A growing ageing population presents new economic challenges—but offers opportunities, tooby David Willetts / April 2, 2019 / Leave a comment
The most profound change that any society goes through is the demographic transition: it is the route to modernity. In pre-modern societies there are high birth rates and high mortality rates. Any surges in population are usually reversed by epidemics and famine, since such societies lack the means to feed the extra mouths.
In the late 18th century, Malthus analysed all this with brutal clarity, ironically just at the point when the Industrial Revolution was, for the first time, giving societies the opportunity to escape this miserable cycle. First, improvements in food supply, living conditions, hygiene and medicine mean many more children survive into adulthood so the population surges. Then with other changes, not least contraception, birth rates start to fall and the population reaches a new equilibrium at a much higher level. First we stop dying like flies and then we stop breeding like rabbits.
The early stages of the Industrial Revolution involved enormous human misery; but soon England and other western countries showed how to escape the resource constraints Malthus thought were fixed. He had thought resources could not grow as fast as the population, but with technological and scientific advances they could. The power released by coal massively exceeded the old wood-burning economy, for example. The classic refutation of Malthusianism is that the Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones. The neo-Malthusian pessimists such as the Club of Rome authors of The Limits to Growth (1972) were also wrong—the world has fed a growing population.
In The Human Tide, Paul Morland offers us a good and reliable new account of the different forms of demographic transition over the past 200 years. It is a staging post on the path to development. But it is also a profound test for any society and many cannot cope with the pressure. It first shows up as a surge in the number of young people. In England this was true in spades: Morland points out that England did not just go through it first but, most unusually, actually had an increase in its birth rate early on: with relatively delayed marriage, pre-industrial England had comparatively low birth rates,…