Peak People? Are We Actually Running Out of Our Most Valuable Resource?
Population growth is a major concern; Andy Revkin has gone so far as to suggest that it, more than climate, is the story of our time. But do we have this backwards? Author Doug Saunders suggests that we might, in fact have the opposite problem. Like Peak Oil and Peak Food, there are a lot of us around, and the numbers being produced are still growing. But have we reached the top of a sort of Hubberts Curve of people? Saunders writes:
People around the world are living longer, and having far fewer children — a consequence of increased female education rates and declining absolute poverty. Countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia and Iran are now having so few children that their populations are on the verge of shrinking....The world is on the threshold of what might be called “peak people.” The world’s supply of working-age people will soon be shrinking, causing a shift from surplus to scarcity.
Saunders is being provocative; he thinks the claims of doomsayers are "hyperbolic and hysterical". But the implications of an aging population are affecting people everywhere in the world.
Peak people will be an age when jobs compete for workers rather than vice versa. The cheapest labour will vanish. We’re already seeing this: Because China is ageing very fast, its dwindling working-age population is turning down the lowest-paid jobs and pushing up the minimum wage sharply, as well as the once-minimal costs of social services: Stuff from China will stop being cheap, because the Chinese aren’t young.
It makes American anti-immigrant discussions doubly crazy, because without immigration the country doesn't have a supply of young workers. Saunders notes that America has a very high fertility rate at 2.1 kids per family, half a kid more than in Canada or Europe but in fact a new study claims that this only happens in America because of an " unusually large supply of low-cost babysitters and child-care workers in the US – - mainly due to immigration, much of it “illegal,” from Latin America." A new Santorum talking point might come from this study, that concludes:
We argue that higher inequality in the U.S. lowers the cost of baby-sitting and housekeeping services and enables U.S. women to have more children, spend less time on home production and work more than their European counterparts.
Saunders concludes that pretty soon we will all be in this together:
Peak people will also be an age when countries will be competing for immigrants rather than trying to limit them. And if their home countries are competing to keep them, then we’ll have a harder time finding young people who want to come. It will require nimble and clever policies to prevent us from becoming old and lonely.