by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 9
December 2021
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07:10

Elon Musk is right: declining birth rates are a threat to civilisation

He may have cynical motives, but his point stands
by Peter Franklin
Credit: Getty

Elon Musk has described declining birth rates as one of the “biggest threats to civilisation”. Speaking at a Wall Street Journal event earlier this week he said: “If people don’t have more children, civilisation is going to crumble. Mark my words.”

This isn’t the first time he’s issued this warning. In an interview back in September, he remarked that “a lot of people think there are too many people on the planet; in fact there’s too few.” He also reiterated the point on Twitter yesterday.

But is he right? Birth rates are certainly in decline across the world. Yesterday, The Guardian reports that Australia’s total fertility rate (TFR) fell to a record low 1.58 babies per woman in 2020. Though the impact of Covid and lockdowns may have contributed, the latest fall is consistent with a long-term trend. Furthermore, it doesn’t just apply to Australia and the other advanced industrial nations, but to many emerging economies too.  

So far, only a few countries are experiencing outright population decline — because longer life expectancy and immigration is topping up the head count. However, there are limits to both these compensating factors: biological limits in the case of human lifespans and political limits in respect to migration. So, if birth rates remain below the replacement level across two or more generations — and in countries like South Korea they are less than half what is required — then dramatic population decline is inevitable.

Musk is thus absolutely right to raise the alarm. The only question is whether he’ll be listened to. As the most entertaining and outspoken of the tech lords, his opinions can be easily dismissed as Elon being Elon. Indeed, the cynics will accuse him of promoting his own pet projects like the Tesla Bot — a bid to develop a humanoid robot. Getting us to believe in a future where human workers are in chronically short supply would be a good way of attracting investor interest.

But there’s more to Musk than hype. Some of his ventures have already had a transformative impact on their sectors — for instance Tesla on car manufacturing and SpaceX on unmanned spaceflight. Other breakthrough products are promised, including a commercially-viable, fully-automated car and Neuralink, a brain/computer interface that could be used as treatment for brain injuries. His rockets might even get us to Mars.

If these wonders do come to pass then he’ll have done more than any person alive to make the 21st century. It will become increasingly difficult to dismiss either the man or his message. At any rate, his pronouncements on the future ought to be taken more seriously than his current hairstyle.

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AC Harper
AC Harper
11 months ago

Just no. Now you can argue, a la Musk, that a declining population is a Bad Thing. But then in practical terms we didn’t change our behaviours when the population was increasing – roughly by a factor of 8 in the last 200 years, and by a factor of 2 since I was born – despite Malthusian outcry. So exhortations won’t have any traction.
We have no firm grasp of the ‘carrying capacity’ of the world. It might be only 500 million, it might be 10 billion. But if you accept that climate change could be a bad thing (eventually, if not immediately) then a shrinking population might well be a Good Thing. If a smaller global population can retain hospitals, universities, sanitation etc then it’s possible that a smaller population could spread such ‘civilization’ and quality of life to parts of the world that presently go without. Although the ultra rich might not have so many people to sell things to.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
11 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

The real problem with a declining population is that there won’t be enough workers paying taxes to support the elderly.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
11 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

This is true, however, where does it stop, we wil always have to increase the population to take care of the elderly from the previous increase. It may be that one generation will have to take the hit, I know easy to say if you’re not the one. Also, where is this technology, we keep being promised, which will make each worker more productive; if this is the case then a smaller, better paid working population will create the necessary tax base.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
11 months ago

OK, so we increase the population to take care of the elderly – but there’s a flaw! The increased population will also grow old, needing an even bigger increase in population.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
11 months ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

Which is what I said.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
11 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

How about a future where the meritocracy ceases to rule the land and the elderly are considered to be a burden and, therefore, unnecessary?
When the land is controlled by physically strong people, the police force won’t be able to act to protect the weak and will spend all of its time policing ‘hate crimes’ against the leaders, who will control the fashion of the day.
I can see a time when clever and weak people will be purged and given the worst and dirtiest jobs. Hm. What does that remind me of?

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
11 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

This is why it is argued immigration is a good thing. But at the end of the day it is nonsense. 100 years ago most people died shortly after retirement. Of course the modern trend to early retirement with years of healthy living ahead and then a number of years of care home living supported on the backs of the diminishing working population is unsustainable We have been gifted the benefit of a longer healthy life through modern medicine the least we can do is to continue working longer. Of course, some jobs are physically demanding and those that do them need to retire to less physically demanding jobs when they can’t continue. It is a piece of fantastic self-indulgence to believe we are entitled to 30, 40 or 50 years of retirement to be supported by the young.
Furthermore there is massive waste in the system currently. Look at Sir Philip Barton sunning himself on a beach while his underlings clock off from home after 8 hours during a period when all hands should have been on deck. Look at the Tribunal award of £10,000 for hurt feelings to a fat Police detective who had been off sick for a third of the time for ten years because a police sergeant suggested she drink less coke. Without all this waste we could afford to be a bit more supportive of the old.

Last edited 11 months ago by Jeremy Bray
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
11 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

My work was not physically but emotionally demanding, which I think exacts a higher toll than a physical one. Please don’t underestimate the ravages of a stressful career on your health.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
11 months ago

Good point. Something like social work is undoubtedly emotional draining and there is a lot to be said for switching before you are completely drained.
But the point is that people should expect that they switch to a job that they can continue to do and that continues to support them rather than expect to be carried for decades by others.
Otherwise we will be stuck in a Ponzi scheme like policy of perpetual population expansion by either upping our birth rate with all the financial strain involved or continuing an ever increasing immigration with all the social strains that implies.
Of course, if you are lucky enough to have saved sufficient to tide yourself over your remaining years without the need for a job so be it, but most people can’t earn enough for that.

Last edited 11 months ago by Jeremy Bray
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
11 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

There is no real social security in South Africa in the form of a pension that can actually support you, so people are compelled to make provision for themselves or live on the breadline.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
11 months ago

Yes the choice is spend less now or live on the breadline in the future. This is not to underestimate the difficulty of those earning only a bit more than the breadline.
Matt M gives some UK statistics below. Most of the people I know who are 75 would be perfectly capable of doing their old job, or some other job, although many/most would certainly prefer not to be forced to do so.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
11 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Some of them are probably highly skilled, and have earned so much that they are able to retire early, and blame it on stress. Furthermore, if they continue to earn, they may well be clobbered by the Life Time Allowance, unless they’ve persuaded the government to give them special privileges.

Matt M
Matt M
11 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

In 1913 a 65 year old man could expect 12 years more life that had to be covered by a pension. Nowadays, a 65 year old man can expect 19 more years. So if we raised the retirement age to 72 you would be back to the original objective.

It is already raised to 67 for people of my generation (late 40s) so it doesn’t seem a stretch to get to 72 for people born in this decade. In fact you probably need to run ahead to cope with increased life expectancy so many it need to go to 75. It’s still 4 years younger than the current POTUS (not much of a recommendation, I know).

As you say you would need to do something to give manual workers an easier ride for the last few years but most white collar jobs have no obvious upper age limit.

Last edited 11 months ago by Matt M
Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
11 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Indeed, and some even boast of working until they’re ancient.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
11 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

With mechanisation and the sharp fall in the proportion of work that is hard, physical work, the work that people over 65 can do has increased substantially. If there was the same will to offer part-time work to older people as there is to keep women in the workforce, far more older people could contribute to the economy.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
11 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Nor will there be enough taxpayers to support retired civil servants.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
11 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

So immigration Ponzi Scheme then?

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
11 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

In my opinion, we exceeded the carrying capacity of the world long ago, hence too much CO2, too much pollution in the air and water, overflowing sewage plants, too much plastic, too much noise, too much light pollution obscuring the stars, too little water in some places (too much in others), too much migration, the housing shortages, the steady elimination of all other species on earth, excepting rats and cockroaches (and I’ve noticed the disappearance of bats around my house) – hasn’t anyone including Musk not noticed this?

Last edited 11 months ago by Colin Elliott
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
11 months ago

I think whether we have a greater or lesser population is less important than the quality of the population. Do we want more ill-educated criminals? What we want are highly skilled men and women of good will. Let us concentrate on getting better people not more.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
11 months ago

Far far too many people in the UK, in Europe, and in the world. Population decline is unquestionably a good thing, more resources for everyone if it is properly managed.

John
John
11 months ago
Reply to  Ian McKinney

Since state pensions and other benefits are paid for out of the taxes of the current working age population, a declining birth rate means that either pensions/benefits need to be cut or taxes need to increase.
Currently in the UK, we are moving from 4 working aged individuals per retired person down to just 2.5. This is why we’re in serious trouble and taxes are having to rise for social care/NHS and pensions are having to be frozen.
As the 1 child policy in China has shown, this will then become a vicious circle – since the younger working age are having to pay more to support the changing demographics, they will have fewer children which then further exacerbates the issue.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
11 months ago
Reply to  John

Hence “properly managed”.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
11 months ago
Reply to  John

Import more people who then grow old and then..?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
11 months ago

In South Africa, the country of his birth, births exceed deaths by more than double and frankly the country is headed for disaster. Give me some of what he is smoking.

Matt M
Matt M
11 months ago

Could we encourage couples to have more babies? Certainly there is a housing element that could be fixed and would help -big families with one stay-at-home parent need big, cheap houses.
Maybe it could become fashionable for women to have kids before starting a career, which could mean bigger families. After all we living longer and retiring later so if you started your career at 35 – after your youngest child had started primary school – you would still have 30/40 years of work in you.

Last edited 11 months ago by Matt M
Lyn N
Lyn N
11 months ago

On the current trajectory in the shifting balance of power between parents and the state, parents will soon quite openly be little more than walking zygote donors for the state.
Given the costs, the general hysterical anxiety that the world is constantly going to end due to one thing or another, the ever growing directives on how we should live our lives, the introduction of mass data and machine learning to make sure we are following those directives and the erosion of bonds between parents and children in favour of those between the child and the state, future generations would have to be fully on board with the state’s vision, so uninformed they don’t realise how controlled our children’s worlds are until they already have one, and/or simply unable to prevent themselves from becoming pregnant.
That’s not to say Elon Musk is wrong, he’s not, but I don’t blame people for not having children, nor would I encourage them to have any. It is a wise and logical choice to abstain.

Last edited 11 months ago by Lyn N
Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
11 months ago

I doubt he is serious. True generalized AI may not occur in the next 50 years, but there is no doubt specialized AIs will be capable of replacing most workers in a generation or two. Watch some Boston Dynamics videos of robots doing things considered impossible a few years ago and you realize all “manual” jobs from moving boxes to flipping burgers are in danger as the sales volume of automation devices increases and costs decrease. The US has 500,000 trucking jobs – many will be gone in a decade. Those with “skill” jobs are not safe – there are already specialized AI systems doing the work of actuaries, CPAs, and radiologists.
This fact negates the concern about not enough younger workers. By the time the world population growth turns negative there will be multiple (TAXED) robot workers per human worker, and these additional workers will draw no retirement or health benefits.

Last edited 11 months ago by Michael Coleman
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
11 months ago

Do the doom mongers, apparently including now Michael Palin in the Spectator (!) who say that population growth and size is an environmental catastrophe , ever speak to the other doom mongers, who think human beings are going to die out by not having enough children also (without much evidence)!?
It is such an obvious point, but n’er the twain shall speak, or even seemingly acknowledge each others’ existence. The answer is obviously no, because this debate like all too many lacks the most basic essentials of critical and rational thought – you should not just keep on looking for arguments that support your case and ignore all counter-arguments.
For this reason, this is a very poor article this time from Peter Franklin.

Last edited 11 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
11 months ago

In general, richer countries have fewer children.
In general, environmentalism thrives most in richer countries.
Yet environmentalists’ proposals would make all countries poorer.
I would like to think the the people pushing environmentalism would be the ones who suffer from their own policies, but life is never that just.
The poor will suffer, and keep having more children.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
11 months ago

Not a problem in the UK where we have around 70m people according to projections from shopping footfall ( remember we have no idea as to undocumented immigrants so no point in using government stats) and we are projected to get to around 80 m by around 2070. London did decline to around 6m a decade ago and is now up to 8m. Must build more houses. Everywhere.

Jeffrey Chongsathien
Jeffrey Chongsathien
11 months ago

Am I the only one who watches “Debunking Elon Musk” videos on YouTube and conclude he’s a sociopathic POS scam artist?