Notes from authors[1]

Demographic Collapse: An Overlooked Cause Area

Birth rates are falling much faster than many dominant societal narratives imply. This year, the global fertility rate for Latin America and the Caribbean fell below replacement rate (2.1 babies per woman), India will achieve that status next year, and China is expected to be at half their current population within 45 years.

Meanwhile, many countries, ethnicities, and cultures are more advanced on the collapse timeline. 115 countries have a birth rate below replacement rate, containing about half the world's population. South Korea is predicted to hit a birth rate of 0.7 babies per woman within the next two years. A 0.7 birth rate means that, for every 100 Koreans there will be 4.3 great grand kids (35 kids, 12.25 grandkids)—and that’s assuming birth rates don’t continue to decline. (Projecting any current trend infinitely into the future will make things look like a crisis; we do that here to give a context as to what a 0.7 birth rate actually means if it is stable. People often contextualize population decline as a linear problem when it is an exponential problem.)

The above map shows the current state of affairs. Orange countries are those already below, or almost below, replacement rate. Africa’s extremely high birthrates conceal the fact that almost half the global population lives in countries below replacement rates. I was recently talking with a researcher in the space (Reuben Abraham) who told me that no one is updating their models (specifically the UN, but also organizations like climate change groups) and that things are much worse than most public data sources suggest (he also thinks the problem is totally unsolvable). This trend is so dominant in developed countries that even Mormons may be about to drop below replacement rate—if they have not already.

Note: We have a more up to date iteration of this document here.

Overview 

For more information about the decline in fertility, read:

Relevance to the Effective Altruist Community

  1. The majority of EA movements and organizations are based in developed countries that will be badly hit by the results of these skewed demographics; any threat to the general stability of those countries has the second-order effect of making it harder to organize from those countries. The economic systems of virtually all developed countries are predicated on an assumption of constant growth, which means that a decline in the working population has a high probability of leading to system-level collapse. For information on the social and economic systems that are in danger, go to The Inevitable Economic Effects, Systems Collapse Risks, and Detroit as a Model for Collapse.
  2. The EA community has thus far not been including birth rates in its yearly statistical analysis. If it turns out that the sociological profile that leads people to be amenable to EA ideas also dramatically lowers birth rates, that profile will not exist in future human populations. If EA is a “sterilizing meme,” the EA community is less likely to make a long-term impact. For more information read: Risk of a Future Without Effective Altruism.
  3. We are on the verge of a “cultural mass extinction.” This will dramatically increase the homogeneity of our species and as such lower the prevalence of orthanganal perspectives that could generate solutions to social problems which are not apparent to surviving cultures. In addition, if current birth rates are indicative of future trends, increases in homogeneity will favor those cultures most currently actively hostile to EA ideals. We explore this below under: Risk of Cultural Mass Extinction.
  4. Violence against women and girls is likely to surge as birth rates continue to decline as the few cultures with high birthrates also feature very traditional views of gender roles. We briefly touch on this under: Risk of Increased Domestic Violence.

Potential Solutions

Finally, this post will explore a few potential solutions to the problem. Population and fertility collapse is a unique issue in the EA community in that it is not a tragedy of the commons issue and thus highly tractable. We go into potential solutions in the Solutions & Tractability section.

Specifically, we explore:

The Fertility Decline

Why is This Happening?

Decreased Utility from Children

Historically, every additional kid a family added increased that family’s wealth and quality of life—the kid either represented a near-future source of income or set of hands on the local farm. This began to change with the rise of large-scale wage labor in some parts of the world at the turn of the 1900s, but this change was still largely contained as said wage labor was only available to males.

When wage labor became widely available to both males and females around the 1970s—just as the birth control pill and more advanced forms of birth control became more widely adopted—birth rates began to plummet in developed countries (the role of female wage labor in this process is why birth rates have been more robust across countries and cultures featuring less egalitarian views toward gender). When every kid added to a family unit decreases the wealth and quality of life of said family unit, people begin to need exogenous motivators (like religion) to justify large families.

Optimization for Happiness & Memetic Shifts

Do kids really decrease happiness? While there is some nuance to this question, many studies suggest that having kids can at least temporarily lower factors like subjective well being and marital satisfaction, especially when parents lack ample childcare support (though other studies suggest that having kids brings more meaning to parents’ lives and that parents—especially fathers—experience far more joy than misery from kids). Even if having kids objectively does not lower happiness, merely the perception that becoming a parent—or having more than two kids—lowers quality of life will drive fewer people to reproduce above repopulation rate.

Moreover, any society with a large childless population must have an equal portion of the population that has at least four kids if its overall population is to remain stable (i.e. if a third of a group decides to have no kids and a third has two, then the final third has to have more than four kids to keep the population stable). While it could be argued that having one or two kids will increase the quality of life of some individuals, it becomes difficult to justify each additional kid beyond the second from a purely hedonic perspective.

In addition to the above trends, historically most families have operated under “fitness-increasing memes:” Memes that partially spread by increasing the birth rate of those who adopt them. Most fitness-increasing memes take the form of religions. These memes (typically religions) act as an exogenous motivator to increase birth rate, but are currently declining. We explore this phenomenon in greater depth in the section titled: Risk of a Future Without Effective Altruism.

Dropping Fertility

Quickly falling fertility rates present an additional—yet little-understood—factor contributing to demographic collapse. This can be seen in a rapid decrease in both male testosterone and sperm production/motility. A study from 2007 showed testosterone decreasing by 22% when comparing 1985-1987 levels and a study from 2021 found a roughly 25% decrease between 1999 and 2016. In addition it has been found that male fertility has generally decreased by about 10% over the past 16 years.

There is some debate about what is causing this, but environmental pollutants like phthalates, herbicides, air pollution, radiation from cellphones/laptops, cadmium, and general endocrine disrupters are the most likely culprits (for more, see the Wikipedia article on this trend). Infertility is rising so quickly that rates of assisted reproductive technology are rising by 5% to 10% per year! (Note: This problem is not unique to the male side of the equation, just better studied there.)

Broken Relationship Markets

A final factor contributing to demographic collapse—of which we have not even begun to see an impact—involves broken partner-finding markets. This is a big focus of our books The Pragmatist’s Guide to Relationships and The Pragmatist’s Guide to Sexuality so I won’t go too deep into the topic here, but the difficulty in the search for both sexual and romantic partners has increased dramaclly since the popularity of the Tinder model dating app took hold and this can be seen in things like falling sex rates.

To put it succinctly, the swipe model of partner sorting forces all individuals participating in that market to compete along a single metric (attractiveness). People don’t like to choose long-term partners who are below average, but historically people were able to compete along multiple metrics (attractiveness, position in local social hierarchy, intelligence, creativity, etc.) meaning that very few would be below average on all metrics and thus appealed to at least some pool of potential partners.
 

Can Life Extension Fix This?

Extended lifespans could potentially offset some of the threat of demographic collapse… if lifespans were actually increasing. In the USA, lifespans have actually been contracting over the last half decade or so and before that they were only increasing linearly (here is Europe so you don’t get your hopes up).

Even if life extension technology does begin to roll out, any model I can conjure for its use based on current economic systems will limit access to the top fraction of a percent of the population socioeconomically speaking and thus be irrelevant in combating the above trend.
 

The Economics of Demographic Collapse

In the following sections we will explore the economic impacts of demographic collapse.
 

Systems Collapse Risks

Our entire economic system runs on the assumption of aggregate growth. The economy = productivity per worker * number of workers, both of which have historically gone up.

However, while productivity per person increases linearly, most of the developed world is about to see their populations decrease at exponential rates (an inevitability when looking at something like the EU’s current and falling 1.5 fertility rate). When this happens, the stock market, on average, will begin to shrink and when that happens people will stop putting their money there. Civilizationaly, we will stop investing in the future.

Worse, nearly every country, every city, and every municipality has been designed with an assumption of constant growth, which has led them to essentially take on tons of leverage—not just in the form of debt, but in the form of other fixed expenses tied to past delivered goods like pensions and social security programs. Every entrepreneur here knows what this means: When things are growing, you multiply on that abundance, but when things shrink, life starts to suck, big time.

For those who haven't worked with leverage: Imagine a city that directs 50% of its money to pensions, social-security-like programs, and debt payments (this is where Detroit was when it went bankrupt). This is fine if the population grows by half, as that 50% of the budget becomes 33% and is quite manageable. But what if the tax base shrinks? If the city's population and tax base shrinks by just 30%, its usable money decreases by 60%, not 30%.

If a city’s tax base were to shrink by 40% (consider in NYC, just the wealthiest 38,700, 0.5% of the city's population, pay 42.5% of taxes), the usable portion of that city’s budget would drop to 10%.

The larger point here is that it’s easy to notice that 7.2% of the budget goes to paying off debt in NYC without noticing that 33% of payroll expenses are paying off already accrued pensions. In the past this has not been a problem because cities were always growing—now it is.

As cities try to operate on smaller portions of their budgets, they will become less attractive places to live, causing even more wealthy people (who pay the lion’s share of cities’ taxes) to leave them. An exodus of wealthy taxpayers will trigger a snowball of worsening conditions for those economically trapped in cities (this is largely what happened in Detroit, as we discuss here.

Let’s ignore the financial problems cities will have. How do you keep the lights on in a city like Seoul when your population is decreasing that fast (4.3 great grandkids for every 100 Koreans)? How, at a basic level, do you keep infrastructure functional? Take immigrants? From where? I suppose developed countries could start to mass import people from Sub Saharan Africa (until they, too, fall below replacement rate) to support their mostly white and Asian, non-working, geriatric populations. That said, I feel like we have learned that importing people from Africa with the explicit purpose of supporting non-working white people is unethical.

Surely at least the suburbs will be safe, right? If the Strong Towns narrative is correct, most suburbs were built on an economic model in which they utilized developers, not tax dollars, to put down roads, electrical systems, and sewer systems—most of which will soon need to be replaced or retrofitted, as they were built during the time of suburban expansion. The Strong Towns argument holds that suburbs don’t generate enough tax revenue to maintain these systems themselves. Basically, suburbs outsourced a huge portion of their spending to developers (who will only shoulder infrastructure costs once) and aren’t equipped to shoulder that financial burden themselves. (This youtube video does a good job covering this topic.)

In a world in which real estate is losing value, the stock market is losing value, and venture capital funds aren’t chasing after growing markets and IPOs, where do people put their money? This is a really interesting thought experiment. I don’t have any solid answers yet but it would seem like being somehow financially invested in breeding populations of humans would be the only safe investment. This could either mean good things—investing in one's community—or bad things like slavery 2.0 (I expect a bit of each will play out throughout the world).
 

Detroit as a Model for Collapse

(Note: Because the demographic collapse that took place in Detroit was driven by industrial collapse rather than a paucity of new children being born, the headwinds that caused it are fundamentally different from the headwinds that will cause population or birth rate based demographic collapse. Detroit can nevertheless serve as a case study demonstrating what a rapid decline in both population and tax revenue looks like in a developed nation’s city.)

When we talk about “systems collapse” resulting from a rapid decrease in population, we are not speaking in hypotheticals. We have seen this happen before and thus have both a fairly good model of (1) what many post-demographic-collapse cities may look like and (2) the mechanisms that will cause them to break. Specifically, Detroit lost around 600,000 residents between 1950 and 1980, leading to a 60% population decline from the 1950s.

This population exodus triggered Detroit’s bankruptcy. At the time of bankruptcy, half of the city’s $18 billion debt was for worker-related liabilities, including retiree pensions and healthcare—aka for people who were no longer contributing to the city's daily operations. This indicates that the point at which cities first break in a rapid population collapse scenario is where they are “leveraged” through deferred portions of salaries, benefits, etc. for city service workers that were hired when the city’s population was much higher.

Unused infrastructure presents Detroit’s next point of system failure. When thinking about a city’s population halving, many imagine lots of cheap real estate and extra room to live. This is not what emerges in practice. As anyone who owns a house knows, basic infrastructure and buildings are expensive and labor-intensive to maintain on a year-to-year basis. If the property value is decreasing (which it is if population is decreasing), then there is less motivation to continue to make these investments and property maintenance—and therefore quality—plummets (if your house might literally sell for $1, why improve it?).

At scale, this looks like urban blight, with decaying buildings as far as you can see. On top of that, the infrastructure that used to feed these decaying buildings (the city’s power grid, streets, sewage system, etc.) are all still being maintained by the city, while the tax revenue associated with the properties is no longer coming in, further straining the system. The above two factors motivated Detroit's plan to bulldoze around a fifth of the city.

Sometimes when I talk to someone about Korea's current birth rates leading to 4.3 great grand kids for every 100 current Koreans. They start to imagine how cool it would be to have all that infrastructure for so few people. They imagine people living in giant apartments and extremely cheap houses. Here is a far more accurate visualization of what depopulation combined with rapidly declining house prices actually looks like in urban environments:

 

The following pictures come from this interactive article from Strong Towns.

2009 Hazelridge Street

2019 Hazelridge Street

2009 Luce Avenue and Sparling Street

2019 Luce Avenue and Sparling Street

Finally, the way cities are forced to react to all this creates a snowball effect that exacerbates the problem. Specifically, in response to all its problems, Detroit had to raise taxes, causing the city to charge the highest property taxes as of 2014.

What’s more, urban flight during systems collapse is usually initiated by the wealthiest, who tend towards the more classically liberal side of the political spectrum, leading to regulations getting stricter. In the case of Detroit, this dynamic produced an “economic freedom” ranking 345th out of 384 metros.
 

How AI May Offer a Deus Ex Machina

Perhaps the dire scenarios described above will not come to pass thanks to a literal Deus ex machina.

Remember the [A (number of people) * B (productivity per person) = economy] equiasion?

Throughout history, we have only been able to modify B with technology, but AI allows us to also modify A—and you don’t even need sapient AI.

What percent of artists could be replaced with DALL-E-2 or Imagen? How many other jobs could be replaced with GPT-4? You don’t need to model a whole human to replace them as an economic unit—you just need the part of them that contributes economically. (hath suggests this CGP Grey video on the subject)

Note from Benjamin Hoffman: Good opportunity to identify a Need For Further Research: counting how many people are actually doing what, where automation looks like it can work, where it can't in the near term so demand should increase.

More generally, if we don’t solve the AI alignment problem, demographic collapse will not matter. However, if we do solve the problem and live in a post-AGI future it would be irresponsible to not note just how much AGI could be a wild card in potential solutions to problems that arise from demographic collapse.
 

Does Addressing Economic Failures Solve Demographic Collapse?

Are low birth rates a product of people not having enough money to have kids? Are lower birth rates triggered by a rising cost of living and increased cost of housing?

Both within and between countries we see clearly that lower rates of income actually correlate with increased fertility. This effect can even be seen within a population. For example, in the years after the revolutions of 1989 in Russia, people who were more affected by labor market crises seemed to have a higher probability of having another child than those who were less affected.

Source: St Louis Fed

The Wikipedia page this came from. 

There is, nevertheless, some evidence to the contrary:

Note: The above points were pulled from this Wikipedia entry.

Upon looking at the collective evidence, it appears that economic interventions are unlikely to fix the fertility crisis. While there is some evidence suggesting that at the higher end of economic wealth, birth rate starts to rise again, and in some specific scenarios, worse economic conditions can decrease birth rates overall, the vast majority of the evidence suggests a correlation between lower wealth and higher birth rates in most cases.
 

Risk of Exacerbated Climate Change Problems

Global warming is likely exacerbating demographic collapse. Studies have shown hotter temperatures decrease birth rates.

At the superficial level, lower population levels seem to be better for the environment. Unfortunately, if population declines fast enough to lead to systems collapse and the world begins to deglobalize, many regions may have to revert to “dirtier” coal power, leading to what might be a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, deglobalization would also mean products travel shorter distances to reach their consumers, so in that sense we would expect a better environmental outcome.

There are so many unknowns here, any model would be pure speculation. Our point is that decreasing birth rates are not necessarily strictly good for the environment. For more information on the debate about globalization's effect on the environment see this article. Also consider reading Scott Alexander’s argument as to why choosing to not have kids isn’t an optimal way to fight climate change.
 

Genopolitical Risks & Cultural Mass Extinction

The following sections focus on the environmental, demographic, and cultural risks of demographic collapse.
 

Risk of a Future Without Effective Altruism

Cultures are a very unique form of meme. While within a generation, cultures spread by compelling those who are infected with them to infect others. Integenerationaly, this is almost never the case. Instead, historically cultures have primarily grown by positively modifying the fitness of their members (the number of surviving kids they have). This is a problem for communities like effective altruism, whose internal culture has a strong negative impact on fitness. In fact, it does not appear that the EA community even asks about birthrate in its annual survey. My anecdotal experience both living among EAs and in Korea would put the community at a similar or slightly lower birth rate of (generously) ~0.7.

Why does almost every successful (large and long-lived) traditional culture in the world have homophobic undertones? Cultures can be thought of as evolutionary units. Cultures that accept gay people on average have lower birth rates and are ultimately outnumbered by neighboring homophobic cultures. We nevertheless stand at a unique point in history at which gay acceptance has risen. Why? Because the internet, widespread education, easy travel, and television empowered memes that compete on the basis of logic, philosophy, prosociality, and human decency. The culture produced by effective altruism is one of those memes. However, this unique moment in history has introduced never-before-seen selective pressures on our species that could push us back to being a less inclusive society.

In his essay touching on the Quiverfull movement, Scott Alexander suggests that while these ultra religious families who often have ten plus kids could theoretically take over the country in a few generations, they are not a threat because many kids defect (80%, he estimates)—Alexander’s takeaway being the effective altruism movement is outcompeting Quiverfull families, memetically speaking.

Genopolitics tells a different story. What is really happening is that individuals from those families with sociological profiles amenable to movements like effective altruism, progressivism, or broad Western Civilisational values are being selected out of the gene pool. As evolution does its work, every subsequent generation of the Quiverfull movement will do better and better at maintaining cultural fidelity. Any virulent meme with a negative impact on fitness will genetically select against sociological profiles that would have adopted it in future generations. (With regard to this subject, Benjamin Hoffman suggests this article.)

Humans have not had to evolve resistance to basic logic, regard for people outside of your immediate tribe, or openness toward other cultures before because, historically speaking, these things were not associated with negative impacts to individual fitness. When most people lived in the corporate family model, additional kids meant a better life because it meant more hands for the farm. Until very recently, virulent memes were also somewhat contained by minimal mediums of transition. Now, to have a good reason to breed above replacement rate, most humans need some exogenous motivator and the few groups that have been able to stay well above replacement rate within developed societies have been able to do so using cultural motivators (usually some form of religious extremism is at play).

For those not familiar with genopolitics: It is the study of how a person's genes affect their political affiliation. The standard number given from the Minnesota Twin study is that around 40% of a person's political affiliation is genetically influenced. As the field has evolved to look at other aspects of people's sociological profiles, genetic correlates have been found across them, ranging from prosociality to religiosity. If you want to read some metastudies, here are two and here is a Wikipedia entry on the subject. For research specifically on genetic variants tied to altruistic behavior, see this study. For research on prosocial behavior this study suggests it is between 30% and 50% genetic. While this does not mean much at the individual level, strong selective pressures playing out at a population level will absolutely alter humanity’s overall character.

Our non-profit, Pronatalist.org, paid Mohammed Ali Alvi, a researcher at Mayo Clinic, to go over data collected by Spencer Greenberg’s Clearer Thinking to get a better picture of what the future sociological and cultural profile of America might look like. You can go over the data here. (We had been planning to publish it but did not have the funds.)

To summarize: Our hypothesis was wrong. We assumed that only a propensity towards religious extremism would be associated with a high birth rate (meaning we theorized that while the overall “tone” of humanity would change and become more religiously extreme, that need not be such a bad thing as religious extremism has led to positive outcomes).

Contrary to our hypothesis, the data suggests that we should expect future generations of Americans to hail from cultures that feature genetic correlates associated with being:

  1. Much more tribalistic (hesitant to interact with outsiders, such as different ethnic and religious groups)
  2. More drawn to strictly hierarchical power structures
  3. More dogmatic

In other words, the data suggest that we are not headed toward an Idiocracy, but rather toward an ISIS-ocracy.

Any sociological profile that renders individuals susceptible to memes that decrease birth rates—and effective altruist culture falls in this category—is essentially a terminal genetic condition. This condition puts a ticking clock on the effective altruist community’s ability to solve problems they believe to be important (unless they can get their birthrates up). If our research is valid, the world will become more and more hostile toward communities like effective altruists with each new generation.
 

Risk of Cultural Mass Extinction

Eventually the cultures and sociological profiles that cannot effectively motivate individuals to breed above repopulation rate will die off. After they do, we will see another explosion in the human population. The true tragedy will come from the homogeneity of this population explosion. We suspect many EAs would agree that a more homogenous society is one with fewer orthogonal thought processes and thus one more susceptible to threats.

If Western Society were an ecosystem, someone just dumped a tankard of pesticide in the groundwater. Eventually, plants that were resistant to the pesticide will grow, thrive, and speciate—but in the short term, this ecosystem will be very fragile.

As such, we would like to build an “endangered list” of cultures and groups with uniquely low birthrates. Many of these groups are non-obvious as they are a subpopulation in other regions (like the Parsi, which has a population of around 50,000 and a birth rate 0.89). Off the top of our heads, groups that would make this list include: Koreans, Japanese, Jains, Parasee, Emirates, Tanka, Macanese, Taiwanies, and Italians, but this list is skewed by my work in Korea, which is likely causing me to over emphasize Asian groups.
 

Risk of Increased Domestic Violence

One of the most obvious outcomes of not doing anything about birth rates will be the almost inevitable dramatic increase in domestic violence and general violence against women. While we do not have data on hard numbers, uniquely high birthrates are correlated with non-egalitarian gender role interpretations in communities (in general, more egalitarian views on gender lower birth rates), and non-egalitarian gender role interpretations in turn correlate with domestic violence. A trend of birth rate being increased by domestic violence has actually been observed—even in non-westernized cultures (specifically the Tsimane forager-horticulturalists of Bolivia).

We won’t go particularly deep on this topic out of fear of stereotyping specific cultures. Suffice to say, if we cannot find a way to encourage a higher birth rate in cultures and sociological profiles that value egalitarian treatment of women, the future of humanity will likely include much more domestic violence than the present.

There are a bunch of risks of this type tied to demographic collapse, including gay rights, female educational attainment, climate change activism, etc. Many prosocial beliefs negatively correlate with birth rate. We chose this one because the cause area guide to violence against women and girls inspired us to create this cause area guide on demographic collapse.
 

Solutions & Tractability

The rapid decline in fertility is a unique problem in that it is not a tragedy of the commons issue like many other causes at its scale, making it potentially the most tractable of all EA causes. If one family with a strong effective altruist culture had eight children a generation and passed down their culture—and high birth rate—for just eleven generations, their descendents would outnumber the entire human population today. Should just one billionaire perfect artificial womb technology and attempt to rebuild a society, imparting those born from the effort with a sense of responsibility and the option to dedicate some portion of their income to keeping the initiative going, the whole situation would be fixed. Similarly, if cultural norms change and countries start to take responsibility for the creation of their own populations, the problem goes away.

The problem with the “solutions” to the fertility crisis is that the straightforward ones, such as those explored above, could lead to monstrous scenarios and cultural/ethnic homogeneity. This problem does not take much money or many families to solve—but it does need some people to completely dedicate themselves to it.

In contrast, most “solutions” to the fertility problem, if led by the effective altruist community, would intrinsically increase the size of the EA community, potentially support ongoing flourishing of diversity among humans, and ensure that EA values pass down to future generations (ensuring ongoing investment in the various non-population-related problems the community seeks to solve). It is for this reason that we (Malcolm and Simone) have dedicated most of our adult lives to working on this problem in one way or another.
 

Government Intervention

Estimated Probability of Success: Low

Countries are already instituting pro-natalist policies and that number is likely to increase as demographic collapse progresses (and awareness of its consequences increases).

There is not much compelling evidence suggesting that government policy can meaningfully address birthrates.

Both Poland and Hungary recently adopted aggressive pronatalist policies. It is generally agreed the Hungary one did not work and that either the Polish one did not work or if it did it only led to a 6% increase in births.

For a list of studies on pronatalist policies and their effect sizes, see this google doc (note: there is debate about whether these policies show large effect sizes).

The only policy intervention I am aware of that had a fairly undebated heavy effect on birth rate involved the Soviet Union taxing individuals without kids—a solution that is politically unrealistic in governments with elected leaders.

What about lowering the cost of child care? Does that help at all? This is a fairly well studied intervention. Evidence suggests that cheap child care does increase fertility rates, but not nearly enough for it to be a “solution.”

In general, interventions like free child care and cash payouts for having kids don’t seem to have the level of impact needed to stave off demographic collapse. Governments need to modify fertility rates up by at least 25% over the long term for that to be the case. We created Pronatalist.org and the associated non-profit to try to bring attention to the wider issue in policy circles, but when we realized there were probably not feasible policy answers, we dropped our emphasis on legislation and shifted our focus to higher-leverage interventions.
 

Fertility Treatment Research

*Estimated Probability of Success: Low *

The measurable drops in biological fertility outlined above absolutely contribute to demographic collapse, meaning that populations would enjoy marginal increases in birth rates if this problem was addressed.

Nevertheless, culture plays a far larger role in falling birth rates than reduced fertility, and scientists already have non-trivial funding supporting research to address this problem (there is an active, functional market for improving biological fertility).

Finally, there is an argument to be made that the world would be better off with more polygenic risk score screening of embryos, which intrinsically is easier to do in a world where more people are doing IVF.
 

Artificial Womb Research and Development

Estimated Probability of Success: High (With a probability of negative outcomes)

Artificial wombs, if developed, would dramatically change both society and gender roles, potentially leading to a cascade of positive developments (in that they would make the process of gestation and childbirth truly egalitarian). Moreover, artificial wombs would dramatically increase the number of kids motivated families (like ours) could raise (as the marginal cost of raising a child is fairly low above the fifth kid).

Artificial wombs can dramatically reduce (though not remove) the ethical considerations around “government-created kids.” Governments already take over a lot of the responsibility for child rearing, with most developed countries offering government-sponsored child care in the form of school from (roughly) ages five to 18.  When the cold, hard reality of imminent demographic collapse begins to take hold in semi-ethno states with a vested interest in a specific, low-birth-rate ethnic group—like South Korea, Japan, and the UAE—they may seriously explore this path. Nations such as China may attempt this as well, though they may not wait for the technology to begin creating state-sponsored kids (and utilize humans instead), making it all the more meaningful if this technology is developed quickly.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if we started seeing some companies or investors begin to produce and train children en masse when humans start to become more valuable due to their scarcity.

At present, the core problem that needs to be overcome involves developing a functional artificial human placenta. While there are occasional bursts in the research, it seems to occasionally undergo almost full decades with no advancement due to very low funding. If the effective altruist community just got the ball rolling on what looked to be a real solution, state-level stakeholders (like the South Korean, Japanese, and UAE governments) would likely be willing to see the initial momentum through. (For a good overview of the field, check out the Wikipedia article.)
 

More Efficient Matchmaking

Estimated Probability of Success: Medium-Low

As mentioned above, the recent and profound shift in—and failure of—dating markets will exacerbate demographic collapse. Even just recreating old platforms that allowed for quick multi-modal searches of large populations, like OkCupid used to, would have a measurable impact on marriage rates.

There is minimal utility in starting an entirely new dating marketplace when the positive effect will be small and apparently people in the community have already made an attempt. That said, if there are individuals in the community who are dedicated to having large families and have not found a partner/donor yet, the uniqueness of that desire might make it easy for us to custom match them with other unique cases.
 

Cultural Innovation

Estimated Probability of Success: High (With a probability of negative outcomes)

If children no longer yield instrumental utility to parents (e.g. additional farmhands) and many doubt that having more or any kids will make them happier—even when affordable childcare is pervasive—then some exogenous factor must come into play to motivate people to have children above replacement rate.

Historically, religion played this role, either by celebrating the act of having and raising kids and/or by discouraging, or outright banning, various forms of birth control (not to mention relationship configurations that haven’t historically produced kids—e.g. Gay marriage). It is nevertheless entirely possible to intentionally craft and adopt secular cultural attitudes that provide exogenous reasons to reproduce beyond replacement rate.

There are three fairly obvious ways to use cultural innovation as a tool to address demographic collapse:

  1. Create intentional communities with family-friendly culture.
  2. Encourage families to have lots of children and create a sustainable family culture (that transcends generations) encouraging high fertility rates (and presumably effective altruist values).
  3. Create novel educational systems that are more affordable and effective.
     

Community Interventions Fighting Demographic Collapse

While governmental interventions making childcare more affordable do not appear to slow or stop demographic collapse in isolation (see the above section on government intervention), offering affordable childcare within a culture that also celebrates having more than two kids and supports a broad range of family formats could plausibly produce significant increases in birth rates.

While this could be achieved via widespread government investment in cultural change (i.e. Heavy propaganda campaigns) paired with universal free childcare and schooling, this could also be achieved through the far-more-feasible-and-less-dystopian creation of intentional communities, which would also have the advantage of producing a wider diversity of cultures.

We worked creating such a model through Project Eureka—an eco-friendly, pedestrian-first planned community format centered around an innovative lab school and shared childcare burdens among residents. We ultimately decided to move forward with only the lab school because we found no funding mechanisms in place for innovative, intentional communities (they’re too heavy on real estate for venture capitalists and too risky for real estate investors).

That said, if independently wealthy effective altruists were to start their own intentional communities that help unique family structures have kids and raise them in a community environment, they could have an enormous impact on this problem. (If anyone is interested in spearheading this kind of solution, let us know so we can add you to the index and send interested families in your direction).
 

Family-Level Interventions Fighting Demographic Collapse

As mentioned above, if just one family has eight or more kids each generation for eleven generations, they will have more descendants than the current population of earth (assuming they don’t start interbreeding after a few generations). The risk of this approach is that if only one family does this (as ours intends to), it would lead to a homogenous future, and homogeneity produces social stagnation and narrow perspectives.

We created this cause overview in part to inspire more people to create high-fertility families with strong, sustainable, prosocial cultures—and also to identify the other families working on this and add them to a central index to track their efforts intergenerationally and assist each other where applicable. If this post encourages you to think about having kids and you are looking for a place where you can have a large family affordably, we created a guide—plus we are happy to speak if you’d like to brainstorm, combine efforts, etc.

Given our confidence in our own efforts, the question for us now is: How do we preserve a world with diverse cultures, ethnicities, values, and approaches to life? One solution is to develop and share a playbook for crafting sustainable cultures, which can “gene edit” a culture to be more resistant to the memetic diseases that sterilize their populations. This is the topic of one of our next books (The other is on building family offices and organizational/political governance systems with a focus on intergenerational fidelity—both books are intended to aid intergenerational culture transfer while still allowing for innovation and evolution). If you find this concept interesting, please reach out to us, as we could always use additional thinkers and families who want to work on demographic collapse problems. A future in which our descendents are the only EA-adjacent, high-birthrate people to survive intergenerationally is far from optimal.

Demographic collapse will not be fixed if we merely convince a few effective altruists to have a high birth rate. It is important that those families both have more kids and create cohesive cultures that can be passed down with fidelity through multiple generations ensuring a high birth rate across them. That means if you want to be one of the families working towards this solution, you need to be intentional about how you build family culture (the more diversity in these structures registered with the index the more we can learn). In our case, we live by a fairly strict secular religious structure with intentionally designed holidays, rituals, a secular theology, governance systems, and the like—all intended to create a childhood and value system compelling and cohesive enough of our kids to want to recreate better iterations for their own children (We can write more on the topic if there is interest—we come from a strict secular Calvinist background, making our efforts potentially not broadly generalizable to the EA community).

What ultimately makes this solution compelling and tractable is that only a small handful of families need to successfully attempt this approach in order to create an outsized positive impact vis a vis the problem of demographic collapse (though when it comes to preserving heterogeneity in future human populations, the more the merrier).
 

Educational Interventions Fighting Demographic Collapse

Education, which is a product and manifestation of culture, plays a dual role in contributing to demographic collapse at present, but can with equal alacrity be leveraged to reduce its effects, simply by being less expensive and more effective.

Personally speaking, our most significant trepidation in having a large family is the knowledge we will not be able to subsidize our children’s participation in one of the core gating mechanisms blocking access to positions of influence (elite education). We suspect this same concern might be preventing other effective altruists who might join the pro-natalist path to opt for small families instead.

Specifically:

  1. Right now, education is too costly, contributing additional incentives against having (many) kids:
    1. By making education more affordable, we can lower the lower overall financial burden of parenthood and discourage fewer adults from having kids (or more kids).
    2. By making education more affordable, we can ensure children of large families are less likely to feel robbed of education opportunities due to cost (this feeling of injustice might make them have fewer kids themselves in an effort to secure high-quality education for their own descendents).
  2. Today’s education system does not equip people thrive as adults in the modern economy—let alone be successful parents: 
    1. If education, which plays a key role in imparting culture and values, imparted strong professional, psychological, social, and life skills equipping people to be highly self-sufficient people and capable parents, entire populations would be better equipped to have and raise children beyond replacement rate.
    2. The present education system has not seen significant innovation since the dawn of the industrial revolution; it is not difficult to develop modern education models that better equip people for modern life. (Our white paper on this topic explores how this can be done.)
    3. The legacy education system's goal of outputting broadly interchangeable units (graduates) of similar grades makes those economic units highly susceptible to automation. As AI advances, this outdated model gets easier and easier to outcompete.

This is one of the reasons we started a new model of high-end education designed to—we hope—produce superior results to the current system at a fairly low cost. (We’ll go into this in another post.) Anyone who actively encourages innovation and development on this front can significantly contribute to this solution.

 

Key Uncertainties

  • AI Wild Card: AI development is by far the biggest wild card in the realm of demographic collapse. A paperclip maximiser extinction event makes all worries of demographic collapse irrelevant while a benevolent AI super intelligence might also make demographic collapse irrelevant. Even current AI technology may significantly change the equation as it sees more use and begins to replace humans as economic units.
  • How soon will governments begin to intervene in more meaningful ways to fight demographic collapse? Something like a heavy tax on childless citizens could, per extant research, make a meaningful impact on birth rates—governments that make the unpopular decision to instate such taxes may see lower declines than anticipated.
  • What demographic-collapse-driven existential risks do future generations need to take into account that we may not be considering? Because it is difficult to imagine what it will be like to operate in a world with pervasive, systems-level collapse (crumbling, depopulated cities, threatened agricultural and industrial systems, globalization, etc.), we may be missing important preparatory steps necessary to the survival of future populations.
  • How feasible is intergenerational, family-level culture crafting? While we are working on a playbook for sustainable, intergenerational family cultures, there is little research on tactics and elements that are correlated with high-fidelity intergenerational culture transfer.
  • Could populations stabilize? It is possible that humans have some lower bound of fertility and things will pop back up above 2.1 across developed societies after reaching said trigger point. We do know that the drop in population caused by the Black Death was followed by population bounce: French monk Jean de Venette was astonished by the number of pregnant women in the streets. "Everywhere," he says, "women conceived more readily than usual. None proved barren; on the contrary, there were pregnant women whenever you looked. Several gave birth to twins, and some to living triplets."  However, this reversal was very short lived (see this write up for a good discussion on this topic). There has not been a single instance of “apathy-based” birth rate decline reversing dramatically in the opposite direction (outside of instances in which women have lost egalitarian treatment) nor can we even imagine what the mechanism of action for such a dramatic reverse in trends might be (outside of the population stabilizing and grow to never before seen levels after susceptibility to prosocial memes has been bred out of it).
  • Genopolitics is Missing Something: Our fears that traits like prosociality and openness to new ideas could be bred out of a population could be misplaced depending on a few poorly studied variables. For example, it could be that the primary thing that draws people out of high birth rate families is not their sociological profile but complete serendipity.
  • A Cure to Aging: If we get an inexpensive cure to aging in the near future it could stop the above problems. Given that your average person can not even get basic medical care right now this stretches credulity though it is possible depending on the mechanism of action of the cure.

 

Areas for Future Research

Because demographic collapse gets little attention in modern media and academic circles, research on its effects—not to mention efforts to address it—is limited in scope and focus.

Key areas where research could make a significant positive difference:

  • With regard to AI and automation: How many people are actually completing certain functions? Where can automation work? Where is automation unlikely to work in the near term, implying an increase in human labor demand?
  • With regard to cultural interventions: What effect do cultural interventions have on (1) stated interests in having kids and (2) actual fertility rates?
  • With regard to economic ramifications: What innovative financial policies can governments adopt to stabilize savings/investment and stave off collapse? To what extent can a “childless adult” tax subsidize pension and infrastructure maintenance?

Summary

  • Populations are falling in some specific geographic regions fast enough to potentially cause system-level collapses of economic and social systems in the near future.
  • We are in the midst of a “cultural mass extinction” with many specific cultures and ethnic groups demonstrating fertility rates low enough to trigger extinction within a few generations, leading to a much more homogeneous future.
  • Current birth rate trends suggest traits on which the EA community relies, such as prosociality, are being differentially selected out of populations.
  • Current models predict that 183 of 195 countries will be shrinking by the turn of the century, with most of the net producers of population growth left in Africa. A world with a rapidly shrinking population could drive some organizations and state-level actors to change how they interact with those few countries in ways that could end up looking like new forms of indentured servitude.

Other Posts on this Topic

Appendix:

Forces At Play

Section by Hath - Graphs from Peter Zeihan

This is best introduced visually; the graphs show the skew in demography. I’ll accompany the graphs with analysis on the skew and the consequences of said skew.

I’ll use China as an example, though the trends for every other developed country in the world roughly match those in China. Here’s a graph of China’s population in 1950, marked by age and gender.

What is shown is notably a population pyramid. As generations age and die, their population cohorts become smaller. Until the last seventy years or so, populations have had a constant ratio of four children to three young adults to two mature adults to one elder. That’s what makes the pyramid shape. Now, let’s see a graph of China’s demography in 1980:

The pyramid shape is gone. After the end of WWII, China’s birthrates soared, resulting in the large crop of people under 35 noticeable in the graph. This caused worries about population growth, so China implemented the Two-Child Policy limiting the amount of children a family could have, and then strengthened it to the One-Child Policy. At the same time, the Chinese were urbanizing; fewer and fewer Chinese were living on farms—where children were free, necessary labor—and instead the population was shifting to cramped cities where children were effectively luxury goods. This spike and decline in birthrates creates the skewed demographics visible in every developed country today; while other countries didn’t have the pressures of the One-Child Policy, urbanization was enough to have a similar effect.

Why do the skewed demographics matter? Because different aged people contribute different things to the economy. Many demographers use the cohorts of children (ages 0-15), young workers (15-35), mature workers, and retirees as general population groupings, and I’ll stick with those for this post. Children and retirees don’t directly contribute to the economy, so the workers provide for them through taxation and direct spending in the case of parents. The young workers are mainly consumers and borrowers: They’re spending on housing and children, while borrowing in the form of mortgages and student debt. Mature workers have mostly paid off their housing and have finished spending on their children, and so are mainly saving for retirement. Mature workers’ savings, invested in stocks and bonds, are a major source of capital. Historically, the ratio has been 4 children to 3 young workers to 2 mature workers to 1 retiree. That’s the pyramid shape visible in the demography of 1950s China. However, the current ratio is closer to 1 child to 2 young workers to 2 mature workers to 1 retiree. Here’s what that looks like:

The visible spikes in population at specific age levels means that, as those generations age, China’s economy will visibly change. That 30-34 generation, marked in the graph as a fleeting consumption boom? When they age out of their young worker status, and then out of the workforce entirely, the replacement generation will be significantly smaller. This phenomenon isn’t unique to China; it affects every single developed country. Here’s the EU, which has it particularly bad:

The United States is the least skewed, but isn’t much better.


A note from Malcolm:

China is in a uniquely bad position due to what can be thought of as “demographic debt” they’ve accumulated. As noted above, any economy can be thought of as being comprised of three groups: Two are parasitic (the young and the old); one is productive (working adults). One of the reasons developing countries typically have an easier time than their already developed counterparts is they have a much lower percentage of old citizens. Through its one child policy, China cut out the other parasitic group as well: The kids. This allowed China to industrialize and become wealthy at a super rapid rate (with almost the entire population being in the productive class) but in a way that was inherently unsustainable (eventually the debt must be paid off). While China is now desperately trying to backtrack by encouraging higher birth rates, its population is not complying—to the extent that this effort is often cited as one of the drivers of the “laying flat movement”. "Sorry, we are the last generation, thanks!" has even become a meme among the youth in China in response to government policies.
 

 The Inevitable Economic Effects

Section by hath

The retirement of the large, post-WWII generation (Gen X) will have multiple direct economic effects:

  • Before retirement, savings are kept in the form of stocks, providing capital to the economy as a whole. When Gen X retires, and transfers their savings to less risky investments, the general flow of capital will dry up.
    • Note by Ben Hoffman (one of our editors): Modern monetary policy makes the mechanism complicated in an important and interesting way. I don't think getting the right answer here will be necessary to persuade EAs but it's worth thinking through. My best guess is that the Federal reserve will act to support the price of equities by increasing the supply of credit to pyramid schemes that can pretend future profitability. Wait lists will accumulate for non-essential goods, if automation hasn't actually made them easy to provide, while scarce essential goods will continue gradually shifting towards a command economy. Anyone with access to capital who can profitably employ large numbers of non-grifters will see sustained supernormal profits, like Jeff Bezos or (I predict) my friend Rahim.
  • The workforce as a whole will shrink, because the generations coming into the workforce will be smaller than the generations leaving.
  • There will be more dependents for fewer workers. China currently has ~42 dependents (retirees and children) per hundred workers; that number is forecasted to rise to 60 by 2040, and will continue to climb.

As for what we should actually expect to see in the economy as a result of this: The parts that I (hath) understand on an intuitive level are:

  • Increased taxation and general burden on the workforce, as it supports more dependents with fewer workers.
  • Less capital means it’s harder to secure loans or investment of all kinds.

A footnote of transcript by Peter Zeihan on this topic[2]

  1. ^

    Note from hath: Skewed demographics and declining fertility rates are a future economic problem that I have yet to see mentioned by anyone other than Peter Zeihan and, now, Malcolm Collins and Simone Collins. I partnered with Malcolm and Simone to create what we hope acts as a gears-level model of the situation and provide a stepping point for others hoping to work on it. Unlike other “new cause area” posts on the forum (this one was a specific inspiration), we don’t have much in the way of specific estimates of the economic effects, or even cost estimates of interventions. I hope that this initial exploration paves the way for more detailed estimates in the future.

    Note from Malcolm/Simone: We have worked with the EA community for some time but were hesitant to write on the forum until encouraged to by hath. This post is written by us with editing/feedback by hath, except for sections specifically accredited to hath.

  2. ^

    Zeihan transcript:

    A lot of the tools that we have developed to regulate the economic system, most notably interest rates at the Federal Bank level, we're not sure if they're going to work anymore. The whole idea of interest rates is that you make the cost of borrowing higher, so that demand becomes more expensive, so that people and companies do less of it. For that to work, you have to have consumption as a primary driver in your economic system.

    Most of the world doesn't have that any longer. Most of the advanced world hit the point of no return with their demographic aging back in the 90s, and places like Germany and Italy and Japan now have more people in their 50s and their 40s than the 30s and their 20s and so on. Now, in the United States it hasn't hit nearly as hard, but we still have this huge generation, the Baby Boomers, retiring and a very small generation, the Zoomers, who are coming into the system. Right now, in 2022, that's a shortage of 400,000 workers, and by 2034 that number will have increased to 900,000.

    This is structural inflation, and this is a problem on the supply side. When you raise the cost of borrowing, it doesn't just impact people who are trying to buy a car or a destroyer, it also affects people who are trying to build out production, and the industrial plant and productive capacity and training new workers.

    It's not clear to me whether in places where this demographic decline is advanced, such as Germany, if interest rates even work anymore, because you are now capable of strangling supply with it, and it doesn't do anything to demand because there isn't any.

    The economic rules of the past may not apply anymore. Now, in [my latest book], I call this "The End of More"; the idea that every economic model that we have developed in the last 500 years, whether it's fascism or socialism or communism or capitalism, they were designed for an environment where the pie got a little bit bigger every year largely, because of population growth.

    That's no longer true. So when I look at the problems that the U.S federal reserve is dealing with right now, they would like to get inflation under control, and interest rates are the tool they have. But if we're in a world where the normal relationships between demand and consumption and supply and production are somewhat out of whack, and might not go back, it's not clear to me that they can raise interest rates to dampen demand without also crushing supply, because we've never had a significant problem on the supply side before.

    Because we are now facing the greatest labor inflation in American history, raising interest rates might not be the right tool, and then it comes to the executive branch and that's a whole other discussion of whether the Biden administration is up to the challenge. That's my first topic; that the tools for managing our economy might not work anymore.

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Thanks for the post. I think Charles Goodhart & M. Pradhan have some estimates of economic effects.

Thank you! We're checking it out now. 

Curing aging also fixes the demographic collapse.

What is your estimate on a timeline for a person of average income to afford said cure? What year do you estimate it would be available?  (I ask because while I agree with you even basic medical care is not available to most people in the world right now. I suppose it depends on the mechanism of action of the aging cure - a viral vector might be inexpensive to produce in mass.)

Note: Adding your suggestion to the document 

not quite useful, but maybe it could make future research on this easier: IMF has published some concerns regarding developed countries: https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/fandd/issues/2022/analytical-series/new-economics-of-fertility-doepke-hannusch-kindermann-tertilt

and I remember having seen a Long Bet where someone was convinced of a drastic decline of human pop by 2050, but I can't find it

Great to see more people focusing on this issue! I've written about this topic before, and one of the most compelling/feasible solution areas seems to be living space.

In contrast, Katherine Boyle presents a theory that aims to attack one of the core underlying causes — urbanization. She believes that the collapse in the fertility rate stems from the decline of multi-generational households as 20th century Americans moved into cities. Having extended family members to help with child rearing makes a big difference, but this requires more space. This is where, she suggests, permitting remote work from rustic locations can boost fertility rates — a rural renaissance powered by Starlink. Upon deeper analysis, Katherine’s focus on physical space being a primary driver becomes more compelling. Evidence suggests that as home prices rise, fertility falls. In the United Kingdom, a 10% increase in housing costs led to a 1.3% decline in birth rates. Building more homes may boost fertility.

I haven't found research to back this theory up, but anecdotally it seems that the real factor is access to living space, and cost itself is just correlated with that. We don't need more high-density housing, but more communities.