What Will Happen to the World as
Life Expectancy Goes Up?
The Population Bomb, Redux
Much about demography is “baked into the future” and is certain to happen. And this demographic future can be summarized in three colors: more gray, more green and less white.
Starting with “more gray,” society after society is becoming older through a combination of fewer births and longer life expectancy. Aging of populations is a phenomenon which has been observed in region after region, as fertility rates have fallen and life expectancy has risen. The median age of the world’s population has already risen by around seven years since 1960. In the developed world, it has risen by more than a decade in the same period, while in east Asia as a whole it has risen by 16 years and in South Korea, an astonishing 22 years. Meanwhile, outside sub-Saharan Africa there is barely a country or territory where the median age has not risen in the past 60 years.
Yet the process is only just beginning. According to the middle-range UN forecasts, by the end of the present century median man or woman will be over 40, a dozen years older than today. This means that between 1960 and 2100 the median person will have doubled in age from barely 20 to more than 40. Among the record-breakers for greater age will be Ethiopians (today on average 18, by 2100 aged 43), and Syrians (today aged barely 20, in 2100 likely to be aged nearly 47). Many countries, from Poland to Sri Lanka and Japan, will have a median age of over 50. By the end of this century, Libya’s median age is projected to be roughly where Japan’s is now. Such aged societies have never been seen in history. When Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story was first produced in 1957 the median age among Puerto Ricans (in Puerto Rico rather than in New York, it is true) was around 18; by 2100 it will be little short of 55. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that, to be age representative, a latter-day Bernstein would need to set his musical in an old people’s home rather than among street gangs.
How this marked aging will affect the world cannot be predicted with any certainty, but it is surely the case that a world in which the median age is around 20 (1960) is profoundly different from one in which it is over 40 (2100), not only because of all the political, economic and technological changes that are likely to have happened, but also by sheer dint of its aging population. The changes effected by aging are likely to be both positive and negative. Viewed optimistically, the world is more likely to be a peaceful and law-abiding place.
There is a strong correlation between the youth of a society and the violence and crime within it. Not all young societies are embroiled in crime and war, but almost all old societies are at peace. Not only are older people less likely to take up arms or become criminals; young people, where they are few and far between, are more valued and more heavily invested in. Mothers who have only one son are less likely than mothers with many sons to goad them to take up arms against enemies real or perceived. On the other hand, older societies are less likely to be dynamic, innovative and risk-taking. An older population is more likely to want to hold the safest sort of investment, high-quality bonds rather than equities, for example, and this will affect markets and in turn the real economy. Real estate demand will also change as more and more accommodation is required by elderly singles and less and less by growing families—these effects are already at work in much of the developed world, and are set to go global.
While median age captures the age of a society as a whole, it is the rise in the number of elderly which tends to receive the greatest attention, not least because of the pressure this is likely to put on the welfare states of developed countries where state provision for older people is advanced. This is often expressed as a “support ratio”—the number of people of working age (however defined) to each older person—and as early as 2050 in Japan this figure will be approaching one to one. In Western Europe, although lower than Japan, it will be twice as high in 2050 as it was in 2005. Pensions in the developed world as a whole are set to double as a share of GDP without significant reform by 2050, and the greater demands of older people on health services will also be a fiscal challenge for a developed world where budgets are already under strain and debt to GDP ratios are seen by many as perilously high.
There will also be a sharp rise in the “older old”—in the UK there are 1.4 million people aged over 85 today, and this figure will double in 20 years and triple in 30 years as the baby boomers move from the frontiers of aging into its more advanced stage. Some would argue that the welfare state as we have known it since the Second World War has the characteristics of a Ponzi scheme: it works only if each new generation of workers is larger than the last. Where old-age pensions are funded from current taxation, there is certainly something in this, and it seems unlikely that welfare states will be able to carry on in anything like their current form as societies age. Yet, at the same time, with more and more people having no children to care for them, reliance on the state will grow. The UK’s 2017 general election was in large measure fought on the issue of “social care”, namely who will pay for the daily assistance the elderly need—such an issue would never have gained such prominence at a time when the elderly made up only a small share of the total population. It is, however, but a foretaste of things to come.
In the developed world, with state welfare provision, this may still be an issue, but in the developing world the question will be more critical. Countries will have to cope with growing old before they grow rich. In the developed world, however financed, young workers from countries like Thailand and the Philippines can be drawn in to help with elderly care, at least if allowed to do so by local immigration legislation. For developing countries with an aging population this will not be a luxury they can afford.
The median Thai will hit 50 by mid-century and it is unlikely that in the few decades until then Thailand will have reached the level of development which will allow for comprehensive services for elderly care. In the past, the lucky few who survived to old age were usually cared for by multiple offspring. When there are no longer offspring and the state cannot fill the gap we face a global epidemic of elderly people going to their deaths uncared for and neglected. The only hope in this respect is technology, and here, unsurprisingly, the leader in the field is Japan (today the world’s oldest society), which has been developing robots to deliver basic elderly care, provide company and even to act as pets.
Accepting that almost come what may, the world is set to become more gray, there is also every chance that it could become more green. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which suggests that humanity is still in the midst of a population explosion which is wrecking the planet. There is no doubt that the great increase in human population on the one hand and the vast increase in living standards on the other has done much environmental damage. Humankind has taken over more and more of the planet for living space and farming, and modern lifestyles certainly churn out a great deal of environmentally damaging substances. Carbon emissions are not just a function of the living standard of the global population but of its sheer size, prompting some environmental campaigners to counsel smaller families, particularly in the developed world.
On the other hand, human ingenuity and technology has played a role, and could play a still greater role, in limiting or even reversing these effects. The declining growth in human population—globally from around 2 percent per annum to around 1 percent in the last 40 years or so—gives rise to a great opportunity to create a greener planet. Although the population of the world will continue to grow, perhaps slowing to close to zero growth by the end of this century, the rate of human innovation need not. And although the average human being will be older, there will also be more human beings and in all likelihood they will be ever better educated, better networked and with greater access to information. That means, for example, that with the appropriate resource allocation and investment, crop yields per hectare should be able to outpace human population growth more easily than when the latter was faster. That could mean, even if people are to be better fed than they are today, that land can be returned to nature and it will be possible to live in a greener planet.
The same is true of other resources. If efficiency grows faster than population then sustainability can be enhanced, whether it is more fuel-efficient cars or better storage and transport of food. Where human population starts to decline, from Japan to Bulgaria, nature moves fast into the void. Because of slower than once expected decline in African fertility rates, the UN now expects the global population to exceed 11 billion and not to have stopped growing by the end of the current century; however, by then it should just about have stabilized, with growth at a tenth of that experienced today and a twentieth of that experienced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Demography is a car that first trundles along slowly, then reaches tremendous speed and most recently has decelerated so significantly that in the course of this century it is very likely to have ground to a halt.
The third color we can predict with some certainty is “less white.” With the great population explosion starting among the Anglo-Saxons and then moving on to other Europeans, the white population of the world experienced an extraordinary expansion both in absolute and relative terms from the start of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. This has had profound political consequences, and without it, it is hard to imagine that European imperialism could have grown so extensive or had such an impact on the world. However, the Anglo-Saxons had no monopoly on falling mortality and sustained high fertility (and hence high population growth), and neither have people of European extraction. Until recently the lowest fertility, oldest and slowest-growing populations in the world were in Europe, and it was here, too, that population decline in recent times first set in. More recently, however, the peoples of north-east Asia have begun to catch up and in some cases, on some measures, overtake Europeans, and in time no doubt others will follow. Thai women, as noted, already have fewer children than British women, although Thailand still has some “demographic momentum” to enjoy.
While some non-Europeans may be embracing the small European family, demographic momentum will remain powerful for some time to come. And as we have seen, many civilizations which have experienced the demographic transition later have experienced it more intensely, with higher population growth at some periods in the 20th century than, say, Britain ever managed in the 19th. This means that the global population has grown less white and the trend is set to continue. It amounts to a “first mover disadvantage”: those who went through the demographic transition earliest experienced the least growth and are set to decline as a share of global population.If efficiency grows faster than population then sustainability can be enhanced, whether it is more fuel-efficient cars or better storage and transport of food.
The decline in people of European origin can be seen on two levels: continental within a global context, and country by country. Starting with the first of these, in 1950, as the era of European imperialism was ending, the population of the European continent contained around 22 percent of humanity. Adding in overwhelmingly white Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the USA, the figure came to 29 percent. Sixty-five years later, Europe’s share was down to 10 percent and that of the “wider white world” down to 15 percent. Taking UN median projections, these two figures will by the end of the current century fall to 6 percent and 11 percent respectively. Many countries in Europe are already experiencing population decline, or would be were it not for inward migration. If UN projections are correct, then Bulgaria and Moldova will have lost half their population by the end of the current century and Latvia will not be far behind. Germany will have lost 10 percent and Italy 20 percent.
Moreover, those countries are themselves becoming less white. By the middle of this century people of “white British” origin may be just 60 percent of the population of the UK, although admittedly many of the immigrants and people of immigrant origin will be of European extraction. The white population of the United States, 85 percent in 1965 and 67 percent in 2005, is projected to dip below 50 percent by mid-century. In both countries it is likely that a “mixed origin” element will be significant and fast-growing.
Just as the Anglo-Saxon and then the wider European world was the laboratory for rapid and sustained population expansion from the middle of the 19th century, so too perhaps these countries will be the test-beds of a much more fluid world in racial, ethnic and national identity terms. There is no absolute reason why someone of Italian descent in the USA should be described as “white” while someone of Spanish descent should be described as “non-white-Latino.” It is true that many Hispanics in the US are a mixture of Spanish and indigenous origin, but then Sicilians are themselves likely to be of partly non-European origin. As ever, distinctions are never absolute.
The flipside of white decline in relative numbers has been and will continue to be the rise of Africa. In the middle of the 20th century, after centuries of being sidelined, colonized and subject to slavery, sub-Saharan Africans accounted for barely one person in ten on the planet; by the end of this century they are likely to account for one person in four. With Africa still poor and young, the pressure of migration to Europe will be strong. To date, most African population growth can be seen arising from people pouring into towns and cities. Once prosperity gets above a certain level, however, the prospect of looking further afield than the nearest mega-city for economic salvation becomes more realistic.
Excerpted from The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World by Paul Morland. Copyright © 2019. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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