Overpopulation versus falling birth rates

How will falling birth rates in East Asia affect the apparel industry and is overpopulation still a problem? Apparel industry consultant Robert Antoshak discusses what the next 30 years could have in-store.

New costs are being baked into the system this year that economists call inflation, apparel companies call reduced margins and consumers call higher prices.

We may have to contend with declining demand for discretionary consumer goods, like clothing for some time to come as when inflation strikes, consumers often save money for essentials.

The global economy is struggling to find its footing and if that was not enough birth rates are falling throughout the world. In turn, global forecasts for population growth are declining. Moreover, people live longer, so increasingly there are few young people to support an ageing society. These phenomena are affecting countries all around the planet with implications worth contemplating.

A recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine by Fordham Law School Professor Carl Minzner summed up the situation in China this way: "China is ageing fast. In 1978, the median age of a Chinese citizen was 21.5 years. By 2021, it had risen to 38.4, surpassing the United States. If China continues along its current trajectory and follows the rest of East Asia in descending to ultra-low fertility rates, its median age could rise to over 50 by 2050."

He adds: "China's rapidly ageing society and plunging birth rate poses a host of challenges for its leaders, including a shrinking number of young workers and an increasingly unstable pension system." It sounds precarious, but China is not alone.

Minzner explains: "Birth rates in East Asia have continued to plummet. Because birth rates are declining worldwide, it is easy to overlook how extraordinarily low East Asia's rates have fallen. They are not merely well under the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman, as is true for other ageing countries such as Russia (1.8), Germany (1.6), or Italy (1.3). Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan are in fact the five lowest in the world, hovering around 1.0. And South Korea's rate is astonishingly low: 0.81 births per woman. By comparison, even geriatric Japan looks positively fecund at 1.37."

More or fewer people?

In saying this, we can’t become complacent about overpopulation. Current trends can always reverse, and we haven't solved overpopulation. For instance, during the height of the pandemic, government subsidy payments correlated with a higher birth rate. However, since the expiration of those incentives, birth rates have moderated, which is a telling development.

If current population trends portend a future filled with fewer people, will fewer people inhabiting the world translate into lower GDP and, by extension, lower consumption? What about environmental impact? 30 years of wanton consumer consumption has gone a long way to endanger our biosphere. Could that be reversed somehow with fewer people around?

Philosophic ponderings

Our industry is a business focused on practical outcomes, but philosophy does play a role in helping us embrace what could be, such as a smaller world, fewer people, less consumption, less production, and less pollution. Those are concrete outcomes. Hence, we need to think big before we can hope to realise physical results. It's a case of profit or loss and the health of our planet.

Population forecasts are tricky. Some estimates put the world population at more than 11 billion by 2100 (United Nations), while others place it closer to nine billion (the Lancet). We're just under eight billion today, according to the United Nations.

This brings me back to the past 30 years. What has been a by-product of globalisation? Urbanisation. What's a by-product of urbanisation? Smaller families because living in cities is expensive and kids are expensive. Moreover, women in the workforce have choices and responsibilities to consider in addition to child rearing.

Minzner drives home the point: "East Asia faces the same problems — high housing costs and demand for additional years of education prompting young people globally to delay marriage and childbirth or forego them altogether."

Changing demographics

Another by-product of globalisation is growing economic inequality. Many have been lifted out of poverty, which is great accomplishment, but a small slice of the population has become very rich. Much of the purchasing power is skewed towards older people, not surprising, but it may be more pronounced than we've seen in a generation. A by-product of the 1% economy?

I'm left wondering if these are the beginning of longer-term trends or just anomalies that will straighten out after the Ukraine war ends, inflation moderates, and the pandemic fades. The world might settle into some measure of normalcy — meaning an era free from the shocks of the past few years and if not, I wonder what the next 30 years hold in-store for us?

Main image credit: Bruno Mameli /