One of the most consistent patterns across both developing and developed nations today is a declining birth rate, as the most recent fertility numbers make clear. South Korea continues to lead the way, hitting a new low of 0.7 children per woman on average in the most recent report. For many countries in the West, South Korean-like birth rates seem like a real prospect. Yet for the most part, this grim outlook hasn’t become a major political issue. Instead, the demographic trend that tends to drive media coverage and political outrage in the West is mass migration, as was evident in Geert Wilders’s victory in the Netherlands. It isn’t hard to understand why. With the cost of living trending upward despite the anti-inflationary measures of central banks, people are responsive to the argument that immigration puts pressure on public goods.
But according to some demographers and economists, this negative energy is misplaced. The real driver of the lowering of living standards isn’t migration per se, they argue, but a broader demographic crisis, especially a declining birth rate. With a growing elderly, non-working population sustained by a smaller labor force, inflation will rise and stay high as a shrinking productive base strains to service a growing, nonproductive consumer base.
This argument is made most thoroughly in Charles Goodhart's and Manoj Pradhan's 2020 book, The Great Demographic Reversal. As the authors point out, net migration flows into advanced economies peaked and then started to decline since 2007. Limits on migration advocated by right-populist politicians may have played some role, but overall, the reversal is part and parcel of the global aging of the world’s population, which has roots all the way back in the 1960s.
Just about everywhere in the world, capitalist development seems to have the unpleasant side effect of plummeting birth rates. A further issue is that mature economies have little room for maneuver, especially after years of rock-bottom interest rates and rising debt. Barring some breakthrough in productivity or significant medical advances, it seems that there is little that can be done to prevent the shrinking of the working-age population in the developed world.