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'Children of Men' is really happening
Why Russia can’t afford to spare its young soldiers anymore
Russia is dying. In just the first week of Putin’s war, the country lost somewhere between 2,000 and 6,000 men, according to western sources, an immense and needless tragedy for the poor families left behind to grieve.
Whether those in the Kremlin will weep for them, they must shudder at the thought that in the average week the country loses another 2,000 through population decline, a rate that rose to 20,000 during Covid. But even in normal periods, Russia is now shrinking by more than 100,000 people a year and with no prospect of raising fertility above the 2.1 total fertility rate (children-per-woman) replacement threshold.
The incomprehensible thing about this war is that Russia is not a belligerent young nation in need of expansion; it is not filled with frustrated young men hoping to assert themselves in conflict, as with Syria, Afghanistan or the world’s other conflict zones; it is already elderly, ageing quickly and in some parts heading for oblivion. Some 20,000 Russian villages have been completely abandoned in recent years, and 36,000 others have fewer than ten inhabitants left and will follow them soon. A third of land once farmed in the former USSR has now been abandoned.
If the Russians turn out to have no stomach for this fight, it will probably be for the simple fact that the country does not have enough men to spare. The majority of those poor young men killed for Russia’s honour will be their mother’s only son, in many cases their only child; this will make the impact of Putin’s crimes even more devastating for its victims.
For the same is true of Ukraine; indeed its rate of population decline is even worse. Across huge swathes of the planet, in an ‘infertile crescent’ from Spain to Singapore, the population is ageing quite rapidly, and about to begin a steep decline — a real life Children of Men that is the subject of a new book, Tomorrow’s People by Paul Morland.
Morland’s previous work The Human Tide was a fascinating look at the political and cultural impact of demography throughout history. His follow-up charts the world of the 21st century, and is a similarly enjoyable and informative read; although ‘enjoyable’ might not be quite the appropriate word, for the future in many ways looks bleak, and in some countries, that future is already the present.
The upside is that — and this is admittedly a strange time to suggest it — the world is going to be a lot less violent. Describing a holiday in Catalonia around the time of that province’s comical attempts at independence in 2017, Morland wrote: ‘As I sat in one of Portbou’s squares, I reflected on why the referendum had become a footnote in history rather than the trigger for violent conflict. I looked around at the grey-haired locals enjoying the October sunshine and sipping cups of black coffee. They were far too old to take up arms and march in the streets, enraged by political injustice.’ He contrasts this with the youthful tension he felt in Israel on the eve of the First Intifada, a Palestinian population dominated by teenagers about to explode in violence.
In recent years we have benefited from what has been termed the Pax Americana Geriatrica. Most wealthy countries have median ages of over 40, and middle-aged people don’t like starting fights. We have responsibilities and worries, our frontal-lobes have made us cautious, and our testosterone levels are in terminal decline.
In the 1930s, when Spain erupted into war, the median age was half of what it is now. In the early 1990s the median age in Bosnia was less than 30, while today it is over 40. When Lebanon’s civil war began the average Lebanese man would have been one of six children and three brothers. Today he is one of just two siblings. That is at least partly why recent political instability and financial crisis has not led to a repeat of the war. Morland cites ‘studies of decade-long periods reveal[ing] that there is almost no civil war in countries where 55 per cent or more of the population is aged over thirty.’
‘While it cannot be said that youthfulness “causes” war,’ he writes, ‘or that maturity “causes” peace, a society’s age structure creates background conditions against which other things either do or don’t spark conflict.’ Like with a dry forest, conditions on the ground will determine whether a spark proves disastrous.
The origins of the world’s transformation date back to the single greatest achievement in human history — the huge fall in infant mortality caused by modern medicine. Beginning in north-west Europe in the 17th century, child deaths have come down across the world and much of the improvement has only been relatively recent. Even in the early 1970s infant mortality in Peru was 10 times its current level, while ‘an aid worker who once lived in one of Africa’s poorer countries told me that infant death was so common fifteen or so years ago that an employee of his might not take a day’s leave if it happened to them — it was accepted as part of life, and so less was done to resist it.’
Even in the poorest countries, life is much better for most parents, but so it is for everyone, even once they reach adulthood; while in 1900, 75 out of every 100 American women were alive at 30, by 2020, 75 out of 100 were still alive at 80.
The next stage of the demographic transition, after a drop in mortality, is a subsequent drop in fertility (although the relationship isn’t straightforward). Family sizes fall from 5 to 6 down towards replacement level. But then they drop further — and never come back. Indeed across most of the world, outside of sub-Saharan Africa, family sizes are still shrinking, and populations ageing.
In 1990 Japan was home to 2,000 centenarians; today there are 79,000. There is even a word, rougai, to denote an annoying elderly person who gets on young peoples’ nerves, ‘whether by obstructing closing doors on the Tokyo metro or offering unsolicited advice to the diminishing number of young mothers’. Next door in China the number of over-80s has gone from 500,000 in 1950 to 7.5 million in 1990, and by 2050 there will be 150 million of them, over 8% of the Chinese population.
In Italy the population has already begun to decline, and this will speed up in the coming years. The number of Italians below the age of 5 peaked at 4.5 million in the-mid 1960s, and is just 2.2 million or so today, after which it will fall below 2 million before mid-century. By 2050 there will be half as many Italians under the age of 25 as there were in 1980. The number of young people in South Korea will also half by 2050.
Europeans once expressed alarm about encroaching dominance by the world of Islam, but most Arab countries now have moderate if not low fertility. Indeed, there appears to be the problem that, aside from a handful of nations like Sri Lanka, states go swiftly from unsustainable high fertility to worrying sub-replacement levels. Colombia spent barely a decade in the Goldilocks Zone, for instance, and is now at northern European levels. Yet family-friendly Colombia, despite its problems with crime and poverty, has for many years been one of the happiest countries on earth; isolated, low-fertility Japan one of the most miserable.
As fertility has declined, so various governments have changed their attitudes to family size. Singapore’s official advice in the 1960s was ‘Stop at Two’ but by 1987 it was ‘Have Three or More (if you can afford it).’ China’s one-child policy has long been abandoned in favour of a two-child policy and they now allow some people to have three; encourage them, even. But it seems to be too late.
Morland thinks that ‘trying to raise fertility [is] akin to pushing water uphill’. The Czech Republic and Hungary have seen increases this century, with concerted efforts, but they are still well below replacement rate. (While Israel is bucking the trend in the developed world, among both the religious and secular, Georgia is the only country that seems to have returned to replacement rate, with the aid of the church, the country’s religious leader baptising every child born there.)
In Russia, following the demographic collapse of the 1990s, when life expectancy plunged as the country was ransacked, things improved for many people under Putin. Since the start of the century, Russian fertility has risen from 1.2 to 1.75, but that is nowhere near enough to reverse the coming decline.
Globally, this is all going to have quite grim economic consequences in the coming decades, with Japan the first country to go into ‘secular stagnation’. Morland talks of the trilemma facing ageing nations, whereby you can have two of the three: ethnic continuity, a thriving economy or a comfortable lifestyle without the huge stress of mixing child-raising and a modern economy. Israel has sacrificed the latter, Japan has chosen to take the economic hit, while Britain’s leaders have given up its ethnic continuity. But that, alas, was a short-term solution, since young immigrants don’t magically avoid the fate of Father Time any more than the rest of us do.
As he points out, despite the pain of austerity after 2010, UK government cuts did not even reduce the debt, just the deficit, something that is very hard to do when demography is against you. In the early 1960s there were 5 million births in the UK; in 2000-2005 there were just 3.5 million, the cohort about to start work now. Even with unprecedented levels of immigration, with foreign-born mothers now accounting for almost a third of births, there just aren’t enough young people to grow the economy.
The same thing is happening everywhere in Eurasia. In 2000 Thailand had 7 workers for every retiree; by 2050 that figure will be just 1.7. In Greece, 1,700 schools closed between 2009-2014, while next door North Macedonia has lost a quarter of its population to low fertility and emigration. Whole regions, such as Vidin province in the north-west corner of Bulgaria, have shrunk, with flights and other services abandoned for lack of interest. One local is quoted as saying: ‘It was if I were coming back to my grave. This is a dying city’. The village of Lumacncha in China’s Hansu province used to have 100 pupils in its school; it now has just three. In Stoke-on-Trent, 40% of bars and clubs have shut in the past twenty years, as the ratio of infants to retirees has gone from 4:1 to 1:2 in a century. In central Paris, 15 schools merged or closed between 2015-2018. This is Children of Men stuff.
More than a quarter of major Japanese start-ups, those worth more than a billion dollars, involve care for the elderly. The tech is impressive: at care homes, ‘workers now receive a signal when incontinent residents require attention, forewarning them of the need for urgent intervention. There are also devices that track vital signs and indicate irregular heartbeats or beathing, while robotic beds that turn into wheelchairs are also being manufactured.’
But it’s all a bit bleak, and in Japan thousands die alone each week. In Germany, public health funerals doubled in Hamburg between 2007-2017, because more people depart this earth without relatives to take care of their legacy. Manfred Grosser, a clergyman in a town between Berlin and Dresden, who officiates at five funerals for every baptism, is quoted lamenting that there are ‘dark demographic clouds on the horizon’.
Some parts of the world, the author muses, resemble Leonard Woolf 1913 novel The Village in the Jungle about a settlement being swallowed up by forest because of population decline. In northern Japan bear sighting doubled in a single year, and wild animals are returning to parts of Spain, France and Italy as the villages empty.
Wealthy countries face unpopular choices as their voters age, including the need for a sharp rise in the retirement age, something that is so politically difficult that, as Morland points out, even Vladimir Putin was defeated in his attempts. He might be the new tsar, and possess the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, but there is one force that no one can defeat: the boomer electorate. Older people tend to vote for their own self-interests, and in the case of Britain, end up controlling the government in power; voters with pensions and homes opt for lower growth and restricted housebuilding, further raising the cost of home ownership for the young and so pushing down the fertility rate still further. If we’re playing a generational blame game for the lack of children…
It’s hard to imagine but back in the 1970s one of the most-read books was Paul R. Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, which contained the alarming claim: ‘The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.’
He was wildly wrong, thankfully, and if the future resembles any sort of dystopia, it is P.D. James’s nightmarish vision, a place that will feel sad and lonely, devoid of the sound of children. Russia may be dying, but then aren’t we all?