New demographic changes could bring about underpopulation rather than overpopulation in the new millenium

by Sohail Inayatullah

Welcome to the new world of aging; a world in which liberals used to unending economic growth and greens focused on zero population growth will find themselves uncomfortable. Instead of overpopulation it will be underpopulation that will be the world’s biggest problem, first in the West, and then most likely the rest of the world. Only nations with high immigration that can make the switch from a youth economy to an old person’s economy will survive. This will mean among the biggest changes in human history—pensions, growth economies, 9-5 work, male domination—all must end if we are to successfully navigate the agequake ahead.

Writes Paul Wallace, author of Agequake, historically "we have been remarkably young. Our average age has been around 20 or less. But in the current generation’s lifetime, the average age of the world will nearly double from 22 in 1975 to 38 in 2050, according to the UN projections... Under another projection, it could reach over 40 as early as 2040."

Not only is the population pyramid about to flip but populations in Europe may plunge on a scale not seen since the Black Death in 1348. But this is not just a Western trend; indeed, because of the speed of the demographic slowdown in the developing world, it means that "they will age much more quickly than the West," says Wallace. In twenty years’ time, China will be one of the most rapidly aging societies.

The worker-retiree ratio

While many of these changes will be positive—longer life (by mid-century there will be over two million centenarians compared with 150,000 today), healthier life styles, less childhood deaths, and falling numbers of young people (which means falling crime rates)—others are not so positive. Who will pay for the retirement benefits of the elderly? Over the next thirty years the ratio of workers to pensioners in industrialised nations will fall from the current 3 to 1 to 1.5 to 1. How will societies stay rejuvenated with new ideas? Would we have had a personal computer revolution if youngsters like Steve Jobs were not there to challenge authority and create new products? And what will happen when those purchasing stocks in the 1980’s and 1990’s begin to sell them 20 years later to pay for their retirement? There will be no age-cohort to purchase them as the baby boomers currently have. Will we enter a long term bear market and thus possibly a long term economic depression?

But what is the cause of the aging of society? Two factors. First, we are living longer and second, birth rates are falling. "In the late 1990’s fertility rates are already at or below replacement level—2.1 children per woman—in 61 countries with almost half the world’s population," writes Wallace. Even nations like India and Indonesia are likely to fall below this level.

Iceberg ahead

The population pyramid is reversing, especially in rich nations. Populations, like supertankers, take forever to turn around; but when they do the changes are dramatic. Europeans have not noticed the population decline because of immigration, high fertility in the past and declines in mortality, but in reality birth rates are plunging. Pete Peterson in his book, Grey Dawn, describes global aging as an iceberg. While it is easy to see above the waterline, it is far more difficult to prepare for "the wrenching costs … that promise to bankrupt even the greatest powers … making today’s crisis look like child’s play."

One solution for the West is immigration. Already California is set to become a majority minority state. The USA will become the second largest Spanish speaking nation in 2020. But there are danger signs as generally older Californians will be Caucasian and rich, while younger one’s will be Hispanic and poorer. The question is not will California secede but which California will secede?

A second solution is increasing productivity, working smarter. While the convergence of computing and telecommunications have not shown immediate gains, it is early days yet. The problem of fewer young people working will not be a problem since they will be able to produce more wealth.

Projecting the future age structure of a population can be done with a great deal of certainty (barring asteroids, pandemics, etc.). Demographics also can predict changes in behavior since one is more likely to migrate in one’s 20s, more likely to vote conservative in one’s 50s (when one has property to conserve, and when one is concerned more with crime and order and less with freedom and social justice).

Surviving the agequake

How can you survive the agequake? First think in the long term, the very long term.

Second, buy and sell in products and services based on aging: Viagra and not grunge. And think of products which baby boomers will be eager to purchase so as to remember their youth. Third, the future will be multicultural, rainbow societies with diverse identities. Already the buying power of Latinos in the US is larger than Mexico’s economy. Just as internet stocks took off, soon, aging-related stocks might also. Retirement homes for babyboomers in developing countries will probably also do well as they will want to move to places where their strong currencies buy more, and where the idea of community still flourishes.

Which countries will win and which lose? Because of immigration the US will retain its power as will England. Because of its relatively young population, Ireland will also do well. However, Germany and Japan will be losers because of "falling working-age populations." Indeed, Japan’s crisis is partly a crisis of aging: it no longer has a favorable demographic structure for economic growth.

All this—coupled with advances in genetics, life extension—may lead to a new age. However, Beth J. Soldo and Emily M. Agree of the American Population Reference Bureau argue that in developed nations such as Canada and the US, as the elderly population grows due to life expectancy gains and the aging of the huge baby-boom generation, there will be many more sick and disabled old people. The average person is sick or disabled for nearly 80 percent of the extra years they gain as life expectancy rises. Health expenditure for Australians over 65 is already four times higher than for the rest of the population. The aged, particularly those removed from family and community, will be especially prone to mental illnesses. For aging to be a bright future not only must society’s economic and social structure change but medical developments in life extension will have to materialize; otherwise we will live in a future where the elderly sick will be used on television ads to raise money for charities, just as Third World children are today.

Economically, immigration will solve some of the West’s problems but in-take will have to increase by ten times the current amount for the West to take care of an older population. In the long run, India, Brazil and other slow-aging societies will do the best. Worse off will be Russia—and others parts of the former USSR—which is in the midst of a demographic crisis as Russian men are dying in middle age. Russia does not have generations of prosperity to soften the shock of the agequake. However, Russia could take advantage of the new modern information technologies, as the current generation is being born without the mental blocks of the Soviet era. But for this to happen, Mafia-economics will have to end, and a predictable future for investment and shared distribution created.

Asians will have to change as well, becoming more multicultural. As the age pyramid bulges at the top, filial piety will be one of the first values to go. Young people will want their due since they will be scarce, and there will be too many of the elderly to take care of. The elderly will probably use religion or the state—gerontocracies—to maintain power, while the young will search for new symbols (the Net) and new social movements (alternative modernities, neither West nor East) to lay their claim on the future.

Old versus young

Generational wars is the likely future, especially where pension schemes have not been reformed. In the West, writes Wallace, "The old will use their voting power to insist that younger workers fork out to pay for their pensions. But the young will resist with their economic power by pushing up real wages for services that the old have to pay and evading contributions wherever possible, so that the gap between the legitimate and the black economy grows even wider." Non-essential medical services will be shifted away from the State.

Reforms will be needed. Reforms will have to tackle the fundamental mismatch between people’s desired mix of work and leisure and what is actually on offer in the workplace. The present system crams work into people’s middle years, making children even more of a burden—so helping to create the agequake—while creating an excess of leisure in later years. Women are heavily penalized if they want to work part-time to be able to look after their children, while older workers are not usually offered a reduction of working hours. For their part, older workers are not generally prepared to accept lower earnings, even if this reflects their declining productivity. We are accustomed to the elderly increasing in stature, in wisdom, since historically so few have survived, but with this about to turn over, wealth and wisdom is unlikely to correlate with aging.

While some policy-makers are considering the future needs of the aged—housing, transport (the aged like youth tend to have more accidents), healthcare—recognizing that most likely these systems will be severely taxed, few have begun to understand that the entire current economic and cultural system is based on young people working, on a normal population pyramid, on a growth-oriented economic system. We have never seen a society where the pyramid is flipped. Will immigration save the day, or will technology (making labour far less important)?

To survive the agequake, our basic structures of work/leisure/family structures will have to change. The old pattern of student, work, retirement, death will have to transform. More flexible patterns will have to be set up to combine work, play, and the rearing of children. In fact, the entire (endless growth) capitalist system must transform; nothing less can adequately resolve the tensions ahead.

We have historically lived in a world where the average population was young. This is about to reverse itself. The entire industrial and post-industrial system has been built on certain demographic assumptions of when we work, when we reproduce, when we retire; this is all changing, and we are not prepared.

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Sohail Inayatullah recently turned 42. He is a political scientist/futurist, co-editor of the Journal of Futures Studies and New Renaissance and author/co-editor of ten or so books. He is currently editing a book titled Youth Futures. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.