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Ageing Futures –
From overpopulation to world underpopulation

By Sohail Inayatullah  

As the world welcomes passenger number six billion – symbolically chosen by Kofi Annan to be a baby Bosnian from Sarevejo – the debate on overpopulation heats up. Concern over the carrying capacity of the Earth, resource use of the rich, and fear of billions of  "others" at immigration gates consistently make population a high ranking world problem.[1] 

Delivering contraceptives to the teeming masses is the solution most often raised. Others point to poverty, seeing population as a development problem, not as a trait of "impulsive races."  Still others go deeper, examining women's power, their control over the future, their bodies. It is concern for the future, that is, one's social security, of who will take care of oneself in one's older years, that is seen as a decisive variable. While most states in India have high birth rates, Kerala does not, largely because feudalism has been overthrown and a stable social security system, a stable view of the future, created.[2] 

But, there is evidence that instead of overpopulation it will be underpopulation that will be the world’s biggest world problem, first in the West, and then most likely throughout the world. Only nations that have high immigration in-takes and 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 schedules, student/work/retirement life pattern and male domination -  all will have to end if we are to succesfully 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's latest projections issued at the end of 1998. Under another projection, it could reach over 40 as early as 2040. Many countries will reach average ages of 50 or more." [3] 

Not only is the population pyramid about to flip but populations in Europe are generally poised to plunge on a scale not seen since the Black Death in 1348. "An extraordinary crossover is already starting to occur as older people outnumber younger people for the first time in human history. In the early twenty-fist century, this tilt from young to old will take on a new dimension. It will go hand in hand with the onset of population decline in many developed nations as they experience the first sustained demographic reverse in centuries."[4] 

 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 ageing societies. [5] 

The worker to retiree ratio

While many of these changes will be obviously positive, longer life (by mid-century there will be over two million centenarians compared with 150,000 today)[6], healthier life styles, less childhood deaths, and falling number of young people (which means falling crime rates), others are not so positive. Who will pay for the retirement benefits of the older population? This is especially important after 2010 when the ratio of  the working age population to old dependents will decrease.  And over the next thirty years the ratio of workers to retirees on pension in industralised nations will fall from the current 3-1 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 of the revolution and the associated changes in corporate culture and organizational culture?  Of course, the definition of ageing will change, and older people may become much healthier than they are now, but this does not solve the problem of dependence on the young for economic growth. 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 have currently. Will we enter a long term bear market and thus possibly a long term economic depression? Will the demand problem be worsened by the continued delinking of the finance economy from the real world economy of goods and services, of cyberspace from manufacturing and investment space? 

But what is the cause of the ageing 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.[7]  And so on, even nations like India and Indonesia are likely to fall below this level. 

Along with ageing, there will be a genderquake. In the West, children are being postponed as women focus on their careers, this brings down fertility as there is a strong link between a woman's age at first birth and the average size of her family. Also many more women are not having children at all.  In contrast, leaders in the developed world are urging women to produce more children, Japan is even trying to convince the salaryman to spend more time at home, play with the children, make his wife’s life easier, so she will have more children. While this does not mean patriarchy in Japan is under any threat – structural changes are unlikely – it does mean women's value will be enhanced. 

Iceberg ahead

The population pyramid is reversing.  Populations  are declining, especially in rich nations. Populations are like supertankers, it takes forever to turn them 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 in reverse.  Pete Peterson in his book, Gray Dawn, describes global ageing as an iceberg. While it is easy to sea 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."[8] 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? Writes, Pete Pederson: 

"Perhaps the most predictable consequence of the gap in fertility and population growth rates between developed and developing countries will be the rising demand for immigrant workers in older and wealthier societies facing labor shortages. Immigrants are typically young and tend to bring with them the family practices of their native culture - including higher fertility rates. In many European countries, non-European foreigners already make up roughly 10 percent of the population. This includes 10 million to 13 million Muslims, nearly all of whom are working-age or younger. In Germany, foreigners will make up 30 percent of the total population by 2030, and over half the population of major cities like Munich and Frankfurt. Global aging and attendant labor shortages will therefore ensure that immigration remains a major issue in developed countries for decades to come. Culture wars could erupt over the balkanization of language and religion … electorates could divide along ethnic lines."[9] 

Higher Productivity

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. And even if the Internet revolution does not lead to higher productivity, the real explosion may come from the convergence of genetics research and computing/telecommunications. Productivity could be enhanced through first, genetic prevention, second, genetic enhancement (of "intelligence" "typing speed" "language ability") and finally, genetic recreation.  It is the latter that is is the bet for the right wing in developed nations as this guarantees the survival of a shrinking "white" population (not caucasian since south asians are counted as caucasians in Western statistics), keeps their place as dominant caste. Genetics with nano-technology could go a step further, ending scarcity, and at the same time, ending economic advantage and one of the primary reasons immigrants leave their home nations in any case. 

The agequake is predictable since 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, one is 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). Wallace also points out that membership in one's generation is significant in determining one's life chances, but not in the ways one thinks. For example, if you are born in a baby boom year there will be more competition throughout your life, while if you are born in a baby-bust year there will be less competition for work, marriage partners and houses. 

Surviving the agequake

How can one personally survive the agequake? Firs, it is crucial to think in the long term, the very long term. Second, it is important to buy and sell in products and services that are based on ageing. Equally crucial is to think in terms of products which baby boomers will be eager to purchase so as to remember their youth – the nostalgia factor .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.[10] Just as internet stocks took off, in the not too distant future, ageing-related stocks might as well.  Retirement homes for retiring 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. It is unlikely that virtual communities will provide the feeling of belonging that elders will need. 

Which countries will be the winners and which the losers?  Because of immigration the US will retain its power as will England. Because of its relatively young population, Ireland will also do well. However, Gemany and Japan will be losers because of "falling working-age populations." Indeed, the crisis that Japan is emersed in is partly a crisis of ageing, it no longer has a favorable demographic structure for economic growth.[11] 

All this – coupled with advances in genetics, life extension – may lead to a new age. However, not all see ageing as so rosy. Once they make it to old age, currently few people escape long-term health problems.   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 ageing of the huge baby-boom generation, there will be many more sick and disabled old people.[12] The average person is sick or disabled for nearly 80 percent of the extra years of life he or she gains as life expectancy rises.  Health expenditure for Australians over 65 is already four times higher than for the rest of the population. 

The World Health Organization estimates that by 2020 depression will be the leading cause of  “disability adjusted life years“ dramatically increasing the demands for psychiatric health services for young and old.[13] The aged, particularly those removed from family and community, will be especially prone to mental illnesses.  In Queensland, Australia the porportion of those over 60 years will increase from 15% in 1995 to 23% in 2031. Already 25% of those over 65 demonstrate functional psychiatric disorders.[14] For ageing to be a bright future not only will society’s economic and social structure have to change but medical developments in life extension will have to materialise, otherwise we will live in a future where the elderly will be sick and marginalized, used on television ads to raise money for charities, just as Third World children are today. 

At a macroeconomic level, immigration will solve some of the West's problems but in-take will have to increase by ten times the current amount and be sustained for the West to survive the  the burden of taking care of an older population. In the long run, India, Brazil and other slow-ageing 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 especially as the current generation is being born without the mental blocks of the Soviet era. But for this to happen, mafia-ecomomics will have to end, and a predictable future for investment and shared distribution created. 

As the developing world becomes more important, international organizations will, to survive, have to include memberships from these nations There will thus be a new world order, in which an “ageing, sluggish West is ringed by more youthful and economically buoyant countries,“ says Wallace.[15] The UN security council, international finance agencies, security alliances are all likely to see their memberships change. Alternatively Western nations and institutions could decide to go it on their own creating a Fortress/Castle West with “high gates and big dogs.“ 

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 in those nations 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."[16] Medicare will continue to be severely challenged. Non-essential medical services will be shifted away from the State. In the long run, there might be a return to childrearing as patriotic duty, of course. 

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 a surfeit of leisure in later years. Women are heavily penalized if they want to work part-time to enable them to look after their children, while older workers are not usually offered a reduction of working hours in their fifties and sixties.  For their part, older workers are not generally prepared to accept lower earnings, even if this reflects the reality of their declining productivity.[17] 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 unlike to correlate with ageing. 

While some policymakers are beginning to consider 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 has been 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, the Net, Genetics or Nano (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 and play, and the rearing of children, that is with taking care of  society's demographic future. While this will be one aspect of the needed change, in fact, the entire (endless growth) capitalist system will have transform, nothing less will be able to 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 postindustrial 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. 


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. In 1999, he is professor, International Management Centres, Unesco Chair, University of Trier, and Tamkang Chair, Tamkang University.   He is currently editing a book titled Youth Futures -

[1] See, for example, or
[2] For a review of some ageing scenarios, see:  Edward Schneider, "Aging in the Third Millennium," Science, (Feb 5, 1999 v283, 5403), 796.
[3] Paul Wallace, Agequake, Riding the Demographic Rollercoaster Shaking Business, Finance and Our World. London, Nicholas Brealey, 1999. From the preface.
[4] Ibid., 3.
[5] Ibid., 4.
[6] Ibid., 20.
[7] Ibid., 5.
[8] Peter Peterson,  Gray Dawn. New York, Random House, 1999. Also see: Peterson writes: A little understood global hazard -  the greying of the developed world's population - may actually do more to reshape our collective future than deadly superviruses, extreme climate change or the proliferation of nuclear, biological and  chemical weapons.
[9] Peter Peterson, "Gray Dawn: The Global Aging Crisis," Foreign Affairs, January/February 1999, 42-55.
[10]  Wallace, Agequake, 10. Also see, The Economist, America's Latinos. 25 April 1998.
[11] Ibid., 172-180.
[12] Beth J. Soldo and Emily M. Agree quoted from the USA Population Reference Bureau's bulletin, American's Elderly in Cheryl Russell, American Demographics, March 1989 v11 n3 p2(1).
[13] See, WHO,    See as well: The Global Movement for Active Ageing.
[14] See Ivana Milojevic,
[15] Ibid., 204
[16] Ibid., 211.
[17] Ibid., 218.


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