Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Shape of the Future: No More Population Pyramid

As a student of child labor and child welfare programs, I have long thought that most of us underestimate the dramatic changes associated with ending child labor. Since most of us in the U.S. grew up in a country that effectively banned child labor, we think it is normal that children go to school, play, and do their homework. It is tough to realize that this now ordinary pattern really wasn't the rule in the U.S. until the Progressive Era. In poor regions of the world like Africa and South America, this pattern has still not completely taken hold.

One of the most interesting articles that help illustrate the breathtaking changes caused by child labor laws crossed my desk this week. John Parker, the environmental editor of one of my favorite magazines, The Economist, wrote  "The World Reshaped: The End of the Population Pyramid," back in November 2014. The most interesting part of this article, for me, is how the famous population pyramid is predicted to change over the next half century. See, below: 

In Parker's view, the declining fertility rate is largely responsible for the changes we see in the population pyramid between 1970 and 2015. The column shape of the pyramid that scholars anticipate for 2060 is largely the result of improved longevity in his view. 

I have been fascinated with this chart all week. I think that Parker is misinterpreting this information because, like most social scientists, he does not appreciate the impact of child labor laws on fertility, increased intellectual capital, and wealth accumulation. In the first place, child labor laws are unlikely to change and thus we will never see increases in fertility rates again. (Unless, of course, the Muslims take over completely and drag us into their dysfunctional world view.) In fact, I would predict that the fertility rate will eventually decrease everywhere as child labor laws are enacted and fully enforced. If parents cannot benefit from their children's labor, then we are taking away what has traditionally been one of the most important reasons to have children in the first place. 

I do, of course, anticipate that improvements in medicine will result in longer life spans. It makes sense to me that the column will continue to get higher for that reason. Nevertheless, I also expect that the base of the column -- the number of children in the world -- will continue to decrease until major (even dramatic) efforts are made to encourage increased fertility rates. 

I am still thinking through the implications of this new column shaped population pyramid. At the very least, it give us a more accurate image of what the world will look like for many generations to come. Those of us alive today will be among the first to think through the predictable trials and tribulations of this brave new world. For more of my thoughts on child labor and child welfare please see my Pathway to Prosperity blog site.

John C. Drew, Ph.D. is an award-winning political scientist.

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