Men and women across much of the world are failing to have enough children to maintain the workforce in their nations. Around 2050, the world population will begin to decline. How can companies attract, hire, and retain enough high-quality workers in the population-challenged future?
By Mark D, Harris
The future of HR is inexorably tied to the future of demography and technology in the United States and throughout the world. Cultural changes will also play an important role. These changes are overwhelming in their power and even in their novelty. Chief executives who wish for their companies to succeed will have to lead their companies and their communities through these daunting challenges. How can they do that?
The first and most important issue facing politicians, executives, and everyone else is the current population decline in many major economic nations, and the not-too-distant future decline of the world population. Older estimates foresee continual world population growth, but newer ones predict a population decline beginning around mid-century (Bateman, 2021). By 2050, fertility rates for over 150 countries will likely be below replacement, and once population decline has begun, it is unlikely to ever reverse (Vollset et al., 2020). The last global population decline was caused by the Black Death in the fourteenth century, but fertility rates were high and the population rapidly recovered (DeWitte, 2014).
How will this baby bust impact business? On the most basic level, people who do not exist neither produce nor consume goods or services. Even if companies automate large portions of their operations, thereby eliminating many jobs, demand will fall. Robots don’t buy houses, watch television, or eat hamburgers. Over the long term and beyond a certain level of wealth, 500 people simply cannot consume as much as 1,000 people can. While one wealthy American can certainly consume as much as 1,000 impoverished Africans, one wealthy America cannot consume as much as 1,000 or even 500 middle class Americans can.
The people who remain will be older, and older people consume less (except health care) than younger people do (Foster, 2015). Economies will shrink. Countries will increasingly compete for the only source of growth, immigration, but that will be merely a temporary fix, since almost every country is heading for smaller populations. Families worldwide are simply not producing enough children.
Some argue that a smaller human population is better for climate change. While the earth’s climate is indeed changing, estimates of the human contribution to climate change are overblown. Climate science itself is unsettled (Koonin, 2021). The economic risks of climate change are fewer and easier to mitigate than previously believed (Economist, 2022). The population status best for human (and planetary) flourishing is slow and steady growth, spread evenly across the globe.
What can business leaders do? As a first recommendation, they can pursue policies which are family friendly, such as some of those in the UNICEF handbook (UNICEF, 2020). Executives can offer health insurance, time off, and other benefits which, though they are available to all employees, mitigate the cost of raising children (Lino, 2020). Employee work-life balance should be a goal (Wood et al., 2020). Such actions will make companies more competitive in the hiring market. State and federal elected leaders must enact family friendly legislation, as opposed to the current family-unfriendly laws including the marriage penalty from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
For a second recommendation, organizational executives can make policies enabling older workers, neuro-diverse workers (such as those with autism), ex-cons, and others with non-traditional backgrounds to succeed in their businesses (Valentine et al., 2020). Top level bosses should support elected leaders who prioritize border security and reasonable immigration reform. Companies should step up their recruiting efforts to hire the best and the brightest throughout the world. With multinational organizations, those new recruits may not even have to leave the land of their birth.
Third, leaders can eliminate overbearing rules prohibiting the free exercise of religion in the workplace, as religious expression is directly related to fertility (Götmark & Andersson, 2020). Onerous workplace rules, such as those related to cultural expression, should be minimized in a workplace that is necessarily becoming more diverse (Valentine et al., 2020).
As a final recommendation, many organizations, especially those which are large and multinational, have the potential to improve the stability of regions and countries in which they work (Harris, 2022). In so doing, they can protect their investments (for example, global supply chains), while optimizing their workforce and profits. Track two diplomacy is an example of non-governmental organizations and even individuals negotiating with their counterparts throughout the world to accomplish mutual goals (Jones, 2015). Trans-cultural awareness (including performance management) and clear goals are paramount in influencing other leaders, prospective employees, and even customers (Brown et al., 2018).
The world in the past sixty years has not become secularized but desecularized (Harris, 2022). Religion has become more of a factor in world events, not less. Business and other leaders must account for the fact that their employees, customers, and other stakeholders, especially those in the non-Western world, see religion as a major part of their lives (Smock, 2008). Long held assumptions in the professional world, that religion could safely be ignored, are false. Keller would welcome this development, as only in Christ can work ever attain its ultimate meaning (2016). He would, however, specify that religion writ large is not enough. Christ alone is sufficient. Hardy, likewise, would welcome the implicit reality of the divine economy in these developments, but would insist that any religion is no better than no religion (1990). The ancient Greeks had plenty of religion as they grappled with the meaning of work, but they failed to discover the meaning of work. Truth is in Christ alone.
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