Brian Wang Talks With Robin Hanson About the Global Population Crisis

Futurists Robin Hanson and Brian Wang talk about how the global population crisis can send the world into an innovation and economic dark age which could ruin all hope for other positive future scenarios.

Nextbigfuture has had many articles about the important topic of the fertility crisis. A shrinking and aging population can lead to a permanent global great depression.

The Great Depression was a global event in the 1930s. There are proposed definitions of economic depressions, which are
* a decline in real GDP exceeding 10%, or
* a recession lasting 2 or more years.

I am writing about it because it has already been happening in Japan. Japan’s population peaked in 2008 at over 128 million and they are now at 122 million and will be under 100 million in 2050. The median age in Japan is now 48 and will be about 55 in 2050. Japan’s GDP peaked in 1995 at $5.5 trillion. It is now 28 years later and its GDP is 20% less.

China could see its population drop from 1.4 billion today to 1.1 billion in 2050. This happens without the birthrate in China dropping more. It is about not being failing to increase births dramatically.

Japan should have grown from $5 trillion to $10 trillion or more. The US more than tripled its economy from 1995 to today. 30% of the world economy (China at $19 trillion) could hit worse than what Japan experienced fro 1995 to today from 2023 to 2050.

We discuss the 16 Fertility Scenarios that Robin analyzes at his website.

I discuss this this topic in many articles.

I cite the movie Inception where the Japanese character Saito offers the hope of the main character reuniting with his children by taking a risk. Japan is the nation that is leading the way into a fertility crisis with not enough babies or children. The lack of children and families is increasing the percentage of people who are growing old and dying alone. Kodokushi (孤独死) or lonely death is a Japanese phenomenon of people dying alone and remaining undiscovered for a long period of time. NLI Research Institute, a Tokyo think tank, estimates that about 30,000 people nationwide die this way each year. However, there is a far larger number of solitary and lonely elderly in Japan. A study on Japanese older adults reported that 31.5% were socially isolated. In addition, it has been reported that 27.0% of older adults in the United Kingdom and 24% of older adults in the United States are socially isolated. People cannot unite with children that they never have. They have to take a leap of faith to have children.

For Japanese women born in 2000, between 31.6% to 39.2% will remain childless throughout their life according to estimates from the Tokyo-based National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (IPSS). The statistics in Japan and countries with 1.0 total fertility rate is that 40% of women and 50% of men will be childless. Research in Europe shows that childless individuals in family-oriented countries are more likely to become isolated.

As Inception says, do you want to take a leap of faith or become old filled with regret. Waiting to die alone.

Population Decline Cut Japan’s Economy in Half from Where It Should Have Been

30% of the World Economy for the next 30 year will get hit as bad or worse than Japan’s prior 30 years.

China’s GDP is 30% Real Estate – Risk of Bank and Financial Crashes

Look where Japan and where Japan went relative to other large developed economies.

Surrogates Cost About $50,000 Per Child

This is the likely cost needed for an egg freezing and surrogate strategy to maintain 80% of fertility up to age 45. If the world used this for 30 million births per year it would cost $1.5 trillion per year. This combined with Sweden style pro-natal policies and tax code punishment and reward could solve the problem. There could be other aspects of Robin Hanson solution options to improve the situation.

22 thoughts on “Brian Wang Talks With Robin Hanson About the Global Population Crisis”

  1. Gott’s application of Copernican theory suggests if trillions of people will be born in the future, the probability becomes extremely low that we would not exist then, rather than now.

    Other than as statistical outliers, how to explain that we are alive now, and not in some future time, without invoking impending racial extinction?

    One possible alternative would seem to be that our descendants will become something else, but then the question just changes to: Why am I not a transhuman? This does not help.

    Without declaring ourselves as outliers (the chance of which is, by definition, 5% or less) the answer has to be that there will not be many more of us created in the future. This sounds uncomfortably like extinction.

    It’s tempting to just reject Gott’s application of Copernican theory. But it has a non-zero chance of being correct, maybe even a pretty high one. So simply rejecting it is akin to sticking your fingers in your ears and making loud noises.

    So it would be prudent to find more alternatives, alternatives that do not require our extinction.

    Biological immortality isn’t it. For one thing, I expect the half-life of a human population might be no more than a thousand years, at best. Also, even if we could escape the boundaries of fertility (which is tough because a woman has all her eggs at birth, and they don’t increase in number) and I think we could, I can tell you that, even if my body were restored to being exactly as it was when I was 20, and much as I love my children and grandchildren, I doubt very much if my wife and I would ever consider having more children, not even if they could be created by a DNA sample and gestate in a tank. So I do not believe we will see an increase in birth rates.

    But once it gets to the point where we can freely link our minds with machines? At that point, it is difficult to see us not having the abilities to create copies of ourselves. This is a very efficient method because if we want to increase the number of, say, research geneticists, we no longer have to have a child, then hope it has the native capabilities, aptitudes, and desires to become one over the course of a few decades. We just find a good one and copy him.

    In this way, at some point, the production of new human beings might trail off to virtually nothing, yet there would be copies of most of them continuing to be made (and copies of the copies) for a very long time. In which case there is no conflict with Gott’s application of Copernican Law, and no requirement to be an outlier. Most persons existing at any time in the future would have had to be in existence earlier, possibly even now or in the near future, so it is not so odd that you exist now.

    I can imagine a lot of folks finding this to be undesirable for a myriad number of reasons, but that hardly matters if there are any people at all that ultimately go this route.

    • This idea that we must be near the center of the probability distribution seems to me more Tolemaic than Copernican.

      • Inflection AI Pi’s reply to this: Ahh, you’re absolutely right! Gott’s use of the Copernican principle definitely relies on the assumption that we are at the “center” of the distribution. It’s interesting that his method of applying the Copernican principle actually runs counter to what Copernicus himself demonstrated – that we are not at the center of the universe. But, I think Gott’s logic can still be helpful for making informed predictions about the future, even if it does introduce an element of bias.

        • I believe it invokes Copernican theory because the essence of Copernican is that we are not the center of the universe, that we are not special in that regard. Being an outlier would, by definition, make us special.

          The odds are that we are in or near the middle of the deepest largest clump of humanity that will ever exist, making us “nothing special” in terms of when we exist.

          Short of true, unending immortality in the near future, this involves some serious out-of-the-box thinking to get out of this trap.

  2. The growth forever concept is flawed. It requires increasing population to consume more. Everyone reaches a point where they don’t need more things and the earth has a finite limit of resources. If population growth doesn’t stop at 8 billion it will be like climate change, a tipping point where civilization can’t produce enough goods and the money to support the teeming poor prevents exploration of space. Look at all the homeless people we have now.
    We will have robots to help the elderly and life extension to keep them in better health. Factories will be mostly automated. We don’t need more people.

    Do we, as Americans, want to live in crowded places like the Chinese? Not me. We should limit immigration as well, so our population doesn’t grow.

  3. Hi Brian
    I think this needs ectogenesis and android child-care. Certainly robotic caregivers for the elderly is clearly indicated given the Wave of the Aged that’s coming.

  4. This topic is for jawboning… it’s not a ship, government is not captain. It doesn’t matter if the population shrinks all the way down to 20 million… we’re not going to lose knowledge that is written down or can be relearned. Only slave drivers care about this…. It’s fun to talk about if you think talking about it is fun. I’m done with doomsday scenarios Is where we lose ‘this’. ‘This’ being this ‘great exalted life’ i’m living in new jersey.

  5. WELL sounds like doomsday UNTIL you look at the work being done to extend life. Then you add 30% more life ad 50% more working life. Add to the the payback of a doctor who must spend nearly 20 years for a specialty which nearly doubles. The opposite will happen as the productivity of society explodes.

  6. Are we sure that low birth rates in Japan are causing the economic stagnation? Couldn’t it be the other way around? That the economic stagnation, with the associated end of well-paid lifetime employment for many, is discouraging couples from having children?

  7. Any hypotheses about depopulation or idiocracy have no solid evident. In Japan, fertility rate of wealthy men was stabilized and the gap with poor men is increasing, fertility rate of educated men is slightly higher than low educated men and the gap has sight of widening, fertility rate of educated women not only stabilized but bounced back and equal to low educated women now. Link:,birth%20cohorts%20except%201943%2D1947.

  8. Re: the charts labelled “IMF estimates”
    I don’t see any thing that tells me “estimates of what?”

  9. I think the thesis that I am struggling with is:
    “more people = more innovation” – i don’t believe that. Have you met 90% of the world? And Real Innovation, not great new water filters or CO2 storage & air purifiers or meat substitutes, etc., etc.
    Maybe: “more people = more consumers” – which is VERY different.

    I also struggle with:
    “more people = more Elon Musks or more Apples or more Silicon Valleys” – I don’t believe that either. And on top of that idea, Elon is not a Hero or a Winner — just a 1-in-1000 tech-visionary who happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right employee sycophants and right investors/ handlers — but who cares, good ending either way. Apple, Google, and their ilk would have come up with all the industries that Elon created in the next decade or so – anwyay I am happy the way it turned out.
    To further the thesis of ‘more people, more innovation’; perhaps One tracks the population of the US, UK, etc., as true innovators (only – maybe Germany), and models the rate of innovation (challenging, perhaps – major breakthrough type & quantity, patents, etc., etc) against the rate of population growth for the last century – say pre WW1. I would argue that innovations are very localized and mostly serendipitous, but not perfectly Lucky/ random per se.

    I am somewhat skeptical of the “Less population = high chance of reduced PPP GDP per capita -or- Less population = high chance of sustained worldwide recession/ depression” As with above, it would be very localized to specific cultures and circumstances.
    I suppose I can believe that “increased, ongoing population rises = increased likelihood of all of the World’s cultures achieving an overall slightly increasing level of modernism and self-sufficiency and technological saturation” — but that’s a poor broth and mediocre reason to implement ‘Global Warming’- or Pandemic-type Level of policy and investment change.

    It doesn’t matter – if people really want kids they will have them with only minor change in replacement rate value, even with serious policy or techno-innovation implementations.
    That all being said, if we really want population increase at the risk of technological moderation and stagnation -and- civil unrest/ apathy, we can continue to transfer immigrants from poor-to-rich at current or increased rates.
    The bottom line is that there are only a few true innovator countries and a very, very few innovator people within each — and swamping them with untold hordes of new people won’t change that.

  10. Why is America, with 1/4 the population of China or India, still roughly 4-5X as rich per capita as China, and even more than that for India? Having a large population matters but it’s far from the most important thing determining success.
    It’s much more important to have people meet their full productive potential.
    Your chart of GDP per capita shows steady 3X for Germany and Japan from 1980 – the late 1990s, but then stagnates or even goes down. Why? It’s a per capita chart so it shouldn’t matter that the population stopped growing, unless people were too old to work from the late 1990s through present, which is not (yet) the case.
    Similarly, why are there >20% unemployed Chinese 16-24 year olds?
    These societies are not making the most of their people. What else happened during this period? Rent-seeking was rewarded over productivity, rich nations outsourced manufacturing helping to gut the middle class among other reasons.
    Until we change social policies, it won’t matter if the r rate is 1, 2, 3, or more. There are lots of countries with high birth rates and with terrible GDP per capita. In fact, it’s almost a given. But rich countries too, can stagnate and stop growing if they reward speculation, leverage, rent-seeking, over productivity, innovation (1 Elon Musk is not enough, we need 100) and education.

  11. in Rhodesia the white population which did the innovation fell by 50% in the early 1960’s. yet as sanctions bit innovation soared in replacing all previously imported items and with the civil war we innovated our vehicles to be mine proof (more effective than the Humvees used in Iraq) and we also started making our own agricultural implements. Admittedly this wasn’t cutting edge stuff but when your back is to the wall innovation still works even while our population was falling.

  12. Given that this site routinely argues the feasibility and implications of curing aging, this:
    is a bad choice of words. Cure aging and this navel gazing pet peeve is immediately moot.

    • When does strong anti-aging occur and get widely deployed. Not just life expectancy to 110+ but extend fertility to 60+ and vitality to 100. Might not be in the first major wave of SENS.

      First major wave might only cure 95% of cancer and boost fertility to 50 but with decline still at about 40. Maybe halving or quartering deaths in each year.

      The other thing is choosing not to have kids can overwhelm anti-aging. Say people live to 200 but still only have 1 child per women. Fertility still stops at 45. The collapse in fertile women and overall population is only delayed. In 2200 there are still only 100 million fertile women. Population is 300 million people below 80 and a few billion 81-200. It then in 2300 we are at 20 million fertile women and world population still collapses under 200 million. 2400 and we are under 10 million.

      We need to have life extension so powerful that people live hundreds of years and are fertile hundreds of years and people choose to use fertility to have 2+ children over their lives.

      I am also thinking long term. When we meet technology aliens. We should have Max tech and sent out multiple colonization waves at over 60% light speed. Ideally colonizing for over 1000 Years and have uncounted trillion people.

      We should be colonizing the galaxy over 100k to 150k years. We need a trillion trillion people and out Ai and robotic companions to do it. And then colonize the local group and beyond.

      • Until quite recently it was often argued that effective aging reversal biotech would be suppressed because it would lead to massive overpopulation if it was widely available. The current scenarios make it much more likely that governments, medical insurance, other powerful interests will find making aging reversal widely available cheaper than paying to treat the sequelae of aging.

        Robotics and AI in the meantime will decouple economic growth from the growth of the labor force, just as they decouple innovation.

        If more population is really needed why wouldn’t a richer humanity just pay what it costs, either paying parents or paying for artificial wombs and child care. The current low birth rates are just the consequence of changing economic incentives, not something mysterious.

  13. Robin Hanson left one scenario out. Widespread role out of anti-aging life extension renders the whole issue moot. I fail to understand for the life of me why so many of those obsessing over demographic decline don’t consider anti-aging life extension as the solution or, in some cases, are actively hostile towards it (Elon Musk, etc.).

    Robin Hanson is supposedly a “transhumanist”. Surely he is familiar with SENS as well as cellular reprogramming work such as that of David Sinclair.

    Then there is this:

    • Robin calls longevity Old Moms.

      Old Moms: If tech allows longer lives, then female fertility might be greatly increased at older ages, with older parents retaining sufficient youthful energy to raise kids, and so kids after early career prep might become common. This tech must arise before economy shrinks.

      • There’s a distinction, though, if longevity is truly ‘immortality’. At that point the population doesn’t stabilize due to the procreative efforts of old moms, just the stability of old people.

        This is basically the same as where he mentions a world of ems, but to be fair there is a case for a strictly biological version. Call it a world of methuselahs.

    • Some populations are innovative and some populations are not innovative. The innovative populations are dying off. Perhaps life extension technologies will mature before they are gone, but perhaps not. If non-innovative populations inherit life extension technologies from the extinct populations who invented them, then the future of the human race may be assured.
      Better hope that artificial intelligence can compensate for the loss of the brighter humans. But what would that even mean?

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