Is Population Change a Problem?

Birth rates are booming in some countries and plummeting in others. Leading demographer Nicholas Eberstadt and Richard Haass analyze the most important trends and their consequences.

December 16, 2021 — 37:00 min
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Richard Haass

President, Council on Foreign Relations Full Bio

Episode Guests

Nicholas Eberstadt

Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy, American Enterprise Institute

Show Notes

About This Episode


In this episode of Nine Questions for the World, Richard Haass sits down with leading demographer Nicholas Eberstadt to discuss population trends around the world. How will societies change as birth rates fall in some regions and boom in others? And how will these changes affect the global economy? 


This podcast series was originally presented as “The 21st Century World: Big Challenges and Big Ideas,” an event series in celebration of CFR’s centennial. This episode is based on a live event that took place on September 14, 2021.


See the corresponding video here.


Dig Deeper


From Nicholas Eberstadt


Can America cope with demographic decline?,” American Enterprise Institute


Nicholas Eberstadt and Hans Groth, “Healthy Old Europe,” Foreign Affairs


The Demographic Future,” Foreign Affairs


From CFR 


John Campbell, “Africa at the Center of Twenty-First-Century Demographic Shift” 


John Campbell, “Nigeria’s Vice President Speaks Plainly on Population and Food” 


Maylin Meisenheimer, “China’s Baby Blues: When Better Policies for Women Backfire” 


Paul J. Angelo, Thomas J. Bollyky, Lauren A. Kahn, Sebastian Mallaby, Carl Minzner, and Laura D. Taylor-Kale, “Visualizing 2022: Trends to Watch


Japan’s Population Problem,” Why It Matters


The Future Is African,” Why It Matters


Read More


Demographic Destiny: What Will the World Be Like in 2050?,” Wall Street Journal


Muzaffar Chishti and Randy Capps, “Slowing U.S. Population Growth Could Prompt New Pressure for Immigration Reform,” Migration Policy Institute


Stephanie Hegarty, “How do you convince people to have babies?,” BBC


Watch and Listen

David Bloom: Demography is Destiny–Really?,” IMF Podcasts



Hello. I’m Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, and this is Nine Questions for the World, a special limited edition podcast series. 

In each episode, you’ll be hearing me in conversation with some of the best thinkers of our time, as we ask fundamental questions about the century to come.  

For those of you who don't know, The Council on Foreign Relations or CFR, is an independent, non-partisan membership organization. We are dedicated to informing the public about the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries. We're also a think tank, a publisher, and an educational institution. 

Today’s episode features a conversation that took place on Sept 14th, 2021. I spoke with Nicholas Eberstadt, Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute, and one of this country's leading experts on demography. Dr. Eberstadt and I discussed shifting demographic trends around the world, and the associated challenges of population decline that is prevalent in many major economies today. Even our own country, after all, is experiencing slowed population growth. All sorts of questions stem from this. How will societies change as birth rates fall? And more and more people, including your host here, count as aged. How will all of this affect the global economy? And what about countries that are experiencing rapid population growth?

It made for a fascinating conversation, and I predict you’ll enjoy it and like me learn from it. 

Richard HAASS: 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? What do demographers do when they get up in the morning after they've had their second cup of coffee?

Nicholas 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 capabilities, you've got a pretty broad canvas that you can be working on. In the good old days, we thought it was good enough to have a clicker and to figure out how many people there were, and male or female, their ages, where they were. We've got so much more information now about human beings about their health, their education, all sorts of different potentials that 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 is 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 birth rates reliably, which means that after about a generation you're guessing how many babies 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 projections or needless to say political forecasts. So, it's a good 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 that demographics is sort of this social science supertanker. Revolutions can happen, economic crisis can breakout in days or hours or weeks. Demographics may not tell you about 50 years, but it might tell you about 10 or 15 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 so much fun, but this gradual change is quite important. I'm not a demography as 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 give it a generation and it will change the world.

HAASS: Okay. 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 virtual travel, but let's start with the global, which is where we are? How did we get here? And where we're going? What's really interesting to me about where we're going is I'm surprised by the range in projections. Why don't you talk about where we are and where that fits in history.

EBERSTADT: Okay. 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 7.5 billion. Nothing like that ever happened before. Obviously, nothing on that scale could have happened. Nothing on that tempo, but 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 30 years in 1900 to over 70 years. This is our planetary average right now, over 70 years. So, obviously, nothing like that had ever happened before. This was a health explosion. All of this growth in human numbers was driven by health. If you have to have a population problem, explosion and 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, to child-bearing patterns which have continued indefinitely. Without immigration, it would lead to a peaking of population and then a decline as far as a demographer's eye could see. At this point in time, about half of the people in the world live in below-replacement-fertility societies. 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. This is where things get snaky in trying to guess how many people are going to inhabit the planet generations from now. I mean, it's a convention to do these projections out to 2100. I think that's a terrible, impossible conceit for the reasons I've just indicated.

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

EBERSTADT: Okay. Thanks. 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 Rorschach test for demographers and others. There are some authoritative projections that see the world's population peaking in the 2070. Some of them are as early as 2050. The main UN 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 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 seven and a half to eight, so, the range in 50 years might be somewhere between, I don't know, eight or eight and a half or maybe nine and a half plus or minus.

EBERSTADT: Well, some projections are over 10 billion. Others are as low as almost down to seven billion. I mean, that would be the low fertility Wittgenstein, but we're still talking about a whole lot of people no matter what.

HAASS: A whole lot of people, yeah. Your baseline of where we were 100 years ago plus or minus underscores that. We talked about, we’re living with pandemics, what else tends to drive population increase or lack of it? What does history suggest? You mentioned healthcare, that if there were more healthcare breakthroughs and lifespans went from 70 to 95. That would obviously be one. What else?

EBERSTADT: Well, so, of course, the future of longevity is a huge question. In the little cottage industry of gerontology, it's very hardly contested. There are some people who think we have more or less reached the limits in places like Hong Kong. Hong Kong is now the longest living population on the planet. Women, almost 90 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 longest living population." Sometimes it's the Netherlands. Sometimes it's Norway. Sometimes it's Japan. Now, it's 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 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% above replacement. So, all of the developmental desiderata that I was taught back in the stone age seem to be dropping and it looks a lot more as if we've got this unsatisfying circularity. The main driver of birth levels seems to be how many babies women want. That's king of good because it's human agency, but it begs the question of what changes the demand for family size. I'm not sure we really have a good answer for that.

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

EBERSTADT: Well, as a generalization, it's perfectly fine, but then there are all 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 around the end of the 1700s, but it didn't start in England, which was the most industrialized country. It started in France, which is illiterate and rural and poor, and not to find 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 100 baby girls no matter what ethnicity you are, no matter what country you ever lived in in history. In the past generation, we've knocked the biological jams out of the door in a couple of countries, and what I call global war against baby girls. There's mass female feticide in places like China, in places like India. I think we may see it in some other places in the world. 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. One 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 this is some brutal violence of various sorts against women, females live a bunch longer than men. So, 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: Well, one thing, by the way, you didn't mention was the importance of war historically as a determinant of demographic changes. I mean, obviously, a century ago, the Spanish flew, had an enormous impact with the World War I, I would think not just death from violence, but death from disease that often accompanies war. Is that still true? Or has war become in some ways so much less manpower intense, many interstate wars as opposed to civil wars, I'm curious whether war is still significant in your business or it's a rounding up.

EBERSTADT: Well, I guess 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. Part of that is because, as I mentioned, we've had this explosion of health.

HAASS: And COVID-19, I mean, in the 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 range. We'd probably triple that and say it's somewhere between 10 and 15 million people who have lost their lives. Would your answer be that even if that's true that in a world with seven and a half to eight 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 zeros, it doesn't alter the population contour all that much.

HAASS: Okay. We're going to talk a lot about countries that are slowing down or getting older or both, but 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, 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 who are on here?

EBERSTADT: 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% above replacement, which is to say that from one generation to the next, Sub-Saharan Africa is on track almost to double its population and 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, world workforce, the world economy, and 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. It's also been the slowest. 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 the other side of that coin though, if the rest of the world is getting older and its populations aren't rising, would that also make an argument for the rest of the world bringing in African people? 


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 to 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 two billion in let's say a little more than a generation and in some of these futuristic predictions that you can close your eyes and ignore at the moment four billion at the end of the century on some of these projections. It's not really clear 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, given nice matches there. I tend to think of immigration as a win-win proposition, but even 100 million or more emigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa over a generation isn't going to make that big a difference in growth like I've been describing to you.

HAASS: So, let's talk for a second about the world's most populous country now and not for long, China. China is what? 1.3, 1.4 billion? I don't have the latest.

EBERSTADT: They say 1.4.

HAASS: 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. 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 vowed critique 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. 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. It was a COVID year, but if we believe the Chinese authorities, they're saying that they got about 1.3 births per woman per lifetime in their population count. Maybe it's a little low, but in nearby countries that didn't have population control programs like that, in Taiwan, in Japan, in South Korea, 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. What this means for China itself is that it's working age population has been shrinking for not quite a decade, but going on a decade. The only population growth 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 will peak until the end of this decade, but 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’s “the so what” question there? Let's say China goes from, I don't know, 1.3 or 1.4 billion 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 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 40 years, we saw the most extraordinary record of economic productivity increase that humanity has ever witnessed. I mean, that's a pretty high benchmark to judge anybody against, but when I tried to do my little simplistic Gyro Gearloose modeling on human resources and population, what's that going to mean for China's future growth, I got numbers like 2.5% a year, 3.5% a year. Now, I mean, if the US were getting 2.5% or 3% a year, we'd say thank you Lord, but I think for Chinese planners, it's probably a terrifying prospect and they've got the same information that I have, I mean, a lot more detailed versions of it.

HAASS: That'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 significantly high levels of economic growth. If that is as you suggest unsustainable, then it suggests to me 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. 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 the universe answers.

EBERSTADT: So, here's a wildcard that comes in from demography. A growing proportion of young people in China are only children. The PLA is increasingly going to be filled with only children. In a Confusion ethos society, it is 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 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 for you. Let's talk about Japan, now the world's third largest economy. The population was what? 120 million plus or minus? Again, to what extent is it the future? Does 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: As you say, it's one of the world's very healthiest societies. Its numbers are falling. Its working age population is 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. 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 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's one wildcard in Japan, though, that I would point to, 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, let's say a woman 30 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 aging 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 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, which was going at a fast, Pakistan now is probably in the ballpark of 200 million plus or minus.

EBERSTADT: Getting up there. Getting up there now. 

HAASS: Russia seems to have stabilized, but is Russia also another laboratory? Because unlike Japan, by the way, one doesn't sense great public health, 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: Well, I mean, Russia, from a 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 in Crimea. Apart from that, their pronatal policy is somewhat problematic. Pronatal is in my own view, there are people that argue against me, but pronatal policies generally tend to be pretty expensive and could get pretty modest results.

HAASS: So, everybody had said when you talk about pronatal, is it basically giving social support, a safety net for children.

EBERSTADT: Baby bonus, baby bonus.

HAASS: Kinder Payments, like 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. Pronatal policies usually get a bump at first and then the bump 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 like 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 15 for young men, you'd put that level right on the least developed country list. It would be right near Haiti. The other thing about Russia's strange lack of human creativity is with this very smart population, Russia is producing about as many annual patents as the state of Alabama. I mean, Huntsville is a pretty impressive place, but Russia is a lot bigger than Huntsville. 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 non-expert asking you questions here, often reads that the United States has a relatively balanced demography unlike those with youth bulges or age bulges, we don't look like a pyramid or an upside down pyramid, a little bit more "balanced." Is that still true? And in particular, to what extent the potentially more limited approaches towards immigration, to what extent is that a threat or challenge, whatever word one wants to use, a question mark over the American demographic future?

EBERSTADT: Well, 15 years ago I wrote about what I called American Demographic Exceptionalism. For a decade and a half at least after the end of the cold war, US birth levels were about at replacement. That may not sound like much, but that was about half a baby more than in Europe and a bunch more than in Japan, some other parts of affluent East Asia. Since the crash of 2008, Americas 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. 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 a run of migration of about net a million a year for decades. Some of it is even legal. 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 the immigrant story in Europe is more successful than some people say, but 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 right after World War I 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: Let's maybe go to a quick lightning round here. You've put 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 positive model?

EBERSTADT: I would say that you can 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 considered immigration policies, good education and health, and they seem to be pretty flexible. There's another fascinating experiment going on, which is Israel. Israel is a very different sort of experiment. I mean, it's the Zionist experiment, but there you've got a country where the fertility level has bene increasing, not decreasing since the 1990s. The fertility level of the Jewish population has been increasing fairly substantially. It isn't all due to the ultra orthodox. There's something else going on that we haven't really, 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: Okay. One of the problems, for a long time people would point say to the countries of South Asia, particularly India, some to Pakistan, some would point to countries in the Middle East like Egypt, which must be somewhere around the 100 million level, but now it's going up over, the number we used to use when I was in the government was a million people over eight months and very concentrated given the water distribution issue. When you look at the actual or potential problem slash crisis countries, what's on your list?

EBERSTADT: Well, 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 the kind of the listing of what’s sometimes called fragile states, because in most of the fragile states you've got low income and low wealth. So, you've got not much resources that you can draw upon. You've got fast social change as measured in terms of population, and you've got very limited capacities of governments to cope. So, Paul Collier talks about the bottom billion. That may not be a perfect way of framing it, but 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 expression I sometimes come across is, is two Indias. You got part of the country which is more modernized, urbanized, and the like, and then you've got this enormous rural poor. 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 is a fascinating case exactly as you say. In terms of population structure, there are definitely two different Indias. There's an India around the Gandhiatic plane and there's an India in the south. One of them is a baby factory and the other is a jobs factory and 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. You and I, all the people we know from India are 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. 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. 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 masterclass. So, thank you, my friend. It's been great. 

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

Thank you for joining us. I hope you enjoyed the conversation.

If you’d like to learn more please visit where you can find a transcript as well as additional resources on this topic. Have a question or some feedback? Send us an email at [email protected]

Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your audio. 

And with that I ask that you stay informed and stay safe.


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By all accounts, China is sure to have an outsized impact on the world over the next 100 years. Richard Haass and Elizabeth Perry, director of the Harvard-Yenching I...

By all accounts, China is sure to have an outsized impact on the world over the next 100 years. Richard Haass and Elizabeth Perry, director of the Harvard-Yenching I...

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Richard Haass and Minouche Shafik, director of the London School of Economics, assess the future of the labor market and examine how to provide workers with the skil...

Richard Haass and Minouche Shafik, director of the London School of Economics, assess the future of the labor market and examine how to provide workers with the skil...

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Richard Haass and Stanford University Professor Fei-Fei Li discuss how to contend with technologies that can do both good and harm.

Richard Haass and Stanford University Professor Fei-Fei Li discuss how to contend with technologies that can do both good and harm.

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Richard Haass and Margaret MacMillan, one of the world’s foremost historians, discuss how best to apply history to better understand current global challenges, inclu...

Richard Haass and Margaret MacMillan, one of the world’s foremost historians, discuss how best to apply history to better understand current global challenges, inclu...

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Richard Haass and Michelle McMurry-Heath, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Institute, discuss the future of biotechnology and its potential impact o...

Richard Haass and Michelle McMurry-Heath, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Institute, discuss the future of biotechnology and its potential impact o...

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The world is changing, and its future is forming around high-stakes challenges such as climate change and shifting geopolitical power. In this limited series, Counci...

The world is changing, and its future is forming around high-stakes challenges such as climate change and shifting geopolitical power. In this limited series, Counci...

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