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Peak Population and Generation X
Alex Steffen, 29 Nov 08

The babies born between 1965 and 1970 were historic. They were part of the highest global population growth rate ever achieved, 2.1 percent a year. As Joel Cohen writes,

Human population never grew with such speed before the 20th century and is never again likely to grow with such speed. Our descendants will look back on the late 1960s peak as the most significant demographic event in the history of the human population even though those of us who lived through it did not recognize it at the time.

Put another way, you might say that the birth of Generation X (which more or less book-ends those years) was the beginning of our planet's era of peak human population.

It's easy to get blase about demographics; big, abstract numbers thought about over numbing time-periods, and recounted by people who love statistics. It would be a mistake, however, to fail to see peak population as a hugely important insight, because when we know that we are riding a wave of increasing numbers (and increasing longevity) that will crest sometime after the middle of this century, we can also see that

1) The longer population growth rates remain high, the more total people there will be on the planet when we reach peak population, so one of our biggest goals ought to be seeing to it by every ethical means possible that the wave of population growth crests sooner rather than later.

2) If we are successful in reaching peak population sooner, at a lower number of people, rather than later with more people, we will be much more able to confront the myriad interlocking crises we face -- a comparatively less crowded planet is an easier planet on which to build a bright green future.

3) Since we know the single best way of bringing down high birth rates is to empower women by giving them access to reproductive health choices (including contraception and abortion), education, economic opportunities, and legal protection of their rights, empowering women ought to be one of our highest priorities. (As Kim Stanley Robinson puts it, empowering women is the best climate change technology.)

4) Our other main task is to preserve natural systems and transform human economies in order to best withstand this wave of human beings, avoid catastrophe and leave behind as intact a world as we can -- to save the parts (including not just biodiversity but also the diversity of human cultures and histories) so that future generations have as many options as possible.

5) Our best hopes for both avoiding catastrophe and preserving our heritage all hinge on our actions over roughly the next two decades. In that time we have enormous work to do: create at least the model of a zero-carbon, zero-waste civilization; begin deep and widespread impact reduction here in the developed world; sustainably raise the prospects of those (especially women) living in the developing world; and preserve as many working parts of our planetary heritage as we possibly can. After that time, all of these jobs will grow progressively harder, trending quickly towards impossibility.

Add all of this information together, and a generational imperative emerges. Generation X can be seen as the beginning of peak population; many of us (born between roughly 1960 and 1980) may live to see population peak in the middle of this century; and much of the most important work to be done to see us through to the other side of that watershed will need to be done in the next twenty years, when Generation X'ers are in their professional prime. We did not cause the crisis we face -- unless you count us guilty at birth -- but if the crisis is solved, it'll have to be in large part through the leadership of people born in my generation. Our historic call is to save the planet during peak population.

I am optimistic that we can do this. We have our first Gen X U.S. president in Barack Obama. We have a rising network of brilliant and dedicated worldchanging leaders. We live, despite the financial crisis, at a moment of great wealth. We have the motive, means and opportunity.

None of this is to say that Gen X will do it alone. In particular, if you're young today, you have a huge choice to make: this transition will be unfolding your entire career, and the role you choose to play in making it happen will be vitally important to your life, the planet and the future. You too are called.

At the same time, few 18 year-olds have the mix of experience, energy and resources for changing the world that, say, a 35 year-old has. Since the moment is now, it's those of us at the height of our powers that will have to lead the way.

Contemplating this journey beyond peak population, and the duty we have to lead it -- well, it can weigh on you. I find it useful to remember that by changing the world today, we're building a better future beyond the crisis, that we work not only on our own behalf, but for children who will not be born within our lifetimes, and their children, and their's: that we'll make great ancestors.

But I also find it helpful to remember that these are our lives, and this is our adventure; and though times are tough and the planet demands our hard work, it also needs people who are happy, healthy and creatively energetic. The world needs our best-lived lives, not our martyrdom.

Or, as the great American poet Gary Snyder wrote, back in the early seventies, when we were just small,

For the Children

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

Or, as you might say, "Keep climbing. Share tools. Have a good time on the way."

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Obama is not a GenXer. As many influential experts and publications have repeatedly pointed out, Obama is part of Generation Jones, born 1954-1965, between the Baby Boomers and Generation X. Give it a google.

Posted by: Jennifer Williams on 29 Nov 08

Thanks for the comment, and I certainly agree that people can define generations in different ways, but I'm afraid that coinage seems a bit silly to me.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 30 Nov 08

There is disagreement over what defines a generation, and whether it is 10 years or 20, depending on the writer. The 1960-1980 figure is used for the "13th Generation" construction, and often this is used interchangably with Generation X.
It's a perfectly common usage.

Given that generational boundaries are essentially arbitrary, some dispute is inevitable. But personally, the argument that there is a non-boomer, non-Gen X generation between the Baby Boom and Generation X is splitting hairs too fine, I think. I've seen this period called the late boom, but to call it something else entirely is odd. It is emphatically not a universally accepted term.

Posted by: Wrye on 30 Nov 08

Extremely good points, Alex. As controversial as it sounds, there need to be minimum income requirements/I.Q. tests for prospective parents. No more teens (or any else, for that matter) having children they can't provide for.

Posted by: Alex M. Thompson on 30 Nov 08

I assume this is based, directly or indirectly, on the 2001 U.N. population study that predicted peak population in 2050. (It also predicted that the U.S. would be the only developed nation in the top 20 most populated nations.) Europe is already in decline, and has been since 2003.

I consider this prediction interesting, but high risk. It's far enough out that an awful lot of unanticipated things could change it: climate change, peak oil, even the current global economic crisis.

But 2050 is still an interesting number. I don't expect to see it -- I'm 52 -- but given unanticipated medical breakthroughs, it could happen. But that same medical breakthrough might change the prediction too, drastically affecting the death rate at least among the developed nations.

Posted by: Chip Overclock on 30 Nov 08

@AlexM - what where?

If you read the fine article, as they say, you'll note that it already gives a solution for population growth - empowering women. Developed nations already have near-zero population growth, some slightly negative; it's a solved problem. No further solutions are required.

In addition, an income and intelligence requirement would have several problems. Most obviously, how would it be enforced? If a woman is already pregnant, it's a bit difficult. Then there are minor issues, like who would set the tests, what would be on them and how fairly they'd be applied. Finally, such a system has never been demonstrated to be actually effective at reducing population growth.

Posted by: sabik on 30 Nov 08

0% or negative population growth does not seem to be an answer either and if it is, then that means we're accepting the slow death of a nation. And the article does not say that but instead "to save the parts (including not just biodiversity but also the diversity of human cultures and histories) so that future generations have as many options as possible." If you've ever visited those 0%/negative growth countries, you would know that they are begging their women to produce because who but the youngest generations will provide for the old (aka social security, job force in geriatric care and related fields, etc.). And providing for them should be the youngest's responsibility since they had provided for us at one point. And not only are they begging the women to make babies (i.e. in France, if you have 3+ kids, you become the "Mother on France" and get bountiful cash breaks from the government.)... similar normally ethnocentric nations are beginning to open their doors to immigrants in desperation!

Posted by: Jessica on 30 Nov 08

@Sabik: I don't think the argument here is that only certain nations should keep their populations under control. That is what leads to the situation you're describing. Rather, it is total world population that must eventually peak. This is trivially easy to see by observing what would happen with an arbitrarily large population given fixed resources. The questions at hand are: when will we reach it and how will we deal with the difficult aspects of this demographic shift? Unending growth cannot be the answer.

Posted by: Joel Webber on 30 Nov 08

Whoops, that was @Jessica.

Posted by: Joel Webber on 30 Nov 08


Sure, negative growth leads to extinction if pursued long enough. But is not meant to be a permanent state of affairs. If there is a risk of species-wide annihilation at this moment in history, it comes from overpopulation, not underpopulation.

The best solution for negative growth is to keep people healthy and productive for a larger fraction of their lives, rather than requiring that unsustainable population levels be sustained.

Posted by: Bryce on 30 Nov 08

First, yes of COURSE Obama is a member of GenX!

Older male genx propagate that nonsense that genx doesn't start until 1964 because it's far more advantageous for them professionally to be paid on the scale of Boomers (or "jonesers," which is to say Boomers who didn't manage to get their "fair share.")

But the point of a culture is that it has common attributes.

Tell me: what is the structure of Obama's family? What is his racial heritage and identity? Where did he live - did he have a stable physical situation?

And most importantly, does he strike you as bearing responsbility because no one else is going to do it? Is he hyper-responsible? Would he do it for no thanks because it has to get done anyway and it's just easier for him to do it than to get an ulcer watching someone else screw up?

Second, yes, Generation X has a critical leadership style that will carry us through this crisis. Boomers -- whether they live to 180 or not -- might do well to just move aside and provide resources based on the anticipatory demand and leadership of those from 28-47.

Here's a very brief proposal at as well as an article I wrote on the topic a while ago: Attention Boomers! This is the new face of Leadership

Posted by: Jessica Margolin on 30 Nov 08

dont rule out male birth control. especially the best kind of all, the vasectomy? right? hell yeah. i got mine when i was 24. no kids yet and i'm 31. its great. there's basically no surgery involved, and your girlfriend and you dont ever have to be worried again. and she doesnt have to be in birth control pills, so she can smoke ciggy's and drink coffee throughout the day, like people are meant to. i like your ideas, i'm with you on it.

Posted by: elias swann on 1 Dec 08

@ELIAS SWANN: "so she can smoke ciggy's and drink coffee throughout the day, like people are meant to"

Another great form of population control!

Posted by: 13strong on 1 Dec 08

I think we should just allow those folks that can understand the exponential function to have children.

Posted by: whiskey on 3 Dec 08

35 years ago we made the same statements when we had 3 billion on the planet. We need to actively increase the death rate not just deal with the birthrate. If we implemented a 2 child policy it would take 75 years to stabilize our population. Who thinks this is realistic to implement?

There are no feel good solutions remaining. THe most effective means to reduce the human population is forthe collective society to start acting like the german citizens in WWII. Start to rally around a destabilizing dictators that will create so much chaos that we will have wars, disease and famine as a result of leadership that promotes more chaos. We need more Stalins and Hitlers. That is is quickest way to reduce the population fast and reduce the exponential suffering that will happen if we continue to insist that there is an equitable solution to our over population

Posted by: Peter on 6 Dec 08

Sorry, but Mr Obama is part of the Boomer generation born between 1946 and 1964. He's not a "Xer as you say he is.

Posted by: Jack on 6 Dec 08

I have bad news for those who have faith that empowering women will deal with population growth.

What is the essential pre-requisite for women to have "access to reproductive health choices (including contraception and abortion), education, economic opportunities, and legal protection of their rights?"

Paul Erlich is famous for "I = P * A * T" -- Impact equals Population times Affluence times Technology. But what is "affluence," anyway? I'll tell you: it's access to energy.

Affluence is what allows women to have "reproductive health choices." Affluence is how women get education. Affluence is where women's economic opportunities come from. Affluence is how women get legal protection.

Without cheap energy, all the hard-won gains of women go away. Without cheap energy, women become more dependent on -- and subservient to -- the men who go out and bring home the bacon. Without cheap energy, people will return to the age-old tactic of breeding their own slave labour force.

So the bad news is that as energy declines, birth rates will go up. Trust me. Or not -- look at the "boomlet" of the last energy crisis, in the '70's. They call it the "echo boom," but if the boomers who were just entering reproductive age had been affluent, they would not have had an echo boom.

The good news is that as affluence (energy use) goes down, so might the environmental impact, even as population increases. The average lifespan will drop to the mid-40's, as it was before cheap energy, and population will sustain itself at the edge of misery.

Sorry for brightening your day. But remember, "correlation is not causation," and all this talk of "empowering women" won't work if the "power" part of "empower" doesn't exist in a physical sense. Without cheap energy, women will be dis-empowered, and population will take off again.

Posted by: Jan Steinman on 6 Dec 08

Population is not the real issue. The distribution of resources, and over consumption is the problem. Ghandi said that the earth has enough for every man's need, but not every man's greed.

Posted by: thallia on 9 Dec 08

I suspect that the overwhelming demographic weight of the boomers explains a part of the "GenX" mentality -- even if these generations are over-hyped. You grew up with a very limited prospect of attaining meaningful power. It will only be a few years before the kids of the boomers take over again.

Posted by: nanne on 6 Apr 10

I suspect the peak will be way, way before 2050. And the fall will be much steeper than the rise has been. On top of the increasing downhill momentum due to delayed / non existent procreation, there will be a big world war. Also, we are overdue for a serious issue like a real ice age or a bolide strike. So we're talking Dark Ages II.

An interesting thing is the current economic crisis. I believe it to be something coming from a deeper level than previous crises. I believe it to be the market's anticipation of the coming overall decline in population, progress and quality of life.

Posted by: Peaker on 20 Jul 10

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