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How the Coming Population Bust Will Transform the World

All over the world, countries are confronting population stagnation and a fertility bust, a dizzying reversal unmatched in recorded history that will make first-birthday parties a rarer sight than funerals, and empty homes a common eyesore.

Maternity wards are already shutting down in Italy. Ghost cities are appearing in northeastern China. Universities in South Korea can’t find enough students, and in Germany, hundreds of thousands of properties have been razed, with the land turned into parks.

Like an avalanche, the demographic forces — pushing toward more deaths than births — seem to be expanding and accelerating. Though some countries continue to see their populations grow, especially in Africa, fertility rates are falling nearly everywhere else. Demographers now predict that by the latter half of the century or possibly earlier, the global population will enter a sustained decline for the first time.

A planet with fewer people could ease pressure on resources, slow the destructive impact of climate change and reduce household burdens for women. But the census announcements this month from China and the United States, which showed the slowest rates of population growth in decades for both countries, also point to hard-to-fathom adjustments.

spirals exponentially. With fewer births, fewer girls grow up to have children, and if they have smaller families than their parents did — which is happening in dozens of countries — the drop starts to look like a rock thrown off a cliff.

“It becomes a cyclical mechanism,” said Stuart Gietel Basten, an expert on Asian demographics and a professor of social science and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “It’s demographic momentum.”

Some countries, like the United States, Australia and Canada, where birthrates hover between 1.5 and 2, have blunted the impact with immigrants. But in Eastern Europe, migration out of the region has compounded depopulation, and in large parts of Asia, the “demographic time bomb” that first became a subject of debate a few decades ago has finally gone off.

South Korea’s fertility rate dropped to a record low of 0.92 in 2019 — less than one child per woman, the lowest rate in the developed world. Every month for the past 59 months, the total number of babies born in the country has dropped to a record depth.

schools shut and abandoned, their playgrounds overgrown with weeds, because there are not enough children.

even iPhones.

To goose the birthrate, the government has handed out baby bonuses. It increased child allowances and medical subsidies for fertility treatments and pregnancy. Health officials have showered newborns with gifts of beef, baby clothes and toys. The government is also building kindergartens and day care centers by the hundreds. In Seoul, every bus and subway car has pink seats reserved for pregnant women.

But this month, Deputy Prime Minister Hong Nam-ki admitted that the government — which has spent more than $178 billion over the past 15 years encouraging women to have more babies — was not making enough progress. In many families, the shift feels cultural and permanent.

projections by an international team of scientists published last year in The Lancet, 183 countries and territories — out of 195 — will have fertility rates below replacement level by 2100.

municipalities have been consolidated as towns age and shrink. In Sweden, some cities have shifted resources from schools to elder care. And almost everywhere, older people are being asked to keep working. Germany, which previously raised its retirement age to 67, is now considering a bump to 69.

Going further than many other nations, Germany has also worked through a program of urban contraction: Demolitions have removed around 330,000 units from the housing stock since 2002.

recently increased to 1.54, up from 1.3 in 2006. Leipzig, which once was shrinking, is now growing again after reducing its housing stock and making itself more attractive with its smaller scale.

“Growth is a challenge, as is decline,” said Mr. Swiaczny, who is now a senior research fellow at the Federal Institute for Population Research in Germany.

Demographers warn against seeing population decline as simply a cause for alarm. Many women are having fewer children because that’s what they want. Smaller populations could lead to higher wages, more equal societies, lower carbon emissions and a higher quality of life for the smaller numbers of children who are born.

But, said Professor Gietel Basten, quoting Casanova: “There is no such thing as destiny. We ourselves shape our lives.”

The challenges ahead are still a cul-de-sac — no country with a serious slowdown in population growth has managed to increase its fertility rate much beyond the minor uptick that Germany accomplished. There is little sign of wage growth in shrinking countries, and there is no guarantee that a smaller population means less stress on the environment.

Many demographers argue that the current moment may look to future historians like a period of transition or gestation, when humans either did or did not figure out how to make the world more hospitable — enough for people to build the families that they want.

Surveys in many countries show that young people would like to be having more children, but face too many obstacles.

Anna Parolini tells a common story. She left her small hometown in northern Italy to find better job opportunities. Now 37, she lives with her boyfriend in Milan and has put her desire to have children on hold.

She is afraid her salary of less than 2,000 euros a month would not be enough for a family, and her parents still live where she grew up.

“I don’t have anyone here who could help me,” she said. “Thinking of having a child now would make me gasp.”

Elsie Chen, Christopher Schuetze and Benjamin Novak contributed reporting.

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The Tax Filing Deadline Was Delayed to May 17, but Read the Fine Print

“They hear Tax Day is moved to May 17, so a lot of people will go to their preparer on April 30,” Mr. Stewart said. “Unfortunately, the first-quarter estimated payment is late.”

The conference and other groups representing tax professionals had urged the government to postpone the estimated tax deadline as well. In congressional committee testimony in March, the I.R.S. commissioner, Charles P. Rettig, said the estimated tax deadline hadn’t been changed because it would, in effect, be giving “a break” on interest and penalties to wealthy people, who would invest the money instead of paying the government.

But people who file estimated taxes also include sole proprietors and workers in the gig economy with modest incomes, accountants say. Many people who lost jobs in the pandemic switched to work delivering meals and groceries ordered by mobile apps, said Melanie Lauridsen, senior manager for tax policy and advocacy at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

“That’s where the need is,” Ms. Lauridsen said.

The disconnect between the filing and estimated tax deadlines means tax preparers are pushed to get returns done by the traditional deadline anyway. “It’s putting a tremendous amount of stress on tax preparers,” said Rhonda Collins, director of tax content and government relations with the National Association of Tax Professionals.

In general, filers must estimate what they owe and round up to reduce the risk of underpaying. “It feels like it’s very much a guesstimate,” Ms. Collins said.

Should you incur a penalty when you file your tax return next year, you can request an abatement. Often, the I.R.S. is lenient with first-time errors, she said, especially when there are extenuating circumstances.

It’s also important to keep track of your income in 2021, tax professionals say. Many people had lower incomes than usual during 2020 because of the pandemic, and could see them rise in 2021 if the pandemic wanes as expected and the economy expands. If your income is turning out to be higher than expected, you may need to increase the amounts of your estimated payments later in the year.

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Bob van Dijk of Prosus on the Future of Technology

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Many companies made changes to survive the pandemic. For tech companies, the changes were also about seizing opportunities to thrive as life abruptly moved online. Few companies have juggled these risks and rewards in as many industries, across as many countries, as Prosus, an Amsterdam-based conglomerate that in 2019 was spun out of Naspers, the South African tech and media giant.

Prosus’ holdings run from e-commerce and classifieds to food delivery, fintech and more. The group is valued at around $180 billion, which makes it one of continental Europe’s 10 largest companies. It operates in more than 80 countries and owns sizable stakes in the internet giants Tencent of China and Mail.ru of Russia. The companies that Prosus controls employ around 20,000 people, and many more work as contractors or at companies in which Prosus holds smaller stakes.

Uber, DoorDash and others. But Prosus companies like Delivery Hero and iFood took steps to help preserve long-term good will with its partners at the expense of short-term profits. In Brazil, for example, “we paid restaurants much quicker than we usually did,” Mr. van Dijk said. “From a cash-flow point of view, that was actually pretty important” in keeping restaurants in their good graces, reducing potential tensions between restaurants struggling during the pandemic and online delivery apps seeing demand soar.

It was a similar story in India for classifieds. “We reduced fees substantially, or we waived fees,” he said. “That allowed people to preserve cash. When things started to come back again, there was a lot of appreciation around that.”

digital services taxes throughout Europe, meant to collect more revenue from multinational companies that do extensive business in countries without much of a physical presence within their borders. Those wouldn’t apply to Prosus, Mr. van Dijk said — “we invest locally and pay taxes” — but he added that the charges could erode the industry’s profit margins.

“I understand where it comes from,” he said, but “sometimes the regulation is a little blunt.”

What could hurt Prosus, Mr. van Dijk said, are changes to the gig economy, particularly efforts to entitle delivery drivers to worker benefits. Some drivers prefer the flexibility of being contractors, he said, and “we try to pay people properly regardless of what the legislation is.” As far as he could recall, Prosus has never lobbied against classifying workers as employees, as rivals like Uber have.

Another area to watch is China, which has moved to rein in some of its homegrown internet behemoths. Though officials have focused largely on Alibaba, Tencent hasn’t escaped their gaze: The company, which Prosus bought into back in 2001, was among those fined last month for violating antitrust rules. It is Prosus’ single biggest investment, and a tougher crackdown could batter the conglomerate’s market value.

Despite the stakes, Mr. van Dijk downplayed the threat. “Our impression is that China is still very supportive of its tech giants,” he said.

Adevinta of Norway for $9.2 billion. That defeat followed a losing effort to acquire the restaurant delivery company Just Eat, which Takeaway.com bought for $7.8 billion.

Perhaps surprisingly, Mr. van Dijk said Prosus hadn’t encountered much competition from special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs, which have raised nearly $100 billion this year and are very active acquirers of tech companies. This may be in part because SPACs are largely a U.S. phenomenon, although other countries have been trying to court the blank-check firms.

Mr. van Dijk said Prosus might eventually find itself competing with SPACs, particularly for later-stage private companies. In the meantime, Prosus itself invested $500 million in a SPAC last year when the shell company merged with Skillsoft, an education technology firm.

Lately, Prosus has mostly been investing in its existing businesses. “Putting money into there is still a good idea,” Mr. van Dijk said. And a few months ago the company announced that it would buy back $5 billion of its shares.

Things are looking slightly more measured these days, Mr. van Dijk said, with valuations coming down “to much more sustainable levels.” For a serial dealmaker, that means opportunity: “It’s easier to do acquisitions in a market that is cooling off.”

dealbook@nytimes.com

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