How Population Size Will Determine Our Future: An Interview with Paul Morland at TEDxVienna On the Rise

Photo by ©CherieHansson

Among the many factors that continually shape and sustain human life on Earth is indeed… human life. Although ironic at first, the role of demographics is to most of us ‘far from obvious’ (Morland). The way demographic trends have historically altered the trajectory of humanity and how it continues to be a predictor of our future was explained by Paul Morland at this year’s TEDxVienna conference.

Often referred to as the ‘UK’s leading demographer’ (Scottish Herald) and ‘one of the world’s pre-eminent demographers (Mercator), Paul has published numerous books that center around population change. In his latest book, Tomorrow’s People, Paul delicately takes ten indicators under the loop, namely infant mortality, population growth, urbanization, fertility, aging, old age, population decline, ethnic change, education and food, and projects their importance in rapport with the sustainability of human life.

After his inspiring talk on stage, we got to sit down with Paul and further discuss the meaning of his work and why he thinks these topics are on the rise.

The focus of your work is demographic change – what motivated you to this day to dive deeper into this topic?

I think my original motivation was two things. In my biography, the first is that I was brought up in Wembley, which is a suburb of London, which is perhaps the first suburb of London to undergo very rapid ethnic change. As a child, it was interesting to think about where people were coming from or where they were going to, what were the differences that were being made to the area, and what were the underlying changes which had given rise to this shift. And then the second thing that I found interesting is when I had my own children and my friends were having children, to think about what choices there are about fertility. For example, why some people didn’t want children, why some people had six or seven, and why lots of people were having three. So what is economic, what is ideological, what is religious, and what about the country you’re living in? So what are the forces that shape fertility choices, and then how do these fertility choices go on to affect economics and world history, and politics? 

Yeah, it’s very interesting that in well-developed countries you would still have people who would choose one or the other. There is no constant pattern.  

Yes, you’re absolutely right, within a country, you have a wide range. You might have two countries with a similar average but different performance. For example, Germany and Russia at one point had very similar fertility rates, but interestingly enough, there were far more German women having no children and far more Russian women just having one child. So the average number ends up looking the same. Total childlessness was more common in Germany, larger families were more common in Germany. And Russia had this universal number one. So a distribution, as well as the absolute number, is an interesting phenomenon. 

Regarding low fertility rates in Europe, you mention, as well, that many causes for it are, for example, access to contraceptives, but the low fertility rates are an issue. So, what would in your opinion be a solution to this negative trend?

Well, I think first of all we need to understand the facts before we come to any value judgments. Secondly, why is fertility low? Is it a problem? There are some people who don’t think it is a problem. There are some people who think that the population generally declining is a good thing. Now, maybe you’re like me and don’t think it’s a good thing, and you do think human life is valuable in itself, and we will have economic and other problems if we don’t have a reasonable number of children. My sense is, this is not about government. Governments can do things, governments can change policies, and governments can help young families. They can give tax cuts to people who have children, they can give more child benefit. What it ultimately amounts to is what people choose by way of their values. So you go through an economic process from a poor country to a rich country, in which women get their education, people are urbanized, contraceptives become available, all that opens up options. Then the question is what options do people choose? And we kind of assume therefore they will choose small families. But that may not be the case. As I mentioned, in Israel as by the fact that women are very educated, contraception is very available, the average family size is three – three children. Whereas no other OECD country is above two. So I ultimately think is about individuals, their societies, their religious groups, and their cultures, determining whether they wish to have a few children and whether they wish their own progenitor to be part of that future. It’s no longer a question of tell me how rich, how urban, how educated, and I will tell you how many children. We’ve been through the material transformation. What next?

In one of your interviews, you mention taxing childless people in society as a way to incentivize them to have children. Personally, I would see it as counterintuitive, thinking that many climate change activists would argue against it. While you state that the food supply in Ethiopia increased, statistics contradict this positive outlook on food production as a result of spikes in drought seasons. So would it make more sense to tax people for having too many children in this scenario where we are dealing with more areas affected by drought and implicitly food shortage?

I think you need to do two things, separate out two things. The first is, what would a desirable number of children per woman be, is it too high? Is it too low? So that’s a debate about environmentalism as against not enough people in the workforce, as against not enough people to go into engineering to figure out how to fix global warming. We’re short of people everywhere. The more people, the more innovations. So we can have that debate. Once you have that debate, if you do decide you do want to continue as a society, you don’t want everyone to get old, you do want your old people looked after, you do want your university full of people coming up with brilliant ideas and how to save the planet. If that’s the choice you make, then the question is how do you get there. Now, I’ve always said the impact of government is quite small. If, however, you wish to have more children, one way of doing it is to have child benefit, which we have in the UK. So you pay people something for having children, to help them support those children, and in many countries including Germany and France and Cuba for example, you also have a lower tax rate for people who have a number of children. I remember when I worked in Luxemburg, someone said to me, that if you’ve got three children you hardly pay any taxes. So variable rates reflect the fact that people with larger families have higher expenses. Various rates of tax, we have it in the benefits system. So my argument is that we should consider having it in the tax system and have higher rates for people without children, but I do think you have to have it. You’re absolutely right. First of all, you need to have the debate before we get on to how we will get it up or down. Should it be higher, or should it be lower?

In your talk, you mentioned technology and how it is substituting man’s work. Do you somehow see technology as a viable solution to the future of humanity in which the world population becomes increasingly dependent on machines to take over jobs due to a low workforce? 

Well, first of all, I think it’s a question of do we want to have more people. Do we want a world full of people? Would we be better off if we were a billion rather than 8 billion? Personally, I value human life I think it’s beautiful and creative and wonderful but if you choose to say for the environment’s sake, you’d rather get the population down but obviously, you want to do it in a humane way, the only way to get there is to reduce fertility rates. We’ll have fewer workers in twenty years. We are already there. It’s very interesting. In the UK, we’re talking seriously, a big program on the BBC, the night before I came here why are there labor shortages and everyone pretty much agrees that it’s because there were way too few people born twenty or thirty years ago. There’s a big article in The Economist about why is it that even when the economy is quite slow to grow in the UK, we’ve got full employment. Is this the new normal? And in many other countries, the fact is we are short of labor. It’s all very well saying I won’t have children, but you still want someone at the greengrocery to sell you carrots, we still want someone to look after your granny in her old age though, you still expect someone to pilot out a plane when you’re expected to a fancy conference in Vienna. So the question then is how quickly, if we do want to reduce the population, can we substitute technology and I think the answer is pretty slow. We’re going very rapidly in many countries in reducing our population. I don’t see the robot taking my mother to a doctor’s appointment. I don’t see the robot fixing my tap. I don’t see the robot yet driving me to the airport or driving a bus. Now, some of these things are closer than others. But I think it will be a very long time before we don’t need human labor. 

While talking about ways that could counteract these issues, considering places with high fertility rates such as sub-Saharan Africa, I think the measures that people could take there are the ones that we already have implemented here, for instance, access to contraceptives and education. But things such as education take a long time before we can see the results. Could there be faster measures other than migration?

Well, there is debate among demographers, about whether you have to take the fast route or the slow one. I mean, one route is you’ll never get there until you educate. First of all, I should say I don’t think five or six or seven for a national average is a good thing. I would like to see the fertility rate in Africa come down, and I would like to see women in Africa have those choices. They may choose to have large families, but many of them don’t have the choice now. So one idea is you can only get there by the long-term education of women, which anyway you want to do regardless. The other view is you can actually get there quite quickly, even before that, if you spread contraception, and you give enough education to people to use it. Now I think the evidence is the latter. You have countries like Morocco which have very, very poor female education, bringing their fertility rate down very rapidly. So that’s what you want to do. There is no reason not to keep pushing on the education program. I think it’s very effective even when women are not so educated. But I do want to emphasize that I don’t want women in Africa to have children they don’t want, and I don’t want them to have no choices. I want them to control their bodies. I want them to eventually have education. I do take my hat off to them and celebrate them because many are living in incredibly difficult situations and we, citizens in the west, say I’m thirty-five, I’m too busy. My flat’s not big enough. Costs are expensive. I want to be able to go on holiday. Whatever it is. And here are these women in poor conditions in slums in Africa who are keeping humanity going in a way. They’re the future of humanity. They may be the mothers of the future human race because the rest of us were too busy or too important to bother to have children.

Relating this to the topic of migration and specifically, the 2015 migration crisis we had in Europe. It is looked upon by many as a positive phenomenon that economically increased the workforce in many developed countries. What is your view on this trend? 

Well, I say there is a trilemma but if you want economic growth, and you’re not prepared to have large families you need migration. My view is that in a hundred years’ time people will look back at us and say we were as arrogant as the people a hundred years ago. A hundred years ago we thought it was fine to go and take somebody else’s country, we are very important Europeans, we are civilized, we will colonize them, we will tell them what to do, and they’re lucky to have us there. And now this is a completely unacceptable attitude. And we have the end of imperialism. In a hundred years’ time they may well say the Europeans of the 21st century were so arrogant, so important, and so busy with their lives, they wanted doctors, they wanted nurses, they wanted people to look after their children, they wanted people to drive their trains and their buses and clear the bins, but they were too busy and self-important to have these children themselves, and they thought they could just sweep people up. Let the women in Africa have the children, let them go through the birthing pains, let them bring them up, let them educate them and then when we’re ready, we’ll sweep them up and bring them over here and make them work for us. I think there is always a right to immigration. I celebrate the fact that we have more diverse societies, but I think we should be very careful to say we don’t need to put any effort into bearing, educating, and bringing up children. We’ll let people in the Third World do that, and we’ll take their children from them when we are ready. 

While on the note of immigration, you mentioned in your talk that a different world culture could emerge due to population growth. Could you elaborate more on the idea of a different world culture? 

Well, for example, let me take music, which I am very interested in. A hundred years ago, European music was the standard, and it was the norm. And European music is a wonderful, extraordinary achievement of mankind. And it’s very inspiring to me that people in China and Japan and South America are some of the best pianists and orchestras, and they love art, music. But I think it’s very much the norm as European art and culture being global. It’s very much a product of the extraordinary demographic expansion of Europe in the 19th century. The fact that Europeans ran everywhere, expanded. I think if the world is a third Africa, I think we all need more African music. We all need more African food, and we’ll stop thinking that what’s European is normal. 

You also published a book called Tomorrow’s People. Would you like to tell our readers more about this book and why it functions as a guide for those interested in demographic change? 

Tomorrow’s People was really the book which I just summarized in my talk. So, regarding the idea of Tomorrow’s People, I have to stand back and tell you about my last book, The Human Tide. It’s about how the population shaped history in the last hundred years. How population expansions, contractions, and migrations meant some countries were more powerful than others. Some countries felt challenged and how these demographic transitions spread through the world, Britain and Europe and the rest of the world. And I reason that if the past has been changed by the big demographic sources, then the present and the future were being shaped by them. And so I take ten numbers and examine each of them, the infant mortality rate in Peru, the population of Africa by 2100, and the fertility rate in Singapore. Each one is valid and interesting in itself and relevant. Each one can be understood in a wider global context. It’s not just Peru that has brought its infant mortality rate down spectacularly but much of the developed world. More and more of the developing world. And what that means. And each of these numbers links to the others. So you start off with falling infant mortality and population expands. The population expands, and the cities grow. The cities grow, and urban people have low fertility rates. Low fertility rates mean rising ages. Rising ages mean lots of old people. Lots of old people eventually will lead to population decline, and the only way of avoiding that is through mass immigration and ethnic change. So my objective is to create a picture of the world from a demographic point of view which I think is first of all graspable, relevant, and not many people think about it. So, if you read the book, you’ll end up I think with another lens through which to see the world. 

Do you maybe have more tips for (young) people on how to take more hands-on action on the issue? 

Well, the first thing I think is to understand, so grasp it. The second thing is I don’t believe, as I already said, that governments have all the answers. Governments are very useful in bringing fertility rates down through educating women, as we’ve said, through having contraception. If you agree with me that there are too few people, or that there are going to be too few people, and that if you want your family line to get on, if you want your country, your nation, your people to have a longer existence, think about your responsibility to that. And if your answer is that has got nothing to do with me, I don’t care, I’m not interested. And if on an aggregate that’s what a society or civilization comes to view, then it’s consigning itself to the dustbin of history which is the right of an individual, and it’s the right of a society and a culture. But at least do it knowing what you’re doing.

Photo by ©CherieHansson

For the video of Morland’s full talk at TEDxVienna On The Rise, access the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aW3TiqEJCtM

To keep up with Morland’s future work, and to have a closer look at his previous publications, including his latest book, Tomorrow’s People, visit his website.

Andrada-Mihaela Bocea

Ada is an English student who takes great pleasure in writing about topics such as climate change, sustainability, and social matters. She loves the quiet rustic life and likes to dance the days away.

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