About the Author

Darrell Bricker

DARRELL BRICKER is CEO of Ipsos Global Public Affairs. At the Ipsos-Reid Corporation since 1990, Bricker holds a PhD in political science from Carleton University and is the co-author (with Edward Greenspon) of Searching for Certainty: Inside the New Canadian Mindset. He is the co-author (with John Wright) of Canuckology: From Dollars to Donuts—Canada’s Premiere Pollsters Reveal What Canadians Think and Why. Follow him on Twitter @darrellbricker

JOHN IBBITSON, chief political correspondent for The Globe and Mail, has served as the paper’s Queen’s Park columnist, Ottawa political affairs correspondent and bureau chief in both Washington and Ottawa. His numerous political books include Open and Shut: Why America Has Barack Obama and Canada Has Stephen Harper and The Polite Revolution: Perfecting the Canadian Dream. His novel The Landing won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature. He lives and writes in Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JohnIbbitson.

Books by this Author


From Dollars To Donuts - Canada's Premier Pollsters
also available: eBook
More Info
Empty Planet

Empty Planet

The Shock of Global Population Decline
also available: Paperback
More Info

It was a girl.

On Sunday, October 30, 2011, just before midnight, Danica May Camacho entered the world in a crowded Manila hospital, bringing the human population of our planet to seven billion. Actually, the scales could have tipped a few hours later, in a village in Uttar Pradesh, India, with the arrival of Nargis Kumar. Or it might have been a boy, Pyotr Nikolayeva, born in Kaliningrad, Russia.

Of course, it was none of them. The birth that took us to seven billion people was attended by no cameras and ceremonial speeches because we can never know where or when the event occurred. We can only know that, according to the United Nations’ best estimates, we reached seven billion sometime around October 31 of that year. Different countries designated certain births to symbolize this landmark in history, and Danica, Nargis, and Pyotr were among those chosen.

For many, there was no reason to celebrate. Indian health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad declared that a global population of seven billion was “not a matter of great joy, but a great worry. . . . For us a matter of joy will be when the population stabilizes.” Many share Azad’s gloom. They warn of a global population crisis. Homo sapiens is reproducing unchecked, straining our ability to feed, house, and clothe the 130 million or more new babies that UNICEF estimates arrive each year. As humans crowd the planet, forests disappear, species become extinct, the atmosphere warms.

Unless humankind defuses this population bomb, these prophets proclaim, we face a future of increasing poverty, food shortages, conflict, and environmental degradation. As one modern Malthus put it, “Barring a dramatic decline in population growth, a rapid decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, or a global outbreak of vegetarianism—all of which are trending in the opposite direction at the moment—we’re facing nothing less than the end of plenty for the majority of the earth’s people.”

All of this is completely, utterly wrong.

The great defining event of the twenty-first century—one of the great defining events in human history—will occur in three decades, give or take, when the global population starts to decline. Once that decline begins, it will never end. We do not face the challenge of a population bomb but of a population bust—a relentless, generation-after-generation culling of the human herd. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

If you find this news shocking, that’s not surprising. The United Nations forecasts that our population will grow from seven billion to eleven billion in this century before leveling off after 2100. But an increasing number of demographers around the world believe the UN estimates are far too high. More likely, they say, the planet’s population will peak at around nine billion sometime between 2040 and 2060, and then start to decline, perhaps prompting the UN to designate a symbolic death to mark the occasion. By the end of this century, we could be back to where we are right now, and steadily growing fewer.

Populations are already declining in about two dozen states around the world; by 2050 the number will have climbed to three dozen. Some of the richest places on earth are shedding people every year: Japan, Korea, Spain, Italy, much of Eastern Europe. “We are a dying country,” Italy’s health minister, Beatrice Lorenzin, lamented in 2015.

But this isn’t the big news. The big news is that the largest developing nations are also about to grow smaller, as their own fertility rates come down. China will begin losing people in a few years. By the middle of this century, Brazil and Indonesia will follow suit. Even India, soon to become the most populous nation on earth, will see its numbers stabilize in about a generation and then start to decline. Fertility rates remain sky-high in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East. Even here, though, things are changing as young women obtain access to education and birth control. Africa is likely to end its unchecked baby boom much sooner than the UN’s demographers think.

Some of the indications of an accelerating decline in fertility can be found in scholarly research and government reports; others can only be found by talking to people on the street. And so we did. To gather research for this book, we traveled to cities on six continents: to Brussels and Seoul, Nairobi and São Paulo, Mumbai and Beijing, Palm Springs and Canberra and Vienna. There were other stops as well. We talked to academics and public officials, but more important, we talked to young people: on university campuses and at research institutes and in favelas and slums. We wanted to know what they were thinking about the most important decision they will ever make: whether and when to have a baby.

Population decline isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. But it is a big thing. A child born today will reach middle age in a world in which conditions and expectations are very different from our own. She will find the planet more urban, with less crime, environmentally healthier but with many more old people. She won’t have trouble finding a job, but she may struggle to make ends meet, as taxes to pay for healthcare and pensions for all those seniors eat into her salary. There won’t be as many schools, because there won’t be as many children.

But we won’t have to wait thirty or forty years to feel the impact of population decline. We’re feeling it today, in developed nations from Japan to Bulgaria that struggle to grow their economies even as the cohort of young workers and consumers diminishes, making it harder to provide social services or sell refrigerators. We see it in urbanizing Latin America and even Africa, where women are increasingly taking charge of their own destinies. We see it in every household where the children take longer to move out because they’re in no rush to settle down and haven’t the slightest intention of having a baby before they’re thirty. And we’re seeing it, tragically, in roiling Mediterranean seas, where refugees from wretched places press against the borders of a Europe that is already starting to empty out.

We may see it, very soon, influencing the global contest for power. Population decline will shape the nature of war and peace in the decades ahead, as some nations grapple with the fallout of their shrinking, aging societies while others remain able to sustain themselves. The defining geopolitical challenge in the coming decades could involve accommodating and containing an angry, frightened China as it confronts the consequences of its disastrous one-child policy.

Some of those who fear the fallout of a diminishing population advocate government policies to increase the number of children couples have. But the evidence suggests this is futile. The “low-fertility trap” ensures that, once having one of two children becomes the norm, it stays the norm. Couples no longer see having children as a duty they must perform to satisfy their obligation to their families or their god. Rather, they choose to raise a child as an act of personal fulfillment. And they are quickly fulfilled.

One solution to the challenge of a declining population is to import replacements. That’s why two Canadians wrote this book. For decades now, Canada has brought in more people, on a per capita basis, than any other major developed nation, with little of the ethnic tensions, ghettos, and fierce debate that other countries face. That’s because the country views immigration as an economic policy—under the merit-based points system, immigrants to Canada are typically better educated, on average, than the native-born—and because it embraces multiculturalism: the shared right to celebrate your native culture within the Canadian mosaic, which has produced a peaceful, prosperous, polyglot society, among the most fortunate on earth.

Not every country is able to accept waves of newcomers with Canada’s aplomb. Many Koreans, Swedes, and Chileans have a very strong sense of what it means to be Korean, Swedish, or Chilean. France insists its immigrants embrace the idea of being French, even as many of the old stock deny such a thing is possible, leaving immigrant communities isolated in their banlieues, separate and not equal. The population of the United Kingdom is projected to continue growing, to about 82 million at the end of the century, from 66 million today, but only if the British continue to welcome robust levels of immigration. As the Brexit referendum revealed, many Brits want to turn the English Channel into a moat. To combat depopulation, nations must embrace both immigration and multiculturalism. The first is hard. The second, for some, may prove impossible.

Among great powers, the coming population decline uniquely advantages the United States. For centuries, America has welcomed new arrivals, first from across the Atlantic, then the Pacific as well, and today from across the Rio Grande. Millions have happily plunged into the melting pot—America’s version of multiculturalism—enriching both its economy and culture. Immigration made the twentieth century the American century, and continued immigration will define the twenty-first as American as well.

Unless. The suspicious, nativist, America First groundswell of recent years threatens to choke off the immigration tap that made America great by walling up the border between the United States and everywhere else. Under President Donald Trump, the federal government not only cracked down on illegal immigrants, it reduced legal admissions for skilled workers, a suicidal policy for the U.S. economy. If this change is permanent, if Americans out of senseless fear reject their immigrant tradition, turning their backs on the world, then the United States too will decline, in numbers and power and influence and wealth. This is the choice that every American must make: to support an open, inclusive, welcoming society, or to shut the door and wither in isolation.

The human herd has been culled in the past by famine or plague. This time, we are culling ourselves; we are choosing to become fewer. Will our choice be permanent? The answer is: probably yes. Though governments have sometimes been able to increase the number of children couples are willing to have through generous child care payments and other supports, they have never managed to bring fertility back up to the replacement level of, on average, 2.1 children per woman needed to sustain a population. Besides, such programs are extremely expensive and tend to be cut back during economic downturns. And it is arguably unethical for a government to try to convince a couple to have a child that they would otherwise not have had.

As we settle into a world growing smaller, will we celebrate or mourn our diminishing numbers? Will we struggle to preserve growth, or accept with grace a world in which people both thrive and strive less? We don’t know. But it may be a poet who observes that, for the first time in the history of our race, humanity feels old.

close this panel


Where to Live, What to Buy, and Who Will Lead Canada's Future
also available: eBook
tagged :
More Info
Searching for Certainty

Searching for Certainty

Inside the New Canadian Mindset
tagged : statistics
More Info

Navigating the New Canadian Mindset: A Dozen Rules of the Road

The future will be dominated by the competition for public trust. Canadians are increasingly turning to “trustmarks” to sort through the cluttered marketplace of an information economy. For organizations interacting with individual Canadians, trustmarks will supercede the trademarks of old. A trustmark goes well beyond a good brand name. The brand provides the entry point to the product. Today, people are seeking guidance of a higher order. We want to be able to judge quickly if the information coming our way — about products to buy, decisions to make, causes to support — is authoritative, credible, and reliable. We aren’t seeking a signal about the quality of the product as much as the trustworthiness of the producer — whether it be a corporation, charity, or political leader. The default position of the new Canadian mindset tends to be set on skepticism rather than trust. Therefore, the trustmark holder possesses an asset as rare and valuable as platinum. Trustmark stewardship will become one of the top tasks of modern ceos. Leaders must excel beyond the traditional management skills of finance, strategy, and marketing to master the political skills necessary to forge trusting relationships with the new knowledge consumers.

The marriage of the most highly educated generation in our history and the information technology known as the Internet places phenomenal power in the hands of a newly enfranchised class of knowledge citizens and consumers. Information has been democratized, giving rise to heretofore-unprecedented demands for choice in everything we do. The mentality of “there is no alternative” no longer suffices; we will create our own alternatives if the official offerings don’t satisfy. Indeed, the motherlode wealth of information now available to individuals and groups is giving rise to a revolutionary power shift from producers to consumers. Producers and governments are under pressure as never before to deliver results and be accountable for performance. Combine this heightened consumer assertiveness with a diminution of brand loyalty and you will see the potential for businesses, voluntary groups and political parties, which may have taken decades to build, to be destroyed in the blink of a cursor. Witness our swift abandonment in the 1990s of long-standing institutions such as the Red Cross, Eaton’s and the Progressive Conservative party. The challenges posed by the new knowledge consumer/citizen are obvious, but so are the competitive advantages for those who can relate to a more informed and wilful population.

What the new knowledge consumer most desires is a greater measure of control in an unstable and insecure world. Our craving for control is not an end in itself but a means of enhancing certainty of outcome. (Is this the best medical treatment for me? Am I receiving the training that will secure my career goals?) The new mindset demands to know how the story ends, and a means to intervene if the ending appears unsatisfactory. Canadians are less willing than ever to entrust the narrative to the powers that be. Producers and governments therefore are going to have to be able to articulate their vision and persuade consumers and citizens not just of their intended destination but of how they plan to get there. Those with a compelling vision and a convincing plan are best positioned to satisfy the search for certainty. Those, in contrast, who hide behind glib sales pitches will learn how swift and harsh public judgement can be.

Our traditional view of the three founding nations (French, English and Aboriginal) is becoming less and less relevant, especially in the cities where most of us live. We have succeeded in establishing a genuine rainbow society in this country, a model for the world in the twenty-first century. It makes us a more complex land, but a richer one. Our marketplace has become both more heterogenous and global at the same time. One example: the increasing pressure on health-care regulators to recognize alternative therapies such as acupuncture that are standard fare among certain ethnic groups.

As this multicultural Canada become more firmly rooted, we are learning that diversity and tolerance are not just social goods, but also a national advantage in a world in which we all want to be judged on our abilities and nothing else. The implications of Canada’s multicultural reality are huge for our concepts of citizenship, national unity, and commerce. Adapting to this new reality will prove one of the great challenges of the next quarter-century.

A new Can-global identity is evolving hand-in-hand with multiculturalism, especially among our youth. The most noteworthy characteristic of this new identity is its easy blend of love of country with a conscious external focus. Plugged into the world through the Internet and other communications technologies, our new Can-global citizens are programmed to be the best at what they do, wherever they do it. They shun mediocrity, increasingly benchmarking themselves not against the person in the next cubicle or apartment block but against the best the world has to offer. Can-global citizens can no more easily accept being second best in the economy than accept being second class in society. The Can-global citizen therefore pursues excellence and insists upon having an impact. Comfortable in their skins, they are much less moved than previous generations — but not unmoved — by appeals to nationalism and parochialism. While clearly preferring excellence at home, they are prepared, if necessary, to select excellence over home. Unless we lift the pursuit of excellence to a national passion, the potential for Canada to lose its most talented young people to the best of the world is very real.

The new Canadian mindset increasingly embraces a live-and-let-live philosophy, at least up to the point where it butts heads with the new equality principle. The stigmas attached a generation ago to homosexuality or mixed-race marriages have all dissipated significantly. We overwhelmingly embrace the unique qualities of individuals or groups of individuals, but anything smacking of special status — whether for a province or a demographic group — gets our backs up. That’s where Canadians come face-to-face with the limits of their tolerance. Equality used to involve the intervention of government to lift up the disadvantaged. Today, equality increasingly entails not affirmative action programs but the assurance of equal access to all, regardless of circumstances. Canadians are consequently highly suspicious of initiatives that disadvantage certain categories of individuals in order to right historical wrongs or perceived group inequities. Bottom line for the new mindset — distinctions that can apply to all, such as income, are acceptable arbiters of policy, but exclusionary criteria will not cut it. The new mindset holds that all Canadians should be treated similarly because we all must face the same challenges.

The concept of a “private” sector no longer exists in Canada. Canadians increasingly expect that corporations and professionals must be accountable to the public interest. Nortel merits no more of a free ride than the government of Saskatchewan. The professional misconduct of a doctor no longer is a matter between him and his College of Physicians. As knowledge citizens and consumers, we are prepared to enforce this accountability through whatever mechanisms are available; indeed, the collective actions of consumers are becoming just as commonplace as the collective actions of citizens. Moreover, this insistence that once-private players be held publicly accountable extends to what they do outside our borders as well.

Globalization was once widely regarded as a business issue. No longer. Since all Canadians are deeply implicated in the globalization process, we obviously all have an interest in its shape and direction. The Gemini twins of globalization are Davos Man and Seattle Woman. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Davos Man was ascendant. Now, Seattle Woman’s moon is rising. Canadians are troubled by the unrepresentative nature of globalization, its so-called democracy deficit. That doesn’t make them sympathetic toward anarchists running amok or woolly theories of world government. But we do want to ensure that mechanisms are in place for citizens to see their values reflected in the global agenda. The concept of globalization without representation is untenable in a knowledge age. Demands will grow to get our political and economic space into alignment. Davos Man and Seattle Woman can be expected to beget Democracy Child.

As stated throughout this book, Canadians demand choice and seek certainty in all matters. This very much applies to the workplace. The surest way for workers to achieve choice and certainty, as Karl Marx preached, is by controlling the means of production. Except that in a knowledge economy, the means of production resides between your ears. Control therefore comes in the form of education and training, which have become a kind of gold reserve of the new economy (particularly for employees of choice). Access to education and training promises to be the key political and workplace issue of the next decade. These developments obviously have major implications for employers, unions, educational institutions and governments. Look for life-long learning to dominate our public policy agenda and to also become a critical component of employment negotiations. Earning a living alone no longer produces enough certainty. The new workplace compact, therefore, will sound like this: I’ll work for you if you’ll help me grow.

In spite of the knocks that government takes, it remains the preferred vehicle for realizing our collective interests. However, our expectations of government have changed markedly as a result of our experiences with deficits, globalization, and the Internet. We expect our governments to be focussed on helping us resolve the big problems. We don’t want them engineering one-size-fits-all solutions on our behalf or striving to be all things to all people. Our elected officials need to understand that certain principles prevail for the knowledge citizen. First off, deficits matter. Governments that tolerate renewed deficit-financing risk being tossed out of the game by voters. There is virtually nothing, including a major economic downturn, that would convince us to once again journey along any well-intentioned road to fiscal hell. Accountability also matters as never before. The new knowledge citizen expects results in place of rhetoric, which requires the development of an unprecedented degree of transparency and new accountability mechanisms that allow us to keep track of outcomes. We want government to work, but not in the old ways.

At heart, Canada remains a compassionate society. Canadians don’t like to view themselves in terms of winners and losers; we prefer to see ourselves instead as winners and those who, with some assistance, can become winners. This means that punitive attacks on the economically disadvantaged find little fertile ground in Canada. However, while Canadians are prepared to be compassionate, they are not prepared to be played for suckers. We are both tenderhearted and hardheaded. We prefer the hand-up to the handout. Ours is a self-help form of compassion. Canadians always stand ready to assist the truly needy. As for those who have fallen on hard times, we are willing to lend a hand to help them get back on their feet. But we don’t think we owe them a living; we expect them to help themselves as well.

Canadians are patient investors in their future. If we could be one person collectively, it would probably be Warren Buffet, the legendary value investor. We are not by nature attracted to quick fixes or get-rich-fast schemes. We don’t demand instant gratification, but steady improvement and long-run returns. We love nothing so much as a long-term plan of action, articulated by a credible spokesperson. Canadians have been through a lot together over the past generation, not all of it pleasant. The process has imbued us with a remarkable resiliency. We’ve come out the other end of the tunnel a collection of quiet optimists, with an optimism based not so much on a confidence in the economy to perform well as a confidence in ourselves to endure whatever the economy throws our way. Our experiences in the economic trenches have cured us of the temptations of simple solutions. Today, we’re prepared to weigh the trade-offs implicit in any decisions; if anything leaves us cold, it’s being told there are no trade-offs. Like Warren Buffet, we’re looking for the best return tomorrow rather than the fastest return today. Whether it’s politics or the stock market, Canadians are neither bulls nor bears; we are instead a nation of patient owls.

close this panel
Show editions
close this panel

User Activity

more >
Contacting facebook
Please wait...