Darrell Bricker, left, and John Ibbitson are the authors of Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline.
(Photo: Tom Sandler/Canadian Geographic)
On what Canada will look like in 2067
DB: It’s going to be a much older country. Right now, most of the world’s population growth is due to people living longer, not because they’re having tons of kids. Today, the average Canadian lives to 81; if you have a child next year, it’s likely that child will live to 100.
JI: And Canada will be unique because it will continue to have a very robust immigration policy. When we started writing the book, I thought the thesis was going to be, “Everybody needs to accept immigration or their population will decline.” By the end, I think we had come to the rather rueful conclusion that for many countries, that’s just not possible — the pull of nationalism is so intense, it’s difficult to see these countries bringing in enough immigrants to sustain their populations without social tensions becoming intolerable. There’s a sadness in that, but it also means that future generations are going to live in a world in which Canada has a much larger share of the globe’s population than it does today.
On the backlash to immigration
JI: Some of what you’re seeing with the Trump phenomenon in the United States is the sense of growing insecurity and even fear among white Americans over the arrival of non-white immigrants. Those immigrants are absolutely vital to the future of the United States because of fertility declines among the native-born population, but the social dislocation it causes is enormous.
DB: What’s interesting about the present rate of immigration is that it’s a temporary situation. A lot of the places that are currently significant sources of immigrants in the world are going into their own population decline. We think that within 80 years, you’ll actually see countries competing for people because there just won’t be that many immigrating.
On the economic implications of population decline
JI: There are about two dozen countries, including Japan and Spain, whose populations are already declining, and it’s very hard for them to sustain their economies. They can take care of labour shortages through automation, and they can offset higher health-care costs in an aging society by cutting back on primary education and daycare because there are fewer kids. But even if these countries account for all of that, they’re not going to have enough consumers to keep their economies going.
On a possible population “wild card”
JI: Anyone who says we don’t know what we’re talking about will point to sub-Saharan Africa, where people are still having lots of children — and they may be right. But in almost every country in the region, urbanization is underway, education of women is increasing and fertility rates are in decline. So not only do we think we’re right, we think we have a good news story about growing affluence and autonomy for women in Africa.
On potential solutions
DB: We looked at how some countries, like Sweden, have tried to encourage people to have more kids, by supporting paternal leave, for instance, or striving for a better work-life balance. Some of these measures have had a marginal impact on fertility, but it usually doesn’t last and the impact tends to be relatively small. So apart from immigration, there really isn’t another solution — unless we grow people in pods.
JI: Or unless society’s attitudes change. What happens if people just grow lonely? What if they feel they missed out on something growing up in a household where they were the only child, or they resent how empty the streets were when they were kids? Then there will be a massive societal shift in favour of having larger families just because the world is lonely and empty — but that won’t happen in this century.