All over the world, countries are confronting population stagnation and a fertility bust, a dizzying reversal unmatched in recorded history that will make first-birthday parties a rarer sight than funerals, and empty homes a common eyesore.
Maternity wards are already shutting down in Italy. Ghost cities are appearing in northeastern China. Universities in South Korea can’t find enough students, and in Germany, hundreds of thousands of properties have been razed, with the land turned into parks.
Like an avalanche, the demographic forces — pushing toward more deaths than births — seem to be expanding and accelerating. Though some countries continue to see their populations grow, especially in Africa, fertility rates are falling nearly everywhere else. Demographers now predict that by the latter half of the century or possibly earlier, the global population will enter a sustained decline for the first time.
A planet with fewer people could ease pressure on resources, slow the destructive impact of climate change and reduce household burdens for women. But the census announcements this month from China and the United States, which showed the slowest rates of population growth in decades for both countries, also point to hard-to-fathom adjustments.
The strain of longer lives and low fertility, leading to fewer workers and more retirees, threatens to upend how societies are organized — around the notion that a surplus of young people will drive economies and help pay for the old. It may also require a reconceptualization of family and nation. Imagine entire regions where everyone is 70 or older. Imagine governments laying out huge bonuses for immigrants and mothers with lots of children. Imagine a gig economy filled with grandparents and Super Bowl ads promoting procreation.
“A paradigm shift is necessary,” said Frank Swiaczny, a German demographer who was the chief of population trends and analysis for the United Nations until last year. “Countries need to learn to live with and adapt to decline.”
The ramifications and responses have already begun to appear, especially in East Asia and Europe. From Hungary to China, from Sweden to Japan, governments are struggling to balance the demands of a swelling older cohort with the needs of young people whose most intimate decisions about childbearing are being shaped by factors both positive (more work opportunities for women) and negative (persistent gender inequality and high living costs).
The 20th century presented a very different challenge. The global population saw its greatest increase in known history, from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000, as life spans lengthened and infant mortality declined. In some countries — representing about a third of the world’s people — those growth dynamics are still in play. By the end of the century, Nigeria could surpass China in population; across sub-Saharan Africa, families are still having four or five children.
But nearly everywhere else, the era of high fertility is ending. As women have gained more access to education and contraception, and as the anxieties associated with having children continue to intensify, more parents are delaying pregnancy and fewer babies are being born. Even in countries long associated with rapid growth, such as India and Mexico, birthrates are falling toward, or are already below, the replacement rate of 2.1 children per family.
The change may take decades, but once it starts, decline (just like growth) spirals exponentially. With fewer births, fewer girls grow up to have children, and if they have smaller families than their parents did — which is happening in dozens of countries — the drop starts to look like a rock thrown off a cliff.
“It becomes a cyclical mechanism,” said Stuart Gietel Basten, an expert on Asian demographics and a professor of social science and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “It’s demographic momentum.”
Some countries, like the United States, Australia and Canada, where birthrates hover between 1.5 and 2, have blunted the impact with immigrants. But in Eastern Europe, migration out of the region has compounded depopulation, and in large parts of Asia, the “demographic time bomb” that first became a subject of debate a few decades ago has finally gone off.
South Korea’s fertility rate dropped to a record low of 0.92 in 2019 — less than one child per woman, the lowest rate in the developed world. Every month for the past 59 months, the total number of babies born in the country has dropped to a record depth.
That declining birthrate, coupled with a rapid industrialization that has pushed people from rural towns to big cities, has created what can feel like a two-tiered society. While major metropolises like Seoul continue to grow, putting intense pressure on infrastructure and housing, in regional towns it’s easy to find schools shut and abandoned, their playgrounds overgrown with weeds, because there are not enough children.
Expectant mothers in many areas can no longer find obstetricians or postnatal care centers. Universities below the elite level, especially outside Seoul, find it increasingly hard to fill their ranks — the number of 18-year-olds in South Korea has fallen from about 900,000 in 1992 to 500,000 today. To attract students, some schools have offered scholarships and even iPhones.
To goose the birthrate, the government has handed out baby bonuses. It increased child allowances and medical subsidies for fertility treatments and pregnancy. Health officials have showered newborns with gifts of beef, baby clothes and toys. The government is also building kindergartens and day care centers by the hundreds. In Seoul, every bus and subway car has pink seats reserved for pregnant women.
But this month, Deputy Prime Minister Hong Nam-ki admitted that the government — which has spent more than $178 billion over the past 15 years encouraging women to have more babies — was not making enough progress. In many families, the shift feels cultural and permanent.
“My grandparents had six children, and my parents five, because their generations believed in having multiple children,” said Kim Mi-kyung, 38, a stay-at-home parent. “I have only one child. To my and younger generations, all things considered, it just doesn’t pay to have many children.”
Thousands of miles away, in Italy, the sentiment is similar, with a different backdrop.
In Capracotta, a small town in southern Italy, a sign in red letters on an 18th-century stone building looking on to the Apennine Mountains reads “Home of School Kindergarten” — but today, the building is a nursing home.
Residents eat their evening broth on waxed tablecloths in the old theater room.
“There were so many families, so many children,” said Concetta D’Andrea, 93, who was a student and a teacher at the school and is now a resident of the nursing home. “Now there is no one.”
The population in Capracotta has dramatically aged and contracted — from about 5,000 people to 800. The town’s carpentry shops have shut down. The organizers of a soccer tournament struggled to form even one team.
About a half-hour away, in the town of Agnone, the maternity ward closed a decade ago because it had fewer than 500 births a year, the national minimum to stay open. This year, six babies were born in Agnone.
“Once you could hear the babies in the nursery cry, and it was like music,” said Enrica Sciullo, a nurse who used to help with births there and now mostly takes care of older patients. “Now there is silence and a feeling of emptiness.”
In a speech last Friday during a conference on Italy’s birthrate crisis, Pope Francis said the “demographic winter” was still “cold and dark.”
More people in more countries may soon be searching for their own metaphors. Birth projections often shift based on how governments and families respond, but according to projections by an international team of scientists published last year in The Lancet, 183 countries and territories — out of 195 — will have fertility rates below replacement level by 2100.
Their model shows an especially sharp decline for China, with its population expected to fall from 1.41 billion now to about 730 million in 2100. If that happens, the population pyramid would essentially flip. Instead of a base of young workers supporting a narrower band of retirees, China would have as many 85-year-olds as 18-year-olds.
China’s rust belt, in the northeast, saw its population drop by 1.2 percent in the past decade, according to census figures released on Tuesday. In 2016, Heilongjiang Province became the first in the country to have its pension system run out of money. In Hegang, a “ghost city” in the province that has lost almost 10 percent of its population since 2010, homes cost so little that people compare them to cabbage.
Many countries are beginning to accept the need to adapt, not just resist. South Korea is pushing for universities to merge. In Japan, where adult diapers now outsell ones for babies, municipalities have been consolidated as towns age and shrink. In Sweden, some cities have shifted resources from schools to elder care. And almost everywhere, older people are being asked to keep working. Germany, which previously raised its retirement age to 67, is now considering a bump to 69.
Going further than many other nations, Germany has also worked through a program of urban contraction: Demolitions have removed around 330,000 units from the housing stock since 2002.
And if the goal is revival, a few green shoots can be found. After expanding access to affordable child care and paid parental leave, Germany’s fertility rate recently increased to 1.54, up from 1.3 in 2006. Leipzig, which once was shrinking, is now growing again after reducing its housing stock and making itself more attractive with its smaller scale.
“Growth is a challenge, as is decline,” said Mr. Swiaczny, who is now a senior research fellow at the Federal Institute for Population Research in Germany.
Demographers warn against seeing population decline as simply a cause for alarm. Many women are having fewer children because that’s what they want. Smaller populations could lead to higher wages, more equal societies, lower carbon emissions and a higher quality of life for the smaller numbers of children who are born.
But, said Professor Gietel Basten, quoting Casanova: “There is no such thing as destiny. We ourselves shape our lives.”
The challenges ahead are still a cul-de-sac — no country with a serious slowdown in population growth has managed to increase its fertility rate much beyond the minor uptick that Germany accomplished. There is little sign of wage growth in shrinking countries, and there is no guarantee that a smaller population means less stress on the environment.
Many demographers argue that the current moment may look to future historians like a period of transition or gestation, when humans either did or did not figure out how to make the world more hospitable — enough for people to build the families that they want.
Surveys in many countries show that young people would like to be having more children, but face too many obstacles.
Anna Parolini tells a common story. She left her small hometown in northern Italy to find better job opportunities. Now 37, she lives with her boyfriend in Milan and has put her desire to have children on hold.
She is afraid her salary of less than 2,000 euros a month would not be enough for a family, and her parents still live where she grew up.
“I don’t have anyone here who could help me,” she said. “Thinking of having a child now would make me gasp.”
Elsie Chen, Christopher Schuetze and Benjamin Novak contributed reporting.
Opinion | James Bond Has No Time for China
The final James Bond outing for Daniel Craig, “No Time to Die,” also marks a notable milestone for Bondian geopolitics: The franchise just completed a five-movie arc with a single lead actor, and amid all the globe-trotting and intrigue you would barely know that China existed. Shanghai and Macau were brief backdrops, and one villain had been tortured, offstage and in the past, by Chinese security forces — but overall a series released across the years of China’s rise gave little hint that America’s leading rival mattered any more than any other exotic Bondian locale.
In fairness, the Cold War-era Bond movies were not obsessed with Russia, serving up stateless supervillains rather than Soviet adversaries in many of his outings. But the reality of Russian power was part of the fabric of the series. The same actor showed up as the head of the K.G.B., for instance, in five Bond movies in the 1970s and ’80s.
China’s absence from Bondworld is part of a general absence in American cinema. Out of fear of losing the Chinese market, and amid the aggressive use of commercial soft power by Beijing, in the almost quarter-century since Brad Pitt’s “Seven Years in Tibet” and Richard Gere’s “Red Corner,” no major Hollywood release has portrayed the Communist regime in a substantially negative light. Instead, China appears in our pop productions in soft focus, as in “The Martian” and “Arrival,” or else takes a fantastical form, as in “Mulan” and “Shang-Chi.”
Or just as often, as in the Craig movies, it barely appears at all. The Asian pop culture that has increasing influence on America is mostly Korean and Japanese, while China — despite all its power, despite our economic intertwinement, despite its crucial role in our political and now our public-health debates — remains more a domain for experts, its internal life and culture more distant and opaque.
As a consequence, its relationship to American ideological debates is fluid, fraught and strange. Things were simpler 15 years ago, when openness to China — a politics of commercial exchange, with the expectation of China’s liberalization and occasional envy for its apparent technocratic competence — was the default establishment position, with economic critiques of what the “Chimerican” relationship meant for American workers and fears of Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions concentrated on the farther left and right.
But as it became clear that the opening to China was not leading to political liberalization, and as its socioeconomic costs to the American heartland became clear as well, there was an ideological scrambling that hasn’t ended yet.
On the left now you see several impulses. There is an irrelevant but fascinating fringe of very online “tankies” — a reference to the Communists who justified the U.S.S.R. sending in the tanks to Hungary — actively championing the Beijing regime. There is a Bernie Sanders left that wants to critique the Chinese regime on trade and human rights, but fears anything that seems like warmongering. And there is a left that thinks the existential stakes of climate change require deep cooperation with Beijing.
The center, meanwhile, has lost its optimism about China turning into a democracy. But it’s not sure whether to pivot to confrontation and try to disentangle our economies, or whether globalization makes that disentanglement impossible and so we need, with whatever nose-holding, to deepen ties instead. (This divide runs through President Biden’s cabinet.)
The right includes several tendencies as well. There’s a Cold War 2.0 mentality, which fears China as a sweeping ideological threat, a fusion of old-model Communism with 21st-century surveillance technology that promises to make totalitarianism great again. There’s a realist perspective that regards China as a traditional great-power rival and focuses on military containment. And there’s a view that sees China and the United States as actually converging in decadence — with similar problems, from declining birthrates to social inequalities to internet-mediated unhappiness.
But for some on the right, that last view comes with a wrinkle, where the Chinese state is almost admired for trying to act against this decadence — as in its attempt to wean young people off the “spiritual opium” of video gaming — in a way that liberal societies cannot.
Behind all of these differences is a question: What kind of regime is China, really? A Marxist-Leninist state with capitalist trimmings? An authoritarian meritocracy? A fascist state with Maoist characteristics? A new form of digitized totalitarianism? A neo-Confucian order, channeling ancient conservatism through modern one-party rule? A dark-mirror version of internet-age America?
Americans have never exactly excelled at understanding other societies, and a few Chinese bad guys in James Bond movies obviously won’t shed the light we need. But Hollywood’s supine attitude toward Chinese power is a useful window into a larger problem: We need to see our great 21st-century rival clearly, and too often we see only through a glass darkly, if at all.
Trump-backed challengers to Republican lawmakers lag in fundraising
By Jason Lange
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Four candidates backed by Donald Trump to challenge Republican lawmakers who voted to impeach him or boot him from office are falling behind in raising money for their campaigns, according to disclosures filed on Friday.
Trump, who left office in January, remains a major influence within the Republican party, which hopes to regain control of the U.S. Congress in next year’s elections.
Only a handful of Republicans joined Democrats when Congress voted to impeach Trump and then held an unsuccessful vote in the Senate to remove him from office, on a charge he incited insurrectionists to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Trump has called the Republicans who crossed him “disloyal” or “losers,” and they have faced scorn within their party. Several have said they will retire or not seek re-election.
But those who are facing Trump-backed candidates in upcoming party nomination contests so far have raised more money than their challengers, which might help them counter Trump’s campaign against them.
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a moderate who was one of seven Republicans who voted to convict Trump in the Senate, raised $1.1 million between July and September, more than the twice the $466,000 raised by her Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka, a former state administration commissioner endorsed by Trump.
Murkowski – who ended September with $3.2 million in the bank, more than 10 times what Tshibaka had – raked in money from corporate-run donor committees, according to a disclosure Murkowski filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Murkowski also raised more than $75,000 through a joint fundraising effort with several senators endorsed by Trump, including Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who voted against convicting Trump.
Raising more money by no means guarantees victory, but it can help candidates buy expensive television advertisements and pay campaign staff.
Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who is widely seen in great peril of losing her seat because of her vote to impeach Trump and her vocal criticism of the former president, raised $1.7 million during the three-month period.
Her Trump-endorsed opponent, attorney Harriet Hageman, entered the race in early September and raised about $300,000, or roughly $100,000 a week, shy of Cheney’s fundraising pace.
Cheney, the highest-profile lawmaker of the 10 Republicans in the House of Representatives who voted to impeach Trump, drew donations from a number of Wall Street executives, including Blackstone Chief Investment Officer Prakash Melwani. Hageman received a donation from billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel.
Trump has also endorsed opponents to U.S. Representatives Fred Upton of Michigan and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state, who both voted to impeach him.
Upton raised $293,000 between July and September, more than the twice the $116,000 raised by his Trump-endorsed challenger, state lawmaker Steve Carra.
Herrera Beutler not only voted to impeach Trump, she submitted evidence in his Senate trial against the former president. She took in $524,000 during the period, outraising Trump-backed Army veteran Joe Kent, who raised $452,000.
Trump also endorsed his former White House aide Max Miller to challenge U.S. Representative Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, who said in September he would not seek re-election. Miller’s disclosure filed on Friday showed his campaign raised $695,000, most of which came from a half-million-dollar contribution he made to his own campaign.
(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Leslie Adler)
The Music Lost to Coronavirus, Part 3
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This past summer, it briefly seemed as if the worst of the coronavirus might be behind us. But despite some encouraging signs — like the concert business amping up again — the pandemic’s landscape continued to shift; the Delta variant spread widely, and deaths rose again. Many musicians and people integral to the music business have been lost to Covid-19.
On this week’s Popcast, the third in a recurring series, a handful of remembrances of musicians who died during the pandemic:
Jacob Desvarieux, one of the founders and the core arranger of Kassav’, the band that pioneered zouk music, who died at 65.
John Davis, one of the actual singing voices behind the façade-pop supernova act Milli Vanilli, who died at 66.
Chucky Thompson, a hip-hop and R&B producer responsible for hits by Mary J. Blige, the Notorious B.I.G. and others, who died at 53.
Doreen St. Felix, television critic at The New Yorker
Gil Kaufman, senior writer and editor at Billboard
Jeff Mao, longtime music journalist and D.J.
Connect With Popcast. Become a part of the Popcast community: Join the show’s Facebook group and Discord channel. We want to hear from you! Tune in, and tell us what you think at email@example.com. Follow our host, Jon Caramanica, on Twitter: @joncaramanica.
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