Demography Is Destiny

In 1950, Japan was the fifth-most populous nation on earth, Germany was the seventh, and the United Kingdom the ninth. By 2050 these countries will rank twentieth, twenty-first, and twenty-second, respectively. Population is the wellspring of power, both economic and military, and the reordering of global power is, Yoshihara and Sylva argue, inherently destabilizing.

The world is heading for demographic catastrophe. Fertility rates have been falling across the globe for 40 years, to the point where, today, Israel is the only First World country where women have enough babies to sustain their population. The developing world is heading in the same direction, fast. Only 3 percent of the world’s population live in a country where the fertility rate is not dropping.

As fertility falls, populations shrink. As populations shrink, economies will sputter. Western countries will struggle to support too many retirees without enough workers, and the rest of the world (particularly places such as China and Russia) will be challenged just to maintain order as societies change in unprecedented ways: Most people will have neither brothers, sisters, aunts, nor uncles, and there will be no such thing as an extended family.

This forecast may sound apocalyptic, but it’s nearly conventional wisdom among the demographers and economists who study such things. However, the conventional wisdom also sees a silver lining to the world’s demographic decline: a “geriatric peace.” As fertility rates decline, and babies become relatively scarce, the average age of societies increases. In many countries the median age is already over 40, with geezers outnumbering children. And once the entire world looks like Florida, the thinking goes, we’ll all be more peaceable, because countries full of old men don’t go to war.

Unfortunately, Susan Yoshihara and Douglas A. Sylva suggest that geriatric peace may be elusive, and in Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics they have collected essays from an all-star squad of demographers, historians, and military strategists—Phillip Longman, Nicholas Eberstadt, Toshi Yoshihara, and Murray Feshbach are among their Murderers’ Row—who argue that a shrinking world may be more dangerous than we might expect.


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