The demographic future and labour

Meeting the social needs of the world’s population through the production of goods and services depends on the amount of labour employed (in numbers and hours) and on the productivity of those of employed.  Under capitalism, of course, what matters more is the profitability to the owners of the means of production from employing workers and in investing in productivity-enhancing technology.  It is a fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production that the required profitability of those owning the means of production becomes an obstacle to the required production to meet the social needs of the billions of humanity (and, for that matter, to sustain the health of the planet and other species).

About three years ago I posted some thoughts on the global decline in population growth and the future size of the global workforce available for capital to exploit.  It’s worth updating the story.  It took until the beginning of the industrial age for the global population to reach a billion and then another century to reach two. That was in 1927.  By 1960 the next milestone of 3bn was reached – an interval of just 33 years. Since then, it’s taken only around a dozen years for each incremental billion expansion in world population. There are now 8 billion homo sapiens on the planet.

The main reason for the acceleration in population during the 20th century was the dramatic fall in mortality, the result of wider application of medical advances like better sewage, cleaner water, vaccinations against raging diseases and effective medicines etc.  As a result, life expectancy at birth has increased by around ten years in rich countries. And despite the COVID disaster, which saw a general fall in life expectancy in many countries, the rate is still over 80 in the richer countries.

And even in low-income countries, it has risen to 63, an effective doubling since 1950. This was due principally to dramatic reductions in infant mortality in poorer countries. In 1972, around 14% of Indian and African newborns didn’t survive their first year. Those proportions have since declined to 2.6% and 4.4% respectively.

So life expectancy has risen sharply, driving up population.  Capitalism however threatens further progress in life expectancy.  It’s not just the impact of the COVID pandemic, particularly on life expectancy in the poorer countries.  US life expectancy was falling even before the pandemic.  According to US Center for Disease Control and Prevention data, more than 100,000 Americans died of overdose in 2021, representing a fivefold increase over the last 20 years. That figure is now on a par with diabetes-linked deaths, which are up “just” 43% over the same period.

The US has long suffered an opioid epidemic. This used to account for around half of all overdoses – mostly from prescribed painkillers and drugs like heroin and methadone. But since 2014 the death toll from synthetic opioids, mainly Fentanyl, has gone through the roof. In 2021, they played a role in two-thirds of all overdose fatalities. On current trends it won’t be long before Fentanyl alone claims more victims than diabetes. The difference for life expectancy being that whereas Covid and diabetes generally kill the old, Fentanyl disproportionately affects the young (around 60% of opioid deaths are in those under the age of 45).

Indeed, the 21st century marks the peak in the rate of population expansion. According to the UN’s latest projections, it will take 15 years to reach 9bn and then a further 21 years to reach 10bn, before the world population peaks at 10.4bn in 2085.

The driver of this deceleration is a steady reduction in the number of children each woman bears during her lifetime. Over the last half-century, the total fertility rate (TFR) has halved. Again, this is due to medical advances like contraception and urbanization where large families are not necessary to farm the land.  Most human beings now live in cities and towns.  Global fertility is now down to 2.3 live births per woman. More than half of all countries – including the two most populous nations, China and India – are actually below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per couple. Some territories in East Asia (e.g. Korea and Hong Kong) have a fertility rate below one.

That brings us to the crucial figure for capital – growth in the working age population.  In the decade to 2022, the working age population expanded by around 1% p.a. globally. But that was less than half the rate prevailing in the second half of the 20th century.  Many large countries will see their workforce decline from hereon.  The demographic ‘crisis’ so often referred to for China applies to many other major economies.

The available global workforce for capital is set to decline if current trends continue.  Can this be compensated for by faster growth in the productivity of the existing labour force? Well, despite all the promise of the internet age, trend labour productivity growth, as measured by output per hour worked, has actually slowed markedly over the last couple of decades. It now averages just 0.6% p.a. across the bloc of G7 economies. That’s the slowest it’s been in the last half century. 

I have explained the reasons for this general slowdown in the productivity growth of labour in previous posts. The long-term decline in the profitability of capital globally has lowered growth in productive investment and thus labour productivity growth.  Capitalism is finding it ever more difficult to expand the ‘productive forces’. 

The US economy is the best performer of the major advanced capitalist economies at only 1.4% annual labour productivity growth over the last five years. All others are at a sub-1% annual pace. If we now combine these trend productivity growth numbers with likely working age population growth, we glean an insight into future GDP growth prospects.  

The Anglo-Saxon economies, boosted by net immigration, may be able to sustain positive real GDP growth – but at a pathetic trend rate of 1.0-1.5% (at best), well below 20th century trend.  Japan and the Eurozone economies, are heading for a post-growth existence, with trend real GDP contraction of as much as 0.5-1.0% p.a.  So if you support the idea of ‘de-growth’, then you will get your wish in those regions over the next decade.  And remember, these long-term projections ignore the probability of sharp slumps in production and investment in every decade ahead.

All this suggests that the capitalist mode of production is in a terminal phase.  However, there are still areas of exploitation of labour that have yet to be fully tapped by capital. Half the projected next billion increase in global population in the 15 years to 2037 will be in Africa.  Indeed, thereafter, the entirety of net world population growth will be African!

Capital can expand if it can increase value from the exploitation of more labour or increase the rate of exploitation of the existing workforce.  The latter is increasingly difficult and growth in the former is decelerating – except in Africa.  This continent has suffered centuries of slave exports to the advanced world and the break-up through colonial occupation of its native lands.  Now it must face the prospect of increased exploitation of its burgeoning workforce as capital seeks new sources of labour to boost profitability.

17 thoughts on “The demographic future and labour

  1. When investigating populations both a quantitative and qualitative approach is needed. While it is true that longevity has risen until recently, what has fallen has been healthy life expectancy, the years free of chronic illness which ultimately reduces longevity itself. Here is the ONS data on the subject which unfortunately is defective because it is limited to incapacitating chronic illnesses only therefore excluding pernicious chronic illnesses.

    I am reminded of the letter sent to Congress by the Chiefs of Staff complaining about the difficulty in recruiting new young soldiers because they were either obese, chronically ill, undereducated, or suffering from substance abuse. This has been highlighted as well by the number of workers who are too ill following the pandemic reducing the reserve army of labour. It strikes me the capitalists are not so much killing the goose that laid the golden egg, but shitting in their nest as well.

    One of my great concerns is that the inheritance bequeathed to workers after the revolution will include hundreds of millions of workers in poor health, additional hundreds of millions who are brain stunted due to malnutrition before during and after birth, all of which takes generations to work through.

  2. “All this suggests that the capitalist mode of production is in a terminal phase. However, there are still areas of exploitation of labour that have yet to be fully tapped by capital.” U.S. capitalism entered this terminal phase in 1973. The cause is not simply a quantitative fall in the rate of profit, but a barrier to capital accumulation, the one that Marx phrased as the time when the relations of production become a fetter on the development of the forces of production.

    Africa remains a field of capitalist industrialization, and India will probably figure in, too, and also Latin America. However, in some sense the ratio of stagnant U.S., Europe, and Asia to these economies still becomes heavy, and with that, “then begins an era of social revolution.”

  3. My opinion, just food for thought, as I think the ramifications of demography in capitalism are yet to be fully analyzed.


    Demographic decline is undoubtedly a catastrophe for capitalism, and it is an absolute limit to it (that is, it doesn’t have a way around it; it is a causal factor for collapse).

    However, capitalism has a few tricks up its sleeves to at least delay a little bit its inevitable death due to population loss.

    Let’s assume labor productivity is fixed.

    For the First World countries (advanced capitalist, industrialized nations), we have that:

    1) the only way out to a non-positive population growth is to extend the lives of the already existing human beings. The problem is that Western Medicine — the most advanced paradigm of medicine we have today — has reached a ceiling, where it cannot extend useful life anymore. It is very good at keeping old people alive, but not alive and well: a 100 year old people is of no use to capital if she has been essentially agonizing on the bed for the last 35 years;

    2) people retire at 65 years (before the 2008 meltdown, people retired even earlier in some First World countries), so, from the point of view of capital, it is immaterial if an individual human being is going to live past 65; yes, the elderly care and hospital industries would profit from more old people existing, but, for capital as a whole, that would not compensate the loss of value of the other sectors, and also, those industries depend on people within their useful lifetimes to function, as living labor vivifies dead labor in the capitalist system;

    3) even if life expectancy keeps creeping up, and useful lifetime continues to creep up somehow, and if we get rid of retirement altogether, we have that most of this life expectancy gain go to women, as it appears men have already reached their biological limit to longevity. The problem here is that, due to the sexual division of labor of capitalism, women are less productive than men (we can attest that from the fact that men earn, on average, more than women; which, assuming an equal sexual distribution in the middle class and the unproductive working class, indicates higher productivity per unit of labor time by men). Since productivity of labor is fixed and demographic growth is negative or zero, that would mean a slow but sure decline of labor productivity (potentially). In that situation, capital could either also try to promote (if biologically possible) the rise of life expectancy of men, or force women to work in traditionally masculine labor functions. Or they could promote the fall of life expectancy of women in combination with the first measure. All of these would have to happen without any rise in productivity of labor, though, that is, with the means already at disposal of capital. In this sense, lowering life expectancy would be the easiest and the most proactive to capital: it would just have to legalize child labor — the sooner a human being starts to work, the less she will live, due to the inevitable wear and tear of the human body during the process of doing productive labor (some States of the USA have already signed some child labor laws since the COVID-19 pandemic, most lowering the age limit to 14 — but it could be lowered even further, if the necessity of reproduction of capital requires);

    4) from the point of view of class, most of life expectancy growth goes to the capitalist and middle classes, which are parasitic. That means the rise of life expectancy is a factor of falling productivity of labor to capital; the only mitigating solution for that would be to continue with the process of brain drain from the Third World, thus inducing the fall of the wages and therefore the life quality of the middle class. However, since we’re assuming absolute demographic stagnation or decline, it is patent the Third World will eventually lose the capacity to serve the First World.

    In the Third World countries (i.e. the agrarian nations), the contradictions of falling demography are less severe from the point of view of the survival of capitalism pure and simple, because life expectancy is closer to the useful life expectancy (i.e. few people even reach the age of retirement), but it is more severe in the cyclical sense, since the economies of the Third World are much more extensive than the First World ones. In this case, the Third World would suffer from cyclical shocks of sudden falling profitability, followed by a series of crises (which could assume some cyclical appearance depending on the established flow of brain drain enforced by the First World).

    However, the greatest triumph of the Third World from the point of view of capital is the fact that it is, ultimately, disposable: the core of modern capitalism is the First World countries. If the Third World implodes, capitalism would still survive, albeit in a much more decayed form.

    1. I like the brutality of your thinking VK but I wonder whether you are falsely attributing to Capital a thinking, and calculating personna, acting decisively to achieve ends that are not immediately obvious correlates of profit seeking. The way Michael has explained future potential trends has all related back to the fundamental contradictions of capitalism and its social relations, in which profit seeking capitalists are individually caught up in as much as the workers. For actions to be taken based on your analysis it seems there would need to be more of a cabal directing capitalism than a bunch of profit seeking idiots caught up in their own ideology and propaganda? I know, thinking of a parallel that the welfare state in UK was developed in part because of the frailty of soldiers conscripted in Boer and 1st World Wars and the need for healthier workers and soldiers, but the thinking and planning involved in your options seems a lot more convoluted and I dont think there’s a coordinating body for capital?

      1. In order to analyze the purely demographic aspect of capitalism, I assumed productivity of labor to be constant. I also assumed capitalism as it exists today, that is, that Western Medicine is not going to be revolutionized anymore (that is, no cure for senescence, no cure for Alzheimer, no cure for cancer, no genetic engineering to eliminate genetic diseases etc. etc. etc.).

        In the limit (i.e. as a tendency), I think my assumptions are theoretically sound: capitalism would have to legalize child labor, eliminate pension systems, dissolve its sexual division of labor and lower life expectancy (specially of women) to the closest possible.

        Note that, if we analyze this tendency I put up, we can clearly see why the modern-day far-right (neofascism, neonazism, alt-rightism, et al) is destined to fail: if we were to ritualistic kill old people in concentration/euthanasia camps like the modern far-right proposes, that would only depress even further the valorization process, because concentration camps are also industries of capitalism, therefore would need thousands of young people to operate. Legalizing and enforcing child labor is the only long term option for capital. However, even legalizing child labor would not save capitalism as it exists today, because child labor would deepen further the process of imbecilization of the people, that is, it would create a further depression on labor productivity because children who start to work earlier are educated less; the far-right would try to slow this contradiction down by dividing humankind into superior and inferior races, where one “superior race” would be given the privilege to study for long periods and assuming the more specialized, productive functions — but then it wouldn’t matter, because, again, we’re assuming, for the sake of the argument, that demographic growth is zero or negative. Long story short: it is impossible for capitalism to keep its labor productivity constant, even when we assume it is constant. If we assume it is constant then in the real capitalist world it is always falling in potentia.

        Obviously, we don’t live in a capitalist world where labor productivity is fixed. In practice, we have the factor of the development of the productive forces. If we assume labor productivity can rise, then a lot of way outs to demographic failure are open: robots, human augmentation, cybernetics, further automation, genetic engineering, medicine revolution, fusion energy etc. etc. But then they all assume a new Kondratiev Cycle, and that’s the moral of the story: capitalism desperately needs to ignite a new KC right now; if it fails to do so, then we can start to seriously think about the end of capitalism.

  4. Better sewage? OIL. Cleaner water? OIL. Vaccinations? Medicines ? OIL. Productivity growth slowed? OIL (the lack of it). Idea of ‘de-growth’? FACT of de-growth, OIL again, (the lack of it, again). Capitalist mode of production in a terminal phase? INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY in a terminal phase: capitalist or anarchist or communist or socialist, choose your favourite utopia, if it needs OIL to work it’s DOOMED.
    “Global conventional crude oil production peaked in 2008 at 69.5 mb/d and has since fallen by around 2.5 mb/d.” Page 45 of the World Energy Outlook 2018 by the International Energy Agency.

  5. Reblogged this on DAMIJAN blog and commented:
    “According to US Center for Disease Control and Prevention data, more than 100,000 Americans died of overdose in 2021, representing a fivefold increase over the last 20 years. That figure is now on a par with diabetes-linked deaths, which are up “just” 43% over the same period.

    The US has long suffered an opioid epidemic. This used to account for around half of all overdoses – mostly from prescribed painkillers and drugs like heroin and methadone. But since 2014 the death toll from synthetic opioids, mainly Fentanyl, has gone through the roof. In 2021, they played a role in two-thirds of all overdose fatalities. On current trends it won’t be long before Fentanyl alone claims more victims than diabetes. The difference for life expectancy being that whereas Covid and diabetes generally kill the old, Fentanyl disproportionately affects the young (around 60% of opioid deaths are in those under the age of 45).”

  6. In terms of quality life years lost the opioid epidemic -created by big pharma- caused more damage that the manipulated hysteria of the “died within 28 days of a positive test for SARS-CoV-2 in the USA. Covid itself had very little impact on mortality in the less developed world contrary to the wild forecasts of the modellers. The problem of course lies in the “from and with” categories, which allowed pliant regimes to the WHO and big pharma’s whims to grotesquely conjure up plague deaths that were 10 times higher than the actual deaths. The Chinese have exposed this now. They do not count deaths with positive tests as deaths from Covid only those who died with a clinically identified “severe acute respiratory syndrome” i.e. a viral pneumonia. Of course if you accept the Western lies you can say as 80% -90% of China has recently had an “infection” (regardless of whether symptomatic or not) that 80-90% of the 27K deaths that happen everyday in China are Covid deaths. Then you can conjure up over 24K Covid deaths a day.
    There are 30 western countries that now have significant excess deaths there is of course one common factor- the same factor that caused the opioid epidemic the power and lies of big pharma. The fact that the left encouraged the working classes to roll up their sleeves for the profits of Pfizer and Moderna remains a mystery and a scandal.

    1. Of course that differential diagnosis is and always will be better than mass diagnosis. However, doing differential during a pandemic is literally impossible in today’s day and age: even the richest nations don’t have enough doctors per capita to meet the daily needs of the average person in a non-pandemic situation, let alone during a pandemic.

      You’re not going to do one million autopsies plus in a space of one year just because you want to be 100% sure a random individual died of COVID-19 or with COVID-19. You just go with the epidemiologists and trace a statistical model to guess. This model is not perfect, but it is infinitely better and more precise than any far-right conspiracy theory out there.

      1. There were autopsied carried out in Hamburg on all Covid attributed deaths by Prof Klaus Puschel in 2020 in defiance of the Robert Koch Institute.
        He found nearly every one of their bodies were in such a moribund state that any agent could have killed them. There was a prohibition on autopsies around the world justified by the farcical claim that the pathologists might get ill. The dead teach the living and this provides the basis for understanding the course of disease. The refusal to permit autopsies was deliberately designed to prevent understanding and effective interventions and in the recent period the same approach conceals the investigation of the current cause of excess deaths in 30 western countries.
        The Covid models were totally false as this paper by John P.A.Ioannidis proved.
        There was however a propaganda campaign orchestrated at the top of the pandemic tree to spread the story that those did not believe the narrative were “right wing”, thus Jeremy Corbyn supporting Sunetra Gupta, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Mexico’s leftist president Lopez Obrador could all be lumped in with Trump, Bolsonaro and be slandered as flat earthers and “anti-science” while elevating big Pharma as our saviour.

    2. “The problem of course lies in the “from and with” categories, which allowed pliant regimes to the WHO and big pharma’s whims to grotesquely conjure up plague deaths that were 10 times higher than the actual deaths. The Chinese have exposed this now. ”

      So why did China ever adopt the “zero Covid” policy?

      1. China adopted this policy against Xi Jinping, Hubei locked down on 23 Jan 2020 this was Chinese New year, 5 million migrant workers out of 11 million Wuhan residents had left the city in the 10 days before the lockdown. So when the outbreak did not spread Xi called for a reopening on 8 February less than 3 weeks into the lockdown. But local officials and lower level bureaucrats refused to reopen. These layers of society and of the state bureaucracy gained power, prestige and resources in the name of serving the health and welfare of the people. China experienced 20 years during which medical protests at hospitals were the epicentre of social unrest, killing and injuring doctors and medical staff to secure compensation was an entire industry and is known as yinao e.g. see:
        In China Covid-19 increased the power of local officials and accelerated the shift to central and local government policies designed to increase spending and programmes aimed at improving the lives of migrant workers and their health provision, moved which corresponded to moves against big capital.
        The local residents committees organised the lockdowns, but as so many urban residents live in tower blocks and formed wechat groups one side effect was that the people became organised and it is this that threat that broke the lockdowns.

  7. As I get older it seems to me that Marx’s fundamental theory, the general law of accumulation and the long-run tendency of the rate of profit to fall makes certain predictions, so to speak. It “predicts” that the capitalist world works like this:

    There will be a business/industrial cycle caused by contradictions in the production process which cannot be erased by monetary or financial policies, which are not only after the fact but forget that credit must be a process containing a moment of commodity circulation that in effect makes payments;

    The business/industrial cycle is driven by changes in the profit rate and level of profits, thus a theory of profit rooted in the production process is essential to economic analysis;

    Neither hard money nor soft money can cure the failures of capitalist systems;

    There will be a secular trend toward lower profit rates;

    There will be a tendency for accumulation to favor labor saving innovation, despite countervailing tendencies favoring fixed and circulating capital innovation that cheapens the value of raw materials (including energy);

    The necessary, defining multiplicity of capitals drives accumulation, even as the development of credit and management socializes the technical process of production;

    Profits and profit rates will decline lowering investment, leading to the downturn, rather than underconsumption;

    There will be a trend toward concentration and centralization of capitals, which will engender an increased division of labor in the form of new industries and spheres of circulation, recreating a new petty bourgeoisie even as the surviving haute bourgeoisie reaches stratospheric heights;

    The tendential fall of profit rates and profits will lead to financial speculation;

    The relentless need for value will lead to the formation of an industrial reserve army which cannot and will not be abolished in a capitalist system;

    There will be a tendency to relative immiseration of the proletariat, though it may be partially hidden by the difficulties of analyzing relative surplus value as well as the historical and moral standards prevailing in different nations;

    There will also be a tendency for absolute immiseration, revealed in the ineradicable persistence of absolute poverty below the norm despite the formal possibility of the abolition of such poverty in wealthier countries;

    The state is crucial to the creation of the market system, being the defense of property and the builder of a national market, a national currency, in short, a bourgeois nation;

    Each national bourgeoisie needs its state as a weapon of class struggle in defense of its property against other classes as well as other states;

    The relative autonomy of the state is a contradictory combination of the need to police rivalries within the ruling class (the bourgeoisie, great and small) and the tactical need for members of the other classes to carry out essential tasks, just as in ancient democracies and republics;

    Capitalist crisis resolves the contradictions of the previous cycle by devaluing capital/bankruptcy, reworking the division of labor so that labor productivity is raised and by cheapening the constant capital, in various degrees according to the specific characteristics of each period and country, with some sectors concentrated and centralized, and other new sectors emerging and savagely disciplining the working class with unemployment;

    The social destruction caused by mass unemployment tends to increase on a secular scale for the world system as a whole, even if a selective focus on the so-called successful capitalist countries hides this;

    Imperialism is not a policy but a way of life and death for capitalism;

    The capitalist world system is increasingly irrational.

    Aside from taking an inordinate length of the reader’s (?) time, what does this prove except that most would disagree, probably especially Michael Roberts, whose patience is impressive? After all, some of these points are wholly opposed to the prevalent opinions here. To me it proves that Marx is mostly right, and academic economists are mostly wrong, because so far as I can see, it is Marx’s “predictions” that correctly describe so much of the world, not just in the nineteenth century but in many ways today as well. But it also shows in my view that Marx was in fact in wrong as a prophet, or even an economic forecaster. Marx did not “predict” fascism, which emerged by the way at the end of the heyday of imperialism the Great War which didn’t make the world safe for democracy after all. It was the beginning of the end for the old order. Engels famously predicted the magnitude of the Great War but he didn’t predict Mussolini.

    And the relevance of all this to the original post, fascism is the short answer to explain why I’m afraid I must reject this post’s relevance. In a period of capitalist decay, the annihilation of competing capitals called nations, the cheapening of constant capital in raw materials and energy by conquest (even if it’s called by another name, like “friendshoring,”) entails the annihilation of huge numbers of enemy peoples in the struggle. Yes, it is insane to kill off laborers en masse, and depriving the system of value, but the false consciousness of capitalists denies the role of value, or even of the production process itself! In the long run, investing in Africa the infrastructure to exploit the labor power of the rising population will eventually raise the productivity of labor. But in addition to the objective costs, not the least of which is compensating for the climate damage to so much of the continent, it is not just a question whether an single state/bourgeoisie can “afford” this? The problem is that a state is a weapon of class struggle and the bourgeoisie’s struggle for “Africa” is controlled by their interest in a developed Africa. The thing is, if they don’t own it, they don’t have an interest.

    Again, the system is insane. The fascist version of the great war is not a clash of colonial empires as in WWI, but a hybrid form. I believe that has already begun. And thus I’m sorry, the OP is a kind of science fiction, a somewhat plausible if fanciful extrapolation, going astray by misreading what’s already happening.

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