2050 – Projecting the magnitude of demographic change worldwide

“I see old people” is how this chapter begins. I’m reading “The new North – The World in 2050” by Laurence Smith. Without having finished the book, I’m excited to share some of the thoughts. This chapter really struck me.

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Smith is a young professor in geography and earth and space sciences at UCLA. In his book, he analyzes four key “megatrends” – population growth and migration, natural resource demand, climate change and globalization – and projects how our world could look like in 2050.

The world is filling up with old people. Smith begins by describing the four stages of the demographic transition, which is happening everywhere in the world: 1. High and similar rates of birth and death (e.g., the preindustrial era, with a small and relatively stable total human population); followed by 2. Falling deaths but not births (initiating a population explosion); followed by 3. Falling births (still exploding, but decelerating); and finally 4. Low and similar rates of birth and death (population stabilization at a new, higher total number.

He states that most OECD countries have now passed through these stages – except for those allowing high levels of immigration like the USA – and have stabilizing or even falling populations. Most low- and middle-income countries are still in stage 2 or 3 though.

Smith summarizes that urbanization, modernization, and the empowerment of women push fertility rates downward. In other words, the urbanization of society (if associated with modernization and women’s rights) helps slow the rate of growth (with exceptions). In low-immigration developed countries like Italy and Japan, and regions like Eastern Europe, populations are falling. Consequently, if fertility rates continue to drop as they are now, the world population might be around 9.2 billion in 2050 – the population will still be growing, but about half as fast as today.

One of the most profound long-term effects of women having fewer babies is to skew societal age structure toward the elderly. Of course, improving healthcare also extends our life spans. This aging will hit some places faster and harder than others. Today, Japan is the world’s most elderly country with a median age of 44.6 years. In Pakistan, in contrast, the median age is just 22.1 years. Korea, Russia and China will join Japan as the world’s geriatric nations. Korea, Vietnam, Mexico and Iran will age radically by fifteen years or more. Countries like Afghanistan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo will still have youthful populations in 2050. Image

Smith asks: Is an elderly population a good thing or bad? He describes a possibly wiser and less violent society, which at the same time strains healthcare systems, and raises the economic burden on younger workers. The whole concept of “retirement” is about to undergo a major overhaul – people will have to work later in life. Big cultural shifts will be needed in the way we treat and value our elderly. Society must learn that aging and youth should be valued equally.

As the world grays, skilled young people will become a more and more craved resource, Smith concludes. Thus, those countries best able to attract skilled foreign workers will fare best. These young workers might come from Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, the West Bank and Gaza, Ethiopia, and much of sub-Saharan Africa, which will offer our world’s youth in 2050 based on current population structures.

Finally, the critical but open question that Smith poses is whether our poorest countries will be able to turn their forthcoming demographic advantages into the new skilled workforces needed to help care for an elderly world. This would require enormous improvements in education, governance and security. Women would have to start attending school and working in places where this is uncommon today. Terrorism would have to be sufficiently quelled. The countries that need young workers would have to accept immigrants from the countries that have them.

Hopefully, these things can be achieved.

PS: Check out Laurence Smith on Vimeo: http://vimeo.com/15715690

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About Olivia Biermann

I'm passionate about Health Communication Sciences and Global Health. From 11/2013 till 10/2014, I worked at the Department of Learning, Informatics, Management and Ethics at Karolinska Institutet where I was involved in a study about health promotion among disadvantaged populations in Stockholm for the prevention of chronic illness. I'm currently working as a consultant at the World Health Organization in Copenhagen.

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