As we enter the era of relative world wide population declines (apart from Africa), we are are also seeing the era of populist movements trying to put the finger in the dike. The two are related. Many in the big cities beset by congestion and housing issues as the young flood into them both locally and from all around the world may not be aware of that. But the voting patterns showing the distinct differences between the large urban centres and those in the declining regions are quite clear. This was the pattern of partisan voting from the Trump populism to Brexit.
There was an excellent opinion piece in the New York Times “As Population Growth Slows, Populism Surges” that highlighted this.
The last time that populism — what we broadly define as political movements that ostensibly set the interests of “ordinary people” against elites as well as an “other” — swept across Europe and the United States was marked by the same combination of slow economic and fertility growth that today prevails in advanced industrialized countries in the West and Asia.
Economies have recently picked up some steam, but not before nearly a decade of sluggish economic growth — and, in most of the world, declining fertility rates.
Since the 1960s. Fertility rates have been starting to fall below replacement rates almost everywhere.
The fact is that all of East Asia, all of Europe, and all of North America are experiencing birthrates that are below replacement level — which means, simply, were it not for immigration and longer life spans, all of these regions would be experiencing year-to-year population decline.
Iran, Brazil and other emerging-market countries are on this list as well. Fertility rates are falling rapidly in India, the world’s most populous country after China.
Only the African continent is poised for significant population growth in coming decades.
Now if you’re reading this and you live in any one of the world’s 500 largest cities, you probably have little personal awareness of the imminent onset of global population decline. That’s because the entirety of the increase in global population outside of the African continent is already being captured by those 500 largest cities with populations of over one million people. In other words, with the significant exceptions of the African continent and the less-than-half-a-percent of the planet’s habitable surface covered by the world’s 500 largest cities, the earth is today experiencing net population decline.
In the past decade people in rural, remote places have been disproportionately losing not just jobs and opportunities, but people, elementary schools and confidence in the future.
This isn’t that hard to see even in New Zealand – which throughout my lifetime has been one of the most urbanised countries in the world. When I was doing an MBA and then working for a few years in Dunedin in the mid 80s I did a lot of travelling in the South Island. As an Auckland raised mid-20s, I was astonished about how empty the South Island was.
Recent trips down there outside of the tourist seasons and areas make me realise just how much emptier the landscape is even over the last twenty years. Sure you can get stuck in tourist and truck traffic in Ashburton. But the little towns in the rural support zones are just shadows of what they were. And the larger ones haven’t grown much if at all.
It is the same throughout the most of the hinterlands of New Zealand that I have lived in or visited. Except around the cities, tourist centres and the areas where dairy has boosted already low populations. Which have been burgeoning. The following map shows the population growth between the 2006 and 2013 census (source Figure NZ). The pink and light green and negative or minimal growth. But you can imagine (because I can’t find one offhand) that a population density chart would show massive spikes in Auckland and lesser ones for Wellington/Hutt and Christchurch – and everything pretty empty everywhere else.
At one stage back in the 80s and 90s, I imagined that the growth of the net would allow the distribution of the populations more widely in coming decades. But that is just information. It ignored the effects of supply chains and concentration of the physical. Over the last couple of decades, I have become increasingly involved in our rapidly growing tech export economy and having to come to a less optimistic view.
When you’re dealing with hardware and services related to the software that I develop, you need to be physically close to your support networks. We need the concentration of specialist support companies engineers and skilled staff that a large city supplies, the transport systems for materials and people and even just the local supplies of sundry supplies like specialised cables, connectors and bolts. Above all we need to have access to international airports with regular flights to our customers and fast bandwidths.
I’m writing this from the city state of Singapore (population about 50% larger than than NZ in an area quite a lot smaller than Auckland) where I have spent 7 weeks tweaking the software, firmware and hardware for a delivery of a massive (>NZD 100 million) contract for a customer site. This is a project that has taken years of concentrated effort by hundreds of people both in NZ, here in Singapore, and across multiple locations across the globe to bring to fruition.
It is hard to see how we could do this from somewhere like Dunedin or Palmerston North or Gisbourne. I can’t even see how how it could be done from Wellington/Hutt because their regional specialisations don’t foster the required kinds of engineering cooperation (and their airport doesn’t have enough international flights). We barely have enough in Auckland to sustain this kind of effort, as is shown by the difficulty in recruiting people with needed skills.
But what it does mean is that the high paying jobs and the multitudes of people that those high paying jobs support concentrate and will probably continue to do so. That is where the jobs, productivity, and ability to easily move between similar enterprises
But it also means that across the globe the young flock in ever increasing numbers to the major cities, and those staying behind increasingly are divorced from the world economy. It shows in how they bloc vote.
Election data from the past two years plainly describe the consequences of these demographic dynamics: Most advanced industrialized countries are dominated by two competing political movements that either awkwardly inhabit the bodies of existing political parties or create new ones more to their liking. One movement extols the values that are a practical necessity in dense, interconnected cities: interdependence, internationalism and the embrace of “diversity” (defined along multiple dimensions). Another movement extols the equally necessary virtues of people in rural areas: self-reliance, autonomy and the embrace of immediate community and place.
For the United States, urban cores of big cities vote Democratic (72 percent in the 2016 presidential election). Small cities vote Republican (73 percent), as do rural areas (85 percent). More evenly divided suburban areas and middle-size cities decide the outcome.
In the Brexit vote, 84 percent of the voting districts in England’s largest cities (London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds) voted to remain in the European Union, while 87 percent of those in rural areas voted to leave.
A consistent theme is the relative decline of native-born populations in relation to immigrants. In the United States, according to the Migration Policy Institute, the immigrant share of the population increased from 5.4 percent in 1960 to 13.5 percent in 2016, while in parallel the fertility rate halved, going from 3.6 to 1.8 births per woman overall.
Only Japan, the country most identified with population decline, appears to have resisted the current populist wave — arguably either because its restrictive immigration policies immunize its native-born population from fears of demographic obsolescence, or because it already experienced a populist surge, with disappointing results, when the tradition-breaking Democratic Party of Japan was voted into power in 2009.
Globally we can expect more of this to happen as the world’s population approaches equilibrium and possibly starts to fall later this century – see the DESA projections. World wide since the 1970s we have been nearer the lower projections rather than the higher.
Fortunately New Zealand’s existing very high urbanisation is likely to, at least in part, protect us from the worst aspects of demographic induced populism. Just our top 3 urban centres which contain most of the export related jobs account for 48.9% of the population at June 2017. Unlike many other states we lack the large combined populations of small towns and rural communities being decimated by changing demographics and the voting issues that they cause.
But I suspect that around the world we are going to see more of the go-back populism and the opportunistic politicians like Donald Trump or the Brexit leaders exploit. As the opinion piece from the NYT points out, the worst case scenario already exists – Russia.
If there is one country that has been in the vanguard of both demographic decline and the political exploitation of the frustrations it engenders, it is neither Japan nor any of the countries just discussed. Rather, it is a country whose population began to shrink 15 years before Japan’s; a country whose leader declared in a 2006 address to the nation that the demographic crisis was “the most acute problem” facing his land; a country in which the battle between the rural “narod” (the common people) and the urban intelligentsia was a defining feature of political life for most of a violent century. That country is, of course, the Russian Federation, and the leader who expressed this concern is Vladimir Putin.
But the fact is that Putin for the benefit of his political support has concentrated on populist policies that are directly in conflict with the kinds of things that enhance a country to earn and grow. Basically they force stagnation. The contempt for the rule of law, both within Russia and internationally in the pursuit of political control doesn’t help with investment either by skilled labour or capital. Both flee or never come into countries whose dominant political ethos is that of a kleptocracy.
But the important thing to take away from this post is:-
Population decline is here, but unevenly distributed. When it comes to the politics of the 21st century, that geographical unevenness makes all the difference.