The Challenges of Generating Growth in the Face of Declining Populations

John Mauldin |

“They just use your mind and they never give you credit. It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.”

– Dolly Parton, “Working 9 to 5”

Almost everyone wants to be more productive. I include myself in that group – there are lots of ways I could be more productive. When I have conversations with people I think are very productive, they almost always tell me they wish they were more productive. What more could anyone expect from them?

In most cases, they aren’t responding to external demands. No one is cracking a whip over them; they have personal reasons for wanting to produce more. They want their children and grandchildren to produce more, too. It’s almost a cliché in American culture: when the kids become “productive citizens,” a parent can finally feel that he or she succeeded. Multiply this by millions of families, and the result is economic growth.

What exactly do we mean by this “productivity” word? I’ve given this a good deal of thought lately, and I plan to explore it in my newsletters over the next few months. As you will see, productivity growth has both a positive side and a very negative side.

But before we go any further, I want to mention that the presentations and select videos from the 2015 Strategic Investment Conference are finally now available! Featured are videos of two of our most popular speakers, Jeffrey Gundlach and David Rosenberg, plus a number of other high-profile speakers like George Friedman and Louis Gave, plus all the expert panels. If you are a Mauldin Circle member, you can access the videos by going to to log in to your “members only” area of the Altegris website (getting there takes a little navigation). Upon login, click on the “SIC 2015” link in the upper-left corner to view the videos and more. If you have forgotten your login information, simply click “Forgot Login?” and your credentials will be sent to you.

If you are not already a Mauldin Circle member, the good news is that this program is completely free. In order to join, you must, however, be an accredited investor. Please register here to be qualified by my partners at Altegris and added to the subscriber roster. Once you register, an Altegris representative will call you to provide access to the videos and presentations by selected speakers at our 2015 conference.

Productivity & Growth

Productivity is a critical part of the economic growth equation. We track the productivity of entire nations by means of gross domestic product (GDP), the sum total of all the goods and services their people produce. I have some issues with the way we calculate GDP, but it’s the best statistic we have for now. (I wrote an overview last year called “GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History,” which you can read here.)

There are two – and only two – ways you can grow your economy. You can either increase your population or increase your productivity. That’s it.

The Greek letter delta is the symbol for change. So if you want to change your GDP, you write that as

Δ GDP = Δ Population + Δ Productivity

That is, the change (delta) in GDP is equal to the change in population plus the change in productivity.

If you are a country facing a population decline (like Japan), then to keep GDP growing you have to increase productivity even more. That is why I have written so much about demographics over the years. Population growth (or the lack thereof) is very important. Russia is facing a very serious problem over the next 20 years that will require either a significant increase in productivity or a high level of immigration to stave off a collapsing economy. Russia’s population has declined by almost 7 million in the last 19 years, to 142 million. UN estimates are that it may shrink by about a third in the next 40 years. But that’s another story for another letter.

One last economic sidebar. You cannot grow your debt faster than your nominal GDP forever. At some point, the market begins to think that you will not be able to pay your debt back. Think Greece. This is no different from the fact that a family cannot grow its debt faster than its ability to bring in income to pay that debt back. At some point, you run out of the ability to borrow more money, as lenders “just say no.”

As a family’s or a country’s debts grow, the carrying cost or interest expense rises, consuming an ever-larger portion of the budget until a breaking point is eventually reached. While the exact point is a matter for serious debate (and conjecture), there is a level at which debt actually limits the potential growth of an economy. Paraphrasing Clint Eastwood, a country has to know its limitations.

We are going to hear a lot about growth in the coming presidential election. A lot of people are going to offer formulas, but you can check how realistic they are because GDP growth has just three variables. If you want to increase growth, you have to increase:

  • the number of workers, and/or
  • the number of hours they work, and/or
  • the amount they can produce in an hour.

If you want GDP to grow, you have to make at least one of these factors go up without an offsetting decline in the others. Look at any story of economic progress or collapse anywhere in history, and these three variables will explain it.

Here in the United States, for instance, growth took off in the postwar 1950s but really soared in the ’60s and ’70s as newly “liberated” women entered the workforce, raising our total number of workers. In China over the last two decades, people moved from rural subsistence farming to urban industrial jobs. The number of workers in the overall economy didn’t change overnight, but productivity skyrocketed.

Going back further, inventions like the automobile and electricity unlocked tremendous growth by increasing hourly output. Untold thousands of workers went from shoveling horse manure to more advanced occupations.

Shoveling horse manure was honorable work back then. Those workers produced something necessary (clean streets – at least until the next horse came along), but they were capable of doing so much more. We don’t think much about it today, but the average horse produces 9 tons of manure every year. That is about 35 pounds of manure daily, plus 6 to 10 gallons of urine, all of which had to be disposed of. Not to mention the amount of labor it took to feed those horses. One-quarter of agricultural output in 1900 went simply to feed horses.

I was thinking about that last week while I was in lower Manhattan. Some of the streets I walked were still paved in part by the original, uneven cobblestones. What a pain it would have been to keep them clean. Forget sanitation.

 Henry Ford (and a few others) “killed” all those jobs dealing with horses, freed a lot of our agricultural output to be sold all over the world, and thereby opened the door to better times, economically. But a lot of people had to find new employment.

“Better” for those workers was better for everyone. Affordable transportation sped up everything. The result was an economic boom that lasted through the Roaring ’20s. Millions of people left farms, moved to cities, and found high-paying factory jobs.

Do we have a 21st century breakthrough equivalent to the Model T? You bet we do. When autonomous vehicles are ready for prime time in a few years, millions of taxi and truck drivers will lose their jobs. Instead of one person driving one vehicle, we will have human car wranglers managing entire fleets as they roam through the streets. That human’s hourly productivity will be orders of magnitude higher than that of today’s drivers.

So what will the ex-drivers do for work? We don’t know yet. I’m very confident the economy will find ways to keep them productive, but I can’t say how. But their jobs will go away, just as those who shoveled horse manure lost theirs 100 years ago.

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click hereImportant Disclosures

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not represent the views of Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to:


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