Centennial Speaker Series Session 5: Comparative Demographic Trends & Their Implications

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy, American Enterprise Institute; CFR Member


President, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, The World: A Brief Introduction@RichardHaass

The 21st Century World: Big Challenges & Big Ideas

Nicholas Eberstadt discusses U.S. demographic exceptionalism and how demographic trends will drive policymaking in the 21st century.

This meeting is the fifth session in CFR’s speaker series, The 21st Century World: Big Challenges & Big Ideas, which features some of today’s leading thinkers and tackles issues that will define this century. Our first session on April 13 featured Margaret MacMillan on “What Are the Lessons of History for Our Era?,” the second session on May 4 featured Anne Applebaum on “Can Democracy Survive?,” the third with Nicholas Stern on “Will Climate Change Us Before We Change It?” took place on June 16, and the fourth on July 15 with Minouche Shafik on “Balancing the Role of Government and Markets.”

This event series was also presented as a special podcast series, “Nine Questions for the World,” in celebration of CFR’s centennial. See the corresponding episode here.

HAASS: Well, thank you, and welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, which happens to be the fifth in our series on the 21st century: “The 21st Century World: Big Challenges and Big Ideas.” It’s part of our centennial recognition effort, and the whole idea is to feature some of the leading thinkers around the world on big issues that will in some ways determine the shape of the world over the course of this 21st century, our second century as an institution.

Today, we are extraordinarily fortunate to have Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt. Henceforth I will call him Nick because we’ve known each other for more years than either one of us can count or care to count. He holds the Henry Wendt chair in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute. More important, he’s a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a frequent contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine. I would actually say he’s one of this country’s leading experts in two not normally connected domains.

One is on North Korea, and he is on my go-to list for explaining North Korea, but as he himself candidly pointed out it’s one of the least-pressure jobs to have in the world—(laughter)—because no one knows, whenever you speak about North Korea, whether what you say is right or wrong. It’s a little bit like being a weatherman. So I’m envious that he’s figured that out.

And the other is the subject today, which is demographics. And Nick is one of this or any country’s leading demographers, and I would just sort of say at the outset that the reason I wanted to include that as a subject and him in this series is I just think it’s one of the foundation stones of understanding. Without it, I think it’s hard to get an accurate grasp or feel for where things are and where they’re heading in the world or in a country. And with it, I think it gives you a real leg up. Again, it’s not everything, but it’s something, and it’s something important, and I just don’t think it often gets the attention it does.

He and I are going to have a conversation for roughly half an hour, plus or minus, then we will open it up to you all.

So, Nick, let’s do a little bit of demographics or Demography 101 for those of us who didn’t take it in college. What is it? Why is it so important? And what do demographers do when they get up in the morning after they’ve had their second cup of coffee?

EBERSTADT: Well, thank you for inviting me, Richard. It’s a delight to be here with you.

Let’s put aside the adage that demographers are the actuaries without the personality. We’ll put that aside for a moment.

HAASS: For the record, I didn’t say that.

EBERSTADT: No, no, no, it’s just a rumor.

Demographics is the examination of human population rhythms. So depending upon whether you want to just get into the headcount portion of the program or into all of the in-depth human potential and capabilities, you’ve got a pretty—you know, pretty broad canvas that you can be working on.

In the good old days, we thought it was kind of good enough to have the clicker and to figure out how many people there were, male/female, their ages, where they were. We’ve got so much more information now about human beings, though—about their health, their education, all sorts of different potentials—that we can—we can look at human profiles in a lot more detail. And of course, one of the big questions is: Where are things going?

There’s no honest demographer who will tell you that they can look out more than a decade or so, because after that you get into the science fiction portion of the program. Demographers have never figured out how to forecast birthrates reliably, which means that after about a generation you’re guessing how many babies the currently unborn are having. But you can peer a lot further—I mean, a decade or two decades—you can peer a lot further than you can with economic projects or, needless to say, political forecasts. So it’s a—it’s a good sort of over-the-horizon aperture that we can get with demographics, maybe better than any of the other social sciences.

HAASS: That was my assumption. I always thought of demographics as sort of the social science supertanker. Whereas politics you could have—revolutions can happen, economic crises can break out in days or hours or weeks, demographics may not tell you about fifty years but it might tell you about ten or fifteen years. And that’s pretty good.

EBERSTADT: Yeah. Well, demographics only changes real fast with asteroid strikes or COVID outbreaks, with things that aren’t, like, so much fun. But this gradual change is quite important.

I’m not a demography-is-destiny boy. I’m not a determinist or anything like that. But I can argue that demography slowly but quite unforgivably changes the realm of the possible. And so from one quarter to the next it may not matter that much, but you know, give it a generation and it’ll change the world.

HAASS: OK. So let’s set a baseline about the world. Let’s start with the macro, then we’ll get more specific. We’ll do a little bit of something you and I used to do. We’ll do—we’ll do virtual travel instead of real travel. But let’s start with the global, which is where we are, how did we get here, and where we’re going. And what’s really interesting to me about where we’re going is I’m surprised by the range, that there’s not a clear consensus. And, yeah, obviously, there’s consensus on where we are—


HAASS: —but I’m surprised a little bit by the range in projections. Why don’t you talk about, you know, kind of where we are and where that fits in history?

EBERSTADT: OK. Well, like a two-paragraph thumbnail of global population history since 1900.

The world’s population has more than quintupled since 1900, from let’s say 1.5 billion to over seven-and-a-half billion. Nothing like that ever happened before. Obviously, nothing on that scale could have happened, nothing on that tempo. But it didn’t happen because people all of a sudden started breeding like rabbits; it happened because they finally stopped dying like flies. The life expectancy of humanity jumped from about thirty years in 1900 to over seventy years. This is our planetary average right now, over seventy years. And so, obviously, nothing like that had ever happened before.

This was all a health explosion. All of this growth in human numbers was driven by health. And if you have to have a population problem, explosion in health is a pretty good one to have.

Since the end of the Second World War there’s been a second transformation, and this gets us into where we’re going now. This is the global march to below-replacement fertility. The childbearing patterns which have continued indefinitely, you know, without immigration would lead to a peaking of population and then a decline as far as a demographer’s eye could see. And at this point in time, about half of the people in the world live in below-replacement-fertility societies. And since we know the rich world is only a small share of our planet, it means that most of this is third-world sub-replacement-fertility countries. I mean, Iran is sub-replacement. Burma is sub-replacement. It doesn’t fit with our preconceptions about modernizing development all the time.

And this is where things get kind of snaky in trying to guess how many people are going to inhabit the planet generations from now. I mean, it’s kind of a convention to do these projections out to 2100. I think that’s, like, a terrible, impossible conceit for the reasons I’ve just indicated, but there’s a demand for it.

HAASS: Nick, let me just interrupt. The good news is if you’re wrong none of us will be around to tell you that, so.

EBERSTADT: (Laughs.) OK, thanks. (Laughs.)

It would take a catastrophe of biblical proportions to slow down and peak the world’s population in the next decade or so. After that, it’s all a sort of a Rorschach test for demographers and others. There are some—there are some authoritative projections that see the world’s population peaking in the—say, like, 2070. Some of them are as early as 2050. The main U.N. projection doesn’t see it peaking at all, just sees it slowing down and heading up to 10 billion or maybe more than 10 billion. But as I say, after we start guessing about how many unborn are going to, you know, inhabit the Earth, we’re kind of at sea.

HAASS: So if the range is roughly—let’s just throw out some numbers. Right now we’re 7 ½ (billion) to 8 (billion), so the range in fifty years might be somewhere between, I don’t know, 8 (billion) or 8 ½ (billion) and maybe 9 ½ (billion), plus or minus?

EBERSTADT: Well, some projections are over 10 billion. Others are as low as almost down to 7 billion again.

HAASS: Oh, really? OK.

EBERSTADT: There are none—that would—that would be the low fertility, Wittgenstein.

HAASS: Got it.

EBERSTADT: But there—we’re still talking about a whole lot of people no matter—no matter what.

HAASS: Whole lot of people, yeah.


HAASS: Your baseline of where we were a hundred years ago, plus or minus, underscores that.

We talked about, you know, we’re living with pandemics. What else will—and what else tends to drive population increase or lack of it? What does history suggest? You mentioned health care, that if there were more health-care breakthroughs and lifespans went from seventy to ninety-five, that would, obviously, be one.


HAASS: What else?

EBERSTADT: Well, so, of course, the future of longevity is a huge question, and it’s—in the little cottage industry of gerontology it’s very hotly contested. There are some people who think we’ve more or less reached the limits in places like Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s now the longest-living population on the planet, women almost ninety years at birth. But there are others who have taken a look at history and they say: Guess what, fellows? From 1840 to nowsville, you’ve got a straight line up for the longest-living population. Sometimes it’s the Netherlands. Sometimes it’s Norway. Sometimes it’s Japan. Now it’s, I mean, Hong Kong. But if you put those all together, you’ve got a three-month-a-year increase in life expectancy for the best performer for almost two centuries. So I don’t think we know how high we can go yet, and that’s without bioengineering. So that’s one big question.

The other question is, what happens to birth levels around the world? We have this kind of notion that modern rich countries will have small families and poor countries will have large families, and on the whole that’s kind of true, but there are fascinating exceptions. I mean, as I mentioned, Myanmar is voluntary below replacement. Haiti has dropped to—if you believe the Census Bureau, it’s dropped to just a bit above replacement, maybe 10 percent above replacement. So all of the developmental—(inaudible)—errata that I was taught, you know, back in the Stone Age seemed to be dropping, and it looks a lot more as if we’ve got this kind of unsatisfying circularity. The main—the main driver of birth levels seems to be how many babies women want. And that’s kind of good because it’s human agency, but it begs the question of what changes the demand for family size. And I’m not sure we really have a good answer for that.

HAASS: So the idea that non-experts like me would read out that it was either income levels or education or women in the workforce and all that, it’s not—it’s not quite so clear cut that with economic development comes lower replacement levels, or essentially it turns out to be much more, what, localized, if you will, country specific.

EBERSTADT: Well, as a—as a generalization it’s perfectly fine, but then there are all of these fascinating exceptions, and it started at the very beginning. I mean, we know that the march towards low fertility—voluntary low fertility started in Europe, but—you know, around the end of the 1700s. But it didn’t start in England, which was the most industrialized country; it started in France, which was kind of illiterate and rural and poor and, not to put too fine a point on it, Catholic. So even from the beginning it hasn’t worked quite the way that we might have guessed.

HAASS: One last question before we start going geographically. Are there any clear trends about men and women, about gender, about what we’re seeing in the world and whether there’s any trends about what we’re likely to see?

EBERSTADT: Well, since all of us in this discussion, I think, are mammals, we’ve got this mammal DNA thing which seems to generate about 105, 104, 103 baby boys for every hundred baby girls no matter what ethnicity you are, no matter what country you ever lived in in history.

In the past generation, we’ve kind of knocked the biological jams out of the door in a couple of countries in what I’d call, you know, the global war against baby girls. There’s mass female feticide in places like China and places like India. I think we may see it in some other places in the world. And so we’ve actually raised the so-called sex ratio at birth away from what would have been its historical biological norms. I hope this is a passing phase.

On the other hand, over the long haul boys seem to break more easily than girls. I’m not sure we understand entirely why this is, but in most societies where there is some kind of, you know, brutal violence of various sorts against women, females live a bunch longer than men. So in a—in a world governed by longer lives, we could expect more women than men. That may not be the case at this precise moment because of the missing women problem I just mentioned.

HAASS: One thing, by the way, you didn’t mention was the importance of war historically as a determinant of demographic changes. I mean, obviously, you know, a century ago the Spanish flu had an enormous impact, but then World War I, I would think, not just death from violence but death from disease that often accompanies war. And is that still true, or has war become in some ways, since it’s so much less manpower-intense, many interstate wars as opposed to civil wars—I’m just curious whether war is still significant in your business or it’s kind of a rounding error.

EBERSTADT: Well, I guess different sorts of—different sorts of state actions that have big demographic consequences. The biggest global blip in my lifetime was the consequence of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the three years of famine in the People’s Republic of China in the late ’50s and early ’60s. You can see that in the global demographic numbers. You can see the drop in world population growth tempo then. But otherwise, these scars have big implications and big reverberations for given countries, but for the world as a whole not as much as you might think. And part of that is because, as I mentioned, we’ve had this explosion of health.

HAASS: And COVID-19, I mean, in this country you’re talking now upwards of 650,000 people who have lost their lives. The official global numbers are probably in the 4 million dollar (sic) range. The economists and others would probably triple that and say it’s somewhere between 10 (million) and 15 million people who have lost their lives. And would your answer be that, even if that’s true, that in a world of 7 ½ (billion) to 8 billion that still doesn’t change the macro picture?

EBERSTADT: It’s an unimaginable number of individual human tragedies. But as you say, when you’ve got that many zeroes it doesn’t—it doesn’t alter the population contour all that much.

HAASS: OK. We’re going to talk a lot about countries that are slowing down or getting older or both. Let’s talk about the part of the world that’s neither. Again, this is your area not mine, but when I was researching my last book the—Africa stood out as the principal exception, that a lot more people are coming and a lot of them, obviously, almost by definition—because you’re going to have a lot of births—the average age is going to stay relatively low. Why don’t you develop that for the rest of us non—

EBERSTADT: Sure. Sure. To crushingly oversimplify, we can divide the world into two groups today: Sub-Saharan Africa and everybody else. If you take everybody else from Bangladesh to Paraguay to Finland and average them all together, their birth level is slightly below replacement. If you take sub-Saharan Africa, it’s maybe 80 or 90 percent above replacement, which is to say that from one generation to the next sub-Saharan Africa is on track almost to double its population in just the coming generation. So sub-Saharan Africa is going to make up an increasing share of not only humanity, but also the global manpower pool, the world workforce, the world economy. And we’ve got a—we’ve got a human resource problem here that’s pretty acute because sub-Saharan Africa is also the part of the world where life expectancy/health levels are lowest, where education in terms of mean years of schooling is lowest, and where economic performance for the last generation or so has probably been the most disappointing, has also been the slowest. As a—as a global project, as a global enterprise, seeing sub-Saharan Africa succeed in its human potential, I think, is going to become an ever-greater matter for the success of our entire humanity.

HAASS: Isn’t, though, the other side of that coin, though, if the rest of the world is getting older and its populations aren’t rising, wouldn’t that also make an argument for the rest of the world bringing in African—


HAASS: I mean, immigration from Africa would relieve some of the pressure on Africa to employ those people and it would provide something of a solution for the rest of the world?

EBERSTADT: To some degree, absolutely and for sure. I mean, if we’re talking about a sub-Saharan population that’s over a billion now and on track to be over 2 billion in, let’s say, a little more than a generation, and in some of these futuristic projections that you could close your eyes and ignore at the moment 4 billion at the end of the century in some of these projections, it’s not really clear how much migration can—how much migration can be, let’s say, a valve for the sub-Sahara. It may make a great deal of difference to shrinking societies, given skills and given nice matches there. I tend to think of immigration as a win-win proposition. But even—you know, even a hundred million or more immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa over a generation isn’t going to make that big a difference in growth like the type I’m describing to you.

HAASS: So let’s talk for a second about the world’s most populous country now though not for long, China.


HAASS: China’s what, 1.3, 1.4 billion? I don’t know the latest.

EBERSTADT: Yeah. They say 1.4 (billion).

HAASS: So talk a little bit—I mean, again, I’ve seen projections where it’s going to go down a couple hundred million, that the average age is going up. And to what extent is this linked to the one-child policy of the past? To what extent is something else going on—economic development in China, political issues? What’s your take on China?

EBERSTADT: Well, I’ve always been a(n) avowed critic of the one-child policy since it started. I think it was abhorrent. The idea that the government would take police-state powers to try to break and remold its subjects’ families, I mean, this seems to be the most totalitarian violation in my lifetime. And terrible things happened during that program in terms of human rights violations.

What is not clear to me is how much the program itself actually altered permanently China’s birth regimen, because in the 2020 census which was just conducted—I mean, that’s, obviously, a pretty odd year because it’s the COVID year—but in the—if we believe the Chinese authorities, they’re saying that they counted—that they got about 1.3 births per woman per lifetime in their population count. Maybe it’s a little low. But in countries that—nearby countries that didn’t have population control programs like that—in Taiwan, in Japan, in South Korea—you’ve got even—you’ve got at least as low and in some cases much lower fertility levels. So it begs the question: What would have happened if you’d run history differently?

All of East Asia now is seriously below replacement, and what this means for China itself is that its working-age population has been shrinking for not quite a decade but going on a decade. The only population growth, you know, in the composition of society is for senior citizens, and they’ve got a population explosion that’s going to be going on for senior citizens for the next generation, which is part of the aging phenomenon you were describing. Depending upon just how low fertility actually is and where it goes in the next little bit, China’s population could peak in the next couple of years or maybe it’ll take until the end of this decade. But it’s—there’s a lot of momentum to push it down, and there really aren’t enough people willing to immigrate from other countries to keep this from happening because it’s a pretty big boy.

HAASS: So what happens? What’s the so-what question, Nick? Just say China goes from, I don’t know, 1.3 (billion) or (1.)4 billion, say, to 1.1 billion over the next couple of decades, the average age goes up so the ratio of people working to people retired moves. Does this—does this represent a significant challenge or threat to China’s continued rise? Does this essentially change the slope of the line?

EBERSTADT: Sure. I mean, it’s very unforgiving to the arithmetic of economic growth. The era of heroic economic growth in China is over. Now, for forty years we saw the most extraordinary record of economic productivity increase that humanity has ever witnessed, so I mean, that’s a pretty high benchmark to judge anybody against. But when I try to do my kind of, like, little simplistic Gyro Gearloose sort of modeling on human resources and population, what’s that going to mean for China’s future growth, I get numbers like 2 ½ percent a year, 3 ½ percent a year. Now, I mean, if the U.S. were getting 2 ½ or 3 percent a year we’d say, thank you, Lord. But I think for Chinese planners it’s probably a terrifying prospect, and they’ve the same sort of information that I have and they’ve got a lot more detailed versions of it.

HAASS: It’s really interesting since for several generations now, or at least decades, the Chinese leadership, the Chinese Communist Party, has in many ways derived legitimacy from significant high levels of economic growth. If that is, as you suggest, unsustainable, then it suggests to me their—either they get legitimacy from other things—i.e., their foreign policy—or they don’t worry so much about legitimacy and become more repressive, or both. But I—you know, again, to me, it’s potentially one of those cases where demography raises some really fundamental questions and potentially even begins to answer them or suggests to you answers.

EBERSTADT: Well, so here’s a wildcard that comes in from demography. A growing proportion of young people in China are only children and the PLA is increasingly going to be filled with only children. In a Confucian ethos society, it is a sort of a metaphysical catastrophe if your family lineage ends, and obviously your family lineage ends if you’re a casualty in a military conflict. So does this make Chinese leadership more casualty-averse than they would have been in the past? Do they not pay attention to it and get a big reaction if something goes a little bit wrong in an adventure? I wonder how much—I wonder how much Chinese leadership, military leadership, has considered this. It’s probably worth taking into account, or trying to somehow, although for now I can only speculate about it.

HAASS: Well, if you do decide to speculate on paper, there’s this magazine called Foreign Affairs that I recommend to you.

Let’s talk about Japan, now the world’s third-largest economy. The population is—I’ve lost—well, 120 million, plus or minus.

EBERSTADT: Yeah. Yeah.

HAASS: Again, it’s—to what extent is it the future? As it gets smaller each year, as it gets older, what’s the laboratory, if you will, of Japan’s demography? What does it teach us?

EBERSTADT: So, as you say, it’s a—it’s one of the world’s very healthiest societies. Its numbers are falling. Its working-age population’s falling faster than that. The reason that it’s falling so fast is because Japan seems to have a permanent allergy to immigrants from abroad. They don’t play as nice with gaijin as some other developed countries play with newcomers. And Japan is a laboratory for seeing how well it’s possible for healthy, aging societies—healthy, aging, shrinking societies—to maintain prosperity. We’ve got another—we’ve got another laboratory in Germany.

And in my view, in a world where there’s constant technological innovation and discovery and improvements in health and education, I don’t see any reason that shrinking aging societies can’t become richer and more prosperous. They have to make a lot of internal changes if they’re going to do so.

There is one wild card in Japan, though, that I would point to—the family structure. Japanese demographers don’t pay very much attention to this and they probably ought to because it’s a little bit uncomfortable. On current trends, say, a woman thirty years old in Japan is on course to be slightly more likely than not never to have any biological grandkids.

So who’s going to look after all of these aged social isolates in Japan a generation from now? That may be the biggest question about population aging that we haven’t really looked at.

HAASS: One other country I want to turn to before I get to the United States, which is Russia. For years, Russia’s population was in a kind of slow decline—terrible public health, alcoholism, and the like. It was somewhere below, I don’t know, 145 million. I remember at one point when it crisscrossed with Pakistan—


HAASS: —which was growing at a fast—and Pakistan now is probably in the ballpark of 200 million, plus or minus—

EBERSTADT: Yeah, getting up there. Getting up there.

HAASS: —and Russia seems to have stabilized. But is Russia also another laboratory? Because unlike Japan, by the way, one doesn’t sense great public health. The ability—I don’t know what the potential is for immigration there. Robotics will not play as large a role in Russia as they will in Japan. How much trouble is Russia in?

EBERSTADT: Yeah. Well, I mean, Russia’s, from the demographic standpoint, a good news/bad news story, except that there isn’t much good news. The Kremlin discovered a pretty good population increase approach and that’s to annex the territory of adjoining countries like in Crimea.

Apart from that, their pro-natal policy is somewhat problematic. I think pro-natal policies, in my own view—there are people that argue against me, but pro-natal policies generally tend to be pretty expensive and get pretty modest results.

HAASS: Just to—so everybody understands, when you talk about pro-natal, is it, basically, giving social support, a safety net, for children or—

EBERSTADT: Baby bonus. Baby bonus. So there’s—

HAASS: Baby bonuses. Kinder payment they call them in Germany, whatever it was.

EBERSTADT: Yeah. Yeah. So there’s up to, let’s say, 250,000 rubles, which isn’t as much as it sounds, but for a second or third child through loans and housing and so forth. Pro-natal policies usually get a bump at first and then the bump kind of disappears, and that’s what’s happened in Russia. Russia is back to one and a half births per woman per lifetime before the COVID crisis.

The strange and unsettling thing in Russia is that we’ve got this society, which is a high education/low human capital society. In terms of years of schooling, it looks kind of like the rest of Europe. In terms of mortality, it’s been a disaster. I mean, life expectancy has gone up a bit. But if you took a look at the life expectancy at age fifteen for young men, you’d put that level right on the least developed country list. It’d be right near Haiti.

The other thing about Russia’s strange lack of human creativity is that with this very smart population, Russia is producing about as many annual patents as the state of Alabama and, I mean, Huntsville—you know, Huntsville is a pretty impressive place, but Russia is a lot bigger than Huntsville.

And why this mystery of high education/low human capital? I suspect it has something to do with the political system. But I can’t explain it better than that.

HAASS: Let’s turn to the United States. Again, the nonexpert who’s asking you questions here often reads that the United States has a relatively balanced demography, unlike those with youth bulges or age bulges. You know, we don’t look like a pyramid or an upside down pyramid, a little bit more, quote/unquote, “balanced.”

Is that still true? And in particular, to what extent do potentially more limited approaches towards immigration—to what extent is that a threat to the or a challenge or whatever word one wants to use a question mark over the American demographic future?

EBERSTADT: Well, fifteen years ago, I wrote about what I called American demographic exceptionalism, because for a decade and a half at least after the end of the Cold War, U.S. birth levels were about at replacement. And that may not sound like much, but that was about half a baby more than in Europe and a bunch more than in Japan AND some other parts of affluent East Asia.

Since the crash of 2008, America’s had a fertility slide. Right before COVID we were down to about 1.7 births per woman per lifetime. That’s higher than in Europe, Russia, China, Japan, don’t get me wrong. But it’s still a bunch below replacement, and I don’t think we know yet what things are going to look like on the other side of COVID for family formation.

We’ve had—we’ve had a run of migration of about a million—net a million a year for decades. You know, some of it’s even legal. And, in my own view, I think migrants to the United States make wonderful Americans, on the whole. We have much less assimilation and political difficulty with our immigrants than Europe does.

On the whole, I’d say immigrants—the immigrant story in Europe is more successful than some people say, but ours looks—ours looks, I think, really very impressive in a lot of ways. We have gone through paroxysms in the past politically where we’ve, basically, all but shut down immigration. I mean, that happened after—right after World War One, you’ll recall. It was only in the ’60s that we started to relax our immigration quotas again.

And I wouldn’t be the person who would tell you that it can’t happen here because it already has happened here in the past. Anything that leads to a big shutdown of immigration, I think, is going to be a pretty unhappy story and it probably also will be an unhappy story politically with respect to our ability to cope with other domestic challenges as well.

HAASS: Well, let me—let’s see if I can go to a quick lightning round here because you’ve put out an enormous amount of material out there. What country in the world would you point to and say, that, demographically, is doing about as well or better than anybody? What’s the—what’s the positive model?

EBERSTADT: Well, I would say that you can look at—look at Canada. Look at Australia. I mean, they’re below replacement societies but they’ve been very dynamic with immigration. I mean, we don’t really have an immigration policy. We’re in total chaos on immigration. They’ve got fairly, you know, considered immigration policies, good education, and health, and they seem to be pretty flexible.

There’s another fascinating experiment going on, which is Israel, and Israel is a very different sort of experiment. I mean, it’s a—you know, it’s the Zionist experiment. But there you’ve got a country where the fertility level has been increasing, not decreasing, since the 1990s. The fertility level of the Jewish population has been increasing fairly substantially, and it isn’t all due to the ultraorthodox.

There’s something else going on that we haven’t really—the outside—the outside world hasn’t paid enough attention to that laboratory. And I think in a world of seemingly permanent sub-replacement fertility, some people might be a little bit more interested in learning about what’s happening in Israel.

HAASS: OK. One of the problem cases—and, you know, for a long time people would point, say, to the countries of South Asia and particularly to India, some to Pakistan, some would point to countries in the Middle East like Egypt, which must be somewhere around the 100 million level. Now it’s going up over—the number we used to use when I was in the government was a million people every eight months and very concentrated, given the water distribution issue.

What is—when you look at as the real—either the actual or potential problem/crisis countries, what’s on your list?

EBERSTADT: Well, it would be—it would be countries where governments are not capable of dealing with social change adequately, because whatever else you’ll say about population growth, it’s a form of very basic social change. And so I would say we’d want to look at, you know, kind of the listing of what’s sometimes called fragile states because in most of the fragile states you’ve got low incomes and low wealth. So you’ve got not much resources that you can draw upon. You’ve got fast social change as measured, you know, in terms of population, and you’ve got very limited capacities of governments to cope.

So Paul Collier talked about the bottom billion. That may not be the perfect way of framing it. But those are the—those are the populations that, I think, we really want to focus on for success in the future.

HAASS: Isn’t, though, India an example of both the—of almost—you know, the expression I sometimes come across is two Indias.


HAASS: You’ve got a part of the country which is more modernized, urbanized, and the like, and then you’ve got this enormous rural poor, and that India seems to have both the promise, if you will, of demographic change but also some of the burden of it.

EBERSTADT: Sure. Well, India’s a fascinating case exactly as you say. In terms of population structure, there are definitely two different Indias. There is a—there’s an India around the Gangetic Plain and there’s an India in the south. One of them is—one of them is a baby factory and the other is a jobs factory, and they don’t—they don’t all match up.

The difficulty, I think, is that the parts of India which have higher fertility, which look a little bit more like Pakistan, are the places where education is much more limited. And, you know, you and I—you know, all the people we know from India are, like, geniuses and they’ve got more degrees than a thermometer.

But there are hundreds of millions of people in India who’ve never been to school, and that, I think, is going to be the big constraint on its economic development in the future because you have huge numbers of people with college degrees and huge numbers of illiterates, and it’s going to make the income distribution in Manhattan look like Sweden if this continues.

HAASS: Nick, as always, thank you. I always learn a lot when I either listen to you or read you.

What I’d like to do now is invite our members to join the conversation. They’re free to, obviously, ask questions either to follow up on issues I’ve raised, and there’s so many issues I just didn’t have time to raise.

Just a reminder that this meeting is on the record, and Julissa or one of her colleagues will explain how we’re going to operate it.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

OPERATOR: We’ll take the first question from Steven Gutow.

(Off mic.)

HAASS: You have to unmute, Steven.

(Off mic.)

HAASS: You’re unmuted but I don’t hear you.

(Off mic.)

HAASS: OK, Kayla. We may have to move.

OPERATOR: We’ll go on to Alexandra Wallace.

Q: Hi. Alex Wallace from Yahoo.

This has been a phenomenal conversation. I’m surprised you have not mentioned climate, the climate crisis and its impact on world demographics—water shortage, migration. If you could talk to me about how much you’re factoring that in in the next decade.

EBERSTADT: Thank you for—thank you for raising that as the first question. There is a very—there’s a very good reason that I have not discussed climate and that’s because I do not consider that to be part of my bailiwick of expertise. I recognize it as enormously important issue for our common future. But I’m not—I’m not good enough to make sense of the climate models myself.

Demography is a lot easier than climate models, and so if I were to give a—you know, an observation as an informed newspaper reader, which is kind of like the level I am when we’re talking about climate, I’d say that in addition to recognizing the perils that it will cause, especially in fragile areas and fragile states and societies, the challenge of climate change makes me think that we need our populations around the world to get as rich as they can as fast as they can so they’ll also have more wherewithal to be able to do adaptation to climate change. Not just mitigation, but I think we’re going to have to do a lot of adaptation. And after that, I don’t think I’ve got anything useful to say, I’m afraid.

HAASS: I’m just going to piggyback as another newspaper reader on this subject. One is, one of our senior fellows here at the Council, Alice Hill is one of the country’s leading experts, if not the leading expert, on climate adaptation or climate resilience, has a new book out just this week or last week on the—on the subject, which I—which I recommend. And it seems to me on climate one has to think about two things—we’ve also done some work here on this—which is the relationship between climate and global public health issues like, in particular, death from heat, drought, and so forth, which is one thing, and then climate as a driver of migration, which is, obviously, a growing phenomena, and we’re now at a moment where the number of refugees and internally displaced has hit something of a post-World War Two high, and climate is increasingly a driver of that—of that number. So my guess this will affect the demographics, the overall numbers, given some health issues, but probably even more in terms of location.

Thank you. Thanks for the question. Glad you added it to our mix.

Kayla, over to you.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Joseph Nye.

Q: Nick, that was very good, as usual.

I was wondering, in terms of the comparison of the U.S. and China, it’s been conventional wisdom for some time that we had a demographic advantage over China. China’s labor force peaked in 2015. Ours continues to increase, and so forth.

But there have been recent downturns in U.S. birthrates and fertility, and some people are saying that that American advantage over China from our demographic advantage is vanishing. Curious if you’d speculate a little bit about that.

EBERSTADT: Thank you very much for that question.

I’m quite concerned about what we might call our demographic advantage or our demographic edge, because in my way of looking at it I fear that we’re frittering away our advantages, and I’m not so concerned about the headcount question as I am about the human resource question, Joe.

As you know, with regard to health, the 2010s were a lost decade for the United States. I mean, it was the deaths of despair and the opioid crisis. But it wasn’t just that. We, basically, flat lined on health progress measured by life expectancy for a ten-year period and it’s not because we didn’t have a hugely expensive health care system.

Likewise, we have, for some mysterious reason, seen a major slowdown in U.S. improvements in mean years of schooling, what’s called educational attainment. We were the world’s star pupil from the end of the Civil War until the end of the 20th century, which meant that we were not only top but we were improving faster than other countries were.

That isn’t the case anymore. We’re on a—we’ve shifted down to about a third of our historical tempo. I don’t know why it’s happened. I haven’t seen a good explanation of why it’s happened. Most people in education and economics and demography aren’t aware that it’s happened. But I think that this has enormous ramifications for our future as well.

So cultivating and revitalizing our domestic human resources seems to me an even more important challenge for our nation geopolitically than thinking about how many Americans will be in our country, you know, ten years or fifteen years from now.

HAASS: Nick, the corollary to your response, I would think, to Professor Nye would be that you mentioned before Canada, Australia. You didn’t mention New Zealand. But these are countries that have very targeted—I’d use that word—immigration policies.

As I hear you, that’s what comes to mind, that we ought to not simply be open but a percentage, a significant percentage, of those we open up to for immigration ought to be based upon things like educational attainment and the like.

EBERSTADT: Well, with our—you know, with our Keystone Cop shambolic immigration nonpolicy at the moment, we can’t help but attract talent from all around the world. We just can’t help it. I mean, we are the talent magnet for innovators and inventors. You know, we’re just—we suck them from all over the world.

There’s no country that’s a close second on net inventors, and we get a pretty good crew of low-skilled Americans as well because if you have—if you have an immigrant mother or father—it doesn’t matter what your ethnicity is—your schooling level is going to be higher than the national average for your ethnic group.

I mean, immigrants make great Americans so far. If we have a—if we had a more pragmatic policy, I’m sure that we could talk about fine tuning that. We’d need to have—we’d need to have a little bit of political competence to do that. So maybe after we balance the budget we’ll get a good immigration policy.

HAASS: (Laughter.) OK. I’ll book it on my calendar.

Kayla, next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Jay Markowitz.

Q: Hi. Jay Markowitz, ARCH Venture Partners.

Nick, as you implied, a relatively equivalent number of males and females is the evolutionary—evolutionarily stable state. Whether it’s wars that have skewed that ratio in one direction or now this abhorrent practice of female feticide and infanticide that have skewed it in the other, I’m wondering what we’ve learned about the consequences.

EBERSTADT: Ah, that’s a really tough one. I have—I have read—I’ve read some pretty interesting and thought-provoking accounts suggesting that a surplus of men leads to a deficit of security because, you know, guys have to be socialized if they’re going to play nice in societies and, you know, if they’re not socialized the bad things happen, and that makes a lot of sense to me.

I also look at some of the historical record, though. I mean, one of the places where there was the biggest—one of the places, historically, where we saw the largest recorded, historically, surplus of unmarried men was in Western Europe in the 1600s, 1700s. It was because—it was because there was a convention, a social convention, of honorable bachelorhood, which wasn’t always honorable. But a lot of people didn’t get married.

I mean, there were some kind of, like, bad things that happened in Western Europe, like, let’s say, the Thirty Years’ War. But I don’t know how much we’d attribute it to patterns like that. My point is that the rise of the West occurred at precisely the time that we saw all of those surplus unmarried guys.

So I don’t think that I have a good generalization that encompasses all of the fascinating exceptions that I can think of here. So I’ll leave it to our sociobiologist friends to, you know, to set me right on this.

HAASS: We’ll be sure to include some sociobiologists at future meetings. I’m sure we have a few in our ranks.


OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Hank Cohen.

Q: Thank you for your presentation.

I’m a retired Foreign Service officer who’s specialized in Africa, and I’ve seen that in practically every country there are major USAID programs for birth control. Do you have an opinion has it had any impact?

EBERSTADT: That’s a—that’s a very poignant question, and it’s—I think my answer will be not uncontested, not uncontroversial. I’ve always—I’ve always been kind of skeptical about population policies that tried to change the number of children that parents were having because, I guess, I’ve always kind of thought that parents ought to be able to decide how many kids they want.

There’s been—I mean, whether we want to say it or not, there’s been a very strong and, I think, a very unfortunate anti-natal impetus to America’s population initiatives all around the world. It was much more unapologetically eugenicist back in the 1960s than it is now. I would say that one of the things that we see in sub-Saharan Africa from the survey data, the so-called Demographic and Health Survey data, that I read is that parents are having on average about as many children as the surveys say women want.

So unless USAID or others are in a position to say the parents are wrong, I think we’d take that as the answer for fertility. There are great things that can be done with health. There are great things that can be done with education. But those are goods in their own right, and I don’t think that we should be interested in them because we think we can make people have less babies in other countries.

HAASS: Kayla, how are we on time? I can’t remember if this was scheduled till 1:00 or 1:15. So let me know, and if it’s 1:00 let’s get in one last question.

OPERATOR: OK. We can take one more question. Our last question will be from Raj Bhala.

Q: Thank you for this great presentation. I had the honor of being a research assistant while in college for the great demographer Allen Kelley, who I know—


Q: —you’ve worked with and cited. And my—he was very interested in age at first marriage and that a key variable—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—econometric equation. So I’m just wondering if you might say a little bit more about how that variable plays out in your current thinking.

EBERSTADT: Thank you for asking that question and a great salute to the great Allen Kelley.

In societies where—in societies where marriage prevails and where childbearing doesn’t take place before marriage, age at marriage, as you intimate, can be a pretty consequential indicator of where fertility is going. And even in—even in societies where marriage is on the wane, like in a lot of the European societies—North America and elsewhere—rising age at marriage also conditions possibilities for fertility.

We’ve seen—we’ve seen older childbearing in the United States in the last generation. But, historically speaking, that doesn’t look actually as exceptional as you might think because in older time(s), previous times, when people had larger families, a significant portion of those births were to older parents as well.

HAASS: Well, Nick, this has been a real education and a real treat to have a chance to have a conversation about these issues with someone of your breadth and depth. It’s a master class. So, thank you, my friend. It’s been great.

I want to thank all the Council members who joined us. The video and transcript of the meeting, I’m told, will be posted on CFR’s member services portal, and in a few months we will also release the audio as a podcast. This will be part of our 100th anniversary podcast series.

And I’ll just say that when we imagined this series this was just the sort of conversation we imagined and hoped for we didn’t know if we’d get, and I’m glad to say we got it and then some today.

So thank you, sir, and thank one at all.

EBERSTADT: Richard, thank you so much for inviting me. It was a thrill for me and absolute delight.

HAASS: Stay safe and well, everybody.


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