From overpopulation to world
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
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.
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." 
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
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. 
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),
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 Internet.com 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.
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.
The population pyramid is reversing.
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."
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:
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 - firstname.lastname@example.org.