The Islamic population explosion is over-hyped, but there are demographic time bombs lurking where we least expect them, says Richard Whelan.
China is not on its way to becoming the world’s largest trading nation, some Muslim countries are declining in population rather than increasing, and declining birthrates means the West may become more conservative. These are three unexpected outcomes of recent world population trends.
Many see China as the economic powerhouse of the future. However, if anything can stop that growth in its tracks it is a number of negative demographic trends. Firstly, projections by the US Census Bureau estimate that by 2050 China will no longer be the most populated country in the world but at 1.4 billion will be second to India’s 1.6 billion.* Even now, however, the unnatural gender imbalance in China holds dangers for its own political stability. Because of the one child policy, recent statistics show that China’s sex ratio at birth is 120 boys to every 100 girls, where the norm should be 105 boys to 100 girls.* This imbalance will cause major shocks in the marriage market and serious cultural issues in a society where many millions of men cannot find a partner for life. A similar situation arose in 19th century in Northern China and led to massive criminality, serious instability, and young men forming criminal gangs and eventually starting the Nien Rebellion. An expert on male overpopulation in Asia, Valerie Hudson of Brigham Young University, has suggested that “in 2020 it may seem to China that it would be worth it to have a very bloody battle in which a lot of their young men could die in some glorious cause”.
The third major negative in China’s population trends is likely to counterbalance such a stark future. China is ageing at an extraordinary rate. By 2025, it is expected that 13.4% of the Chinese population will be 65 or older. This will occur in a society with virtually no pensions, nor social security for the elderly. A huge number of older people are going to require support from their families and will need to continue to work, frequently physically, into old age to sustain themselves. One expert, Nicholas Eberstadt*, has described the likely outcome of such an ageing population as “the makings of a slow motion humanitarian tragedy.”
Taken together, these three trends seriously question the assumption of the inevitable rise of China to superpower status.
What then of the presumed inexorable growth in the Muslim population of the World. This is a key issues in Turkish membership of the EU and in the supposed “clash of civilisations” between the West and Islam.
The facts are, however, much more complex.
To maintain long-term population stability, a woman has to bear an average of 2.1 children per lifetime. Less than that is termed sub-replacement fertility which means that, over the long term, the population declines. Most know that Europe generally is currently experiencing sub-replacement fertility. What many have missed is that a number of Islamic states are similarly experiencing a long term decline in population.
Turkey is one Islamic state which is now in sub-replacement mode. Its population will continue to grow rapidly for another decade or so and then will move into long-term decline – a factor ignored by many who speak of the threat from “Turkish hordes” without considering the facts involved.
This phenomenon is also spreading to the Middle East, Gulf and North African region where Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon and even Iran are now in the sub-replacement category.
According to data from Iran, between 1986 and 2000, the country’s fertility rate plummeted from over 6 to 2 – an astonishing turnaround. US Census Bureau estimates now put Iran’s fertility rate at 1.8, lower even than the United States, with a projected rate of 1.7 by 2050. While many Muslim countries will continue to grow in population terms, the assumption of the continued rise of all Muslim populations and that either Westernisation or modernisation is needed for a population to move into the sub-replacement category is under challenge as never before.
A third possible surprise lies in an analysis of the broad trend of falling birth rates. When birth rates fall, they tend to do so first among more liberal sections of society. In Western countries, we can see this clearly. More traditional families tend to have more children. There is evidence that the values of “3+ children” families include an adherence to stronger religious beliefs, and a close identification with one’s own group or nation.
France is an interesting example in this regard. Of French women born in the early 1960s, less than one third had three or more children. But this minority of women produced more than 50% of all children born to that generation. The impact on societies’ values of this minority may be quite strong in the long run. Looked at from the other side of that coin – the majority of those women who had no children or one child, and are usually assumed to be more liberal are clearly, over the long term, not going to replace themselves.
This phenomenon might help to explain the shift in American culture from secular individualism towards religious fundamentalism. It is notable that among the states that voted for George W. Bush in the last election, fertility rates were 12% higher than in those states that voted for John Kerry. This may mean that the most secular and generous welfare states may, in the long run, be prone to religious revivals and an increase in conservative views.
* Census data and projections are from the US Bureau of the Census International Database at www.census.gov. Population statistics and commentary are from “The Geopolitics of Sexual Frustration” by Martin Walker and “The Return of Patriarchy” by Phillip Longman, both from Foreign Policy March/April 2006, and “Four Surprises in Global Demography” by Nicholas Eberstadt, Orbis, Fall 2004.