experiment through a second generational turnover, and your original 200-person population falls below 25. Run it again, and you’re nearing the kind of population crash caused by the fictional superflu in Stephen King’s “The Stand.”https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/02/opinion/south-korea-birth-dearth.html
Get used to worrying about not enough people, because that’s what the study of demographics will (has already?) come to mean in the 21st century. It’s not just South Korea, of course – Germany, Italy and Japan are also staring at the same problem, and that list is very far from being complete.
And what problem is that?
Not Enough People.
And as an Indian, sure you can ask how this can possibly be a problem. Here’s how:
There will be a choice between accepting steep economic decline as the age pyramid rapidly inverts and trying to welcome immigrants on a scale far beyond the numbers that are already destabilizing Western Europe. There will be inevitable abandonment of the elderly, vast ghost towns and ruined high rises and emigration by young people who see no future as custodians of a retirement community. And at some point there will quite possibly be an invasion from North Korea (current fertility rate: 1.8), if its southern neighbor struggles to keep a capable army in the field.https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/02/opinion/south-korea-birth-dearth.html
I’m actually slightly uncomfortable with the assertions in this paragraph (note the repeated use of the phrase “there will be”). Not because I disagree with them, but because we simply do not know how this will pan out. Maybe the immigration story will play out better than expected, and maybe (as Ross Douthat himself says elsewhere in the column, the tide will turn in pleasant and unexpected ways). Maybe, if you want to be all weirdly sci-fi about it, the South Korean government will produce babies in artificial wombs.
Too weird, and can’t possibly happen, you say? I present to you the last fourteen years or so.
But what really gave me pause was thinking about how Ross Douthat ends his column. What, he asks, are the underlying sociological causes of and responses to this rapid fall in birthrates?
- Traditional social mores in South Korea, including very low out of wedlock births
- A feminist revolt against conservative social expectations
- A consequential male anti-feminist reaction
- Sharp polarization between the sexes
- A sharp reshaping of the country’s politics, and a sharp decline in marriage rates
If you are a student of economics, but only faintly interested in demographics and sociology, you’re doing it wrong, I promise you.
We live in interesting times!