Stage 5, Demographic Transition Model: Japan’s exit to the left

I wrote recently about Thomas Malthus and the continued presence of his followers, neo-Malthusians, who argue that high population growth and large populations are (essentially) a source of economic and political instability. While this is an old felt hat, the new millennium has given demographers a new topic of discussion, one which generally isn’t reported in the press. Low population growth as a source of instability. If you aren’t aware of the earth-shattering demographic news (yes, I can use those two adjectives in the same phrase) than hold on tight. Population decline is a reality. I’m not talking about a Spanish influenza or Black Plague sort of population decline (because you would have heard of that), I’m talking about gradual decreases in a country’s (yes, an entire country) population. Demographers note that this may never have occurred before over the course of human history. The problem is demographic decline isn’t limited to one country, its a reality in a number of countries in both Asia and Europe. The widespread nature of the problem means that we need to rethink our models to account for not only population growth but decline.

The general framework demographers use to talk about population growth is encompassed in the demographic transition model. Like any model it is a representation of reality, it isn’t reality. While the demographic transition model encompasses some factors of population growth, birth and death specifically, it leaves out another, migration. What’s exciting is that we appear to be heading for a new “fifth” stage in the model.

A graphical depiction of the demographic transition model (from BBC)

The first stage, roughly described as “preindustrial”, is characterized by a high birth rate and high death rate, both of these fluctuate as populations respond to external stimuli – for instance, a good harvest encourages more child bearing or a new minor disease increases the death rate slightly. Overall, the effect is for somewhat stable population growth there’s plenty of births to make up for the high death rate. In human history this is roughly representative of human society before the introduction of things like sanitation, medicine, and so on (premodern, if you’re into that).

The second stage is the collapse of the death rate, for humans the introduction of proper sanitation, modern medicine, easily accessible nutritious food, and clean water all combined to dramatically, and quickly, lower the rate of deaths. As technology got better deaths continued to drop until it was primarily the very old, the very young, or the very unlucky who were dying. Society is slow to respond this collapsing birth rate so population growth effectively increases as births remain high. More and more babies are born and survive into adulthood, having large families of their own. Especially during the era of decolonization (from the 1960s) less developed countries were thought to be indicative of this stage, having high population growth and birth rates but relatively low death rates due to the influence of modern medicine.

The third stage is dramatic falls in the birth rate, society responds to the low death rate by having less children. Population still grows, but slower. Why have less children? Think of it this way, before things like ipads, social security, gender equality, children were the social security. Once you became to old to work your farm you hoped one of your myriad of children would take you in and support you and your spouse in your golden years. But with the advance of education, making children’s education more expensive, gender equality, which made it socially acceptable and desirable for more women to have careers, and general consumer goods, which compete with children for your wallet, birth rates dropped. Many demographers focus on the changing role of women in society. Some talk about the double-day phenomena, where mothers work a regular job and then must also work at home to supporting a child (the implication is that the spouse doesn’t do nearly enough at home). Others note that as more women work professionally, they stay in school longer for better jobs, resulting in putting off having a child to after their mid-20s (after the graduate college or graduate school). As I posted before the generally accepted total fertility rate for stable population growth is 2.1 children per woman over her child-bearing years. One each to replace mummy and daddy and 1 child over 100 women to replace the odd woman or man who doesn’t have a child.

At this point we reach stage four, where birth and death rates are fluctuating at low levels. We still have natural disasters and virulent diseases, not to mention war, that can increase the death rate and there are still things like baby booms, especially after the war, and economic booms to spur birth rates. Demographers assumed that this would be the rule for the rest of human history (though they probably wouldn’t say it), but it seems like we’ve come to a fifth stage. The population would growth slowly, driven by advances in technology or social progress, or fluctuate around an “ideal” population size. But that’s apparently not the end of the story.

The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) held a roundtable discussion on the implications of Japan’s changing demographics (that is, its declining population) and released an article summarizing the discussion recently. This is a great article and well worth a read, if you have the time. But I’ll offer a quick summary. Without quoting the source (I’m assuming its the U.S. Census, United Nations, or Japan’s Statistics Bureau), NBR reports that Japan’s population is to fall from 128 million people in 2007 to 95 million in 2050. That’s a decline of 33 million persons over a 43 year period, almost a thousand over 750,000 (ed. math-fail) persons a year. The first response is usually that there must be a staggeringly high death rate in Japan. Wrong! The discussants believe it is due to a combination of three factors: health, birth, and emigration (that is, out-migration). The article that presents the implications of this declining population on three areas, economics, energy, and security. In terms of economics, the discussants saw a vicious cycle of economic difficulty and falling birth rates as men are increasingly taking lower-wage informal jobs (thereby not able to support larger families), a more quickly declining working population (compared to the population at-large), and always-low immigration rates. In terms of energy, the discussants primarily examined the impact of the ban on nuclear energy and tangentially noted that a declining population will likely result in lower energy consumption – forcing Japanese utilities to look abroad to diversify. Finally, the discussants did not see a Japan lowering its defense spending (since the burden is already relatively low) and argued that whether it might raise defense spending as relations with China cool. The demographers saw that a declining work force might not impact military recruitment, because Japan’s “high” underemployment. The report concludes with a list of recommendations for addressing the challenges brought by demographic decline within the current economic situation of Japan.

Although NBR focuses on Japan, its worth remembering that this isn’t a problem unique to Japan. Demographic decline will be affecting most of East Asia (China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea), except Mongolia and North Korea, and Russia by 2050 according to data from the U.S. Census. What makes Japan unique is that it is the first country to begin this decline. Thus, the challenges faced by Japan will also be faced by the rest albeit further in the future. China’s current total fertility rate is estimated at 1.6 children (the one-child policy was mostly responsible for this) but demographic momentum of such a large (over a billion people) means that population decline won’t happen immediately. However between 2025 and 2050, the Census Bureau estimates the population of China will shrink by a little over 90 million people (a growth rate of negative 0.5%). Similar situations are also found in Taiwan and South Korea. That slowing population growth and below replacement level fertility is widespread makes it necessary to expand the demographic transition model to include stage 5 (as many have started doing).

We can characterize stage five as a fluctuating death rate but a still decreasing birth rate, resulting in a negative population growth rate and, eventually population decline. The reason I say eventual population decline is because the population will continue to grow for sometime after the birth rate falls below the death rate. After all, all of those children that were born before the fall are going to be having children in the next generation. This is the concept of demographic momentum. Actual population decline doesn’t occur immediately, there’s a generation or two lag as society fails to respond. Why does the birth rate still decrease? For a large number of reasons, many of them similar to the drop in the birth rate outlined in stage four. Children are expensive to keep, provide for, and educate (assuming you have a standard you want to keep) and these expenses are a household decision, perhaps a couple or a person, doesn’t want the expense. Children aren’t necessary for retirement, we have pension funds, 401ks, and other retirement plans for ourselves, not to mention physical places, like assisted living homes who employ folks who are paid to take care of you. And then there is shifting societal norms and values, while it is always dangerous to discuss “cultural norms” for hundreds of millions of people, we can definitely say that is as acceptable (socially) for a woman have a career and devote her life to her work, though not all women choose this path and there are still barriers (like pay) discouraging them from doing so. Of course, there are still many women that choose and want to have families and to devote their lives to their children. The constraint here is on the number of children one may want to have, which is constrained by the family’s choices and society. In terms of the former, a family may want to only have enough children that they could send to college, or a Master’s, or complete their dissertation. Or they might only want to have two to avoid “middle child syndrome.” Then there are factors outside of their control, China, as an extreme example, was famous for the one child policy, which was enacted in order to limit the population growth rate (an instance of the state attempting to force demographic transition from stage two to stage three). But there are also other more subtle factors, perhaps having too many children is a sign of poverty or low social class? The ultimate point is that there are now a variety of reasons for people to not have children.

Way back in the introduction I discussed the idea of low population growth and declining populations as a source of instability, a sort of anti-Malthusism. The problem is this theory is completely speculative. As I mentioned above, persistent, slow-moving decline hasn’t been a factor in human history. Thus, the effects on things like social and political stability are difficult to estimate. However, as NBR pointed out, there are some cursory observations and projections we can make, for instance, a lower energy consumption. However, this isn’t necessarily the case since every year we invent new, bigger, and cheaper technological gadgets to entertain ourselves. I plan on devoting another post to the issue of low population growth/population decline and instability.

[updated 02/25/13]: Japan’s current demographic decline is not unique (considering that as the trends go, most children born today will probably visit a number of “disappearing countries”) its a new part of human society and should be reflected in our demographic models. I mentioned before that models are not reality, the demographic transition model could be better by including migration. In fact, the United States’ total fertility rate is currently at replacement level (the U.S. Census Bureau estimates 2.1 births per woman in 2013) and forecasts a stable trend until 2050. By 2050, the Census Bureau estimates a below replacement level fertility rate of 2.0. However, demographic momentum and the country’s relatively open immigration policies and relatively welcoming society will ensure a healthy population growth. Young migrants, who also tend to bring over families if they’re able, also generally have more children. This is a good thing, steady population growth ensures a steady pool of labor to fill jobs as people retire and in the U.S., where natural population growth is slowing, we need immigrants to fill the jobs that are unfilled by the available labor pool. After all, immigrants wouldn’t be coming to the U.S. without a reasonable expectation that they will be able to get a better-paying or more steady job. Of course, the immigration solution is also available to Japan but as, NBR writes Japan has a “strict” immigration policy limiting the effectiveness of this solution.

10 thoughts on “Stage 5, Demographic Transition Model: Japan’s exit to the left

  1. Good article. Have you watched the documentary “Demographic Winter” which describes possible economic consequences of population decrease in many world countries?

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