Issue #69

Last Update October 31, 2010

Business and Technology Population and Jobs by Gerry Krownstein September 2, 2008   We seem to be afraid of everything at once. In so many areas of discourse, we fear both the thing and its opposite. Take world population , for example. Currently at 6 billion, and projected to hit 9 billion by 2050, we understand the strain that an ever-growing population places on food, living space, raw materials, water and jobs. At the same time, we bemoan the aging of our population, and the strain that a retiree nation will pace on the much smaller group of wage-earners for support and health care. In Europe, Germany and other countries worry about losing their national character as they attract ever-larger numbers of immigrants to do the jobs that a shrinking native working population can no longer fill.  On the one hand, we have too many people, while on the other we have too few. How is this conundrum to be resolved?

The first thing to realize is that a shrinking population is a really good thing: it relieves the strain on the environment, reduces unemployment, and divides the true wealth of the world among fewer people, making each person richer. The problem comes about because we haven't yet made the necessary investments to take advantage of this situation, nor have we done the requisite thinking to restructure the bases of distribution of the world's goods and services. Currently, the assumption is that, except for the wealthy few whose economic power comes from a return on capital, and the very poor, whose economic resource is government transfer payments,   access to goods and services is earned by work, and the salaries, tips and other payments associated with work. An associated assumption is that to produce large amounts of goods and services, large amounts of work, performed by numerous workers, is needed. Neither of these assumptions is necessarily true, and such a world-view stands in the way of benefiting from a stable or shrinking population.

The current status of robotics, automation and computerization is such that, with a little imagination and a lot of investment, the current volume of goods and services could be produced with a fraction of the workers currently needed to do so. Unfortunately, throwing many people out of work would be a disaster for those thus unemployed. As the population shrinks, however, automation of the means of production could keep output stable without raising unemployment. With more wealth being produced by fewer people, it would not be inflationary to increase individual incomes proportionately.

At the same time, demand for certain resources, goods and services would decrease as the population decreases. Critical resources such as energy, water and food would be relieved of the current, ever-increasing pressure that promises scarcity in the near future. Areas of the world currently being pressed into service for food production and housing could revert to a state of nature,  and ecologies would have more flexibility to cope with the pressures of global warming, whether man-made or as part of the glacial-interglacial climate cycle of the last 100,000 years.

Properly managed, population shrinkage would usher in a golden age and remove us from the disastrous fantasy of permanent growth, without producing a stultifying, static world.

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