The World Won't Be Aging Gracefully. Just the Opposite.
January 4, 2009 | By Neil Howe
The world is in crisis. A financial crash and a deepening recession are afflicting rich and poor countries alike. The threat of weapons of mass destruction looms ever larger. A bipartisan congressional panel announced last month that the odds of a nuclear or biological terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the year 2014 are better than 50-50. It looks as though we'll be grappling with these economic and geopolitical challenges well into the 2010s.
But if you think that things couldn't get any worse, wait till the 2020s. The economic and geopolitical climate could become even more threatening by then -- and this time the reason will be demographics.
Yes, demographics, that relentless maker and breaker of civilizations. From the fall of the Roman and the Mayan empires to the Black Death to the colonization of the New World and the youth-driven revolutions of the 20th century, demographic trends have played a decisive role in precipitating many of the great invasions, political upheavals, migrations and environmental catastrophes of history. By the 2020s, an ominous new conjuncture of these trends will once again threaten massive disruption. We're talking about global aging, which is likely to have a profound effect on economic growth, living standards and the shape of the world order.
For the world's wealthy nations, the 2020s are set to be a decade of hyperaging and population decline. Many countries will experience fiscal crisis, economic stagnation and ugly political battles over entitlements and immigration. Meanwhile, poor countries will be buffeted by their own demographic storms. Some will be overwhelmed by massive age waves that they can't afford, while others will be whipsawed by new explosions of youth whose aspirations they cannot satisfy. The risk of social and political upheaval and military aggression will grow throughout the developing world -- even as the developed world's capacity to deal with these threats weakens.
The rich countries have been aging for decades, due to falling birthrates and rising life spans. But in the 2020s, this aging will get an extra kick as large postwar baby boom generations move into retirement. According to the United Nations Population Division (whose projections are cited throughout this article), the median ages of Western Europe and Japan, which were 34 and 33 respectively as recently as 1980, will soar to 47 and 52, assuming no miraculous change in fertility. In Italy, Spain and Japan, more than half of all adults will be older than the official retirement age -- and there will be more people in their 70s than in their 20s.
Graying means paying -- more for pensions, more for health care, more for nursing homes for the frail elderly. Yet the old-age benefit systems of most developed countries are already pushing the limits of fiscal and economic affordability. By the 2020s, political warfare over brutal benefit cuts seems unavoidable. On one side will be young adults who face declining after-tax earnings, including many who often have no choice but to live with their parents (and are known, pejoratively, as twixters in the United States, kippers in Britain, mammoni in Italy, nesthocker in Germany and freeters in Japan). On the other side will be retirees, who are often wholly dependent on pay-as-you-go public plans. In 2030, young people will have the future on their side. Elders will have the votes on theirs. Bold new investments in education, the environment or foreign assistance will be highly unlikely.
Aging is, well, old. But depopulation -- the delayed result of falling birthrates -- is new. The working-age population has already begun to decline in several large developed countries, including Germany and Japan. By 2030, it will be declining in nearly all of them, and in a growing number, total population will be in steep decline as well. The arithmetic is simple: When the average couple has only 1.3 children (in Spain) or 1.7 children (in Britain), depopulation is inevitable, unless there's massive immigration.
The economics of depopulation are grim. Even at full employment, real gross domestic product may decline, because the number of workers will be falling faster than productivity is rising. With the size of markets fixed or shrinking, businesses and governments may try to lock in their positions through cartels and protectionist policies, ushering in a zero-growth psychology not seen since the 1930s. With each new birth cohort smaller than the last, the typical workplace will be top-heavy with graybeards. Looking for a flexible, creative, entrepreneurial labor force? You'll have come to the wrong address. Meanwhile, with the demand for low-wage labor rising, immigration (assuming no rise over today's rate) will double the percentage of Muslims in France and triple it in Germany. By 2030, Amsterdam, Marseille, Birmingham and Cologne are likely to be majority Muslim.
In Europe, the demographic ebb tide will deepen the crisis of confidence reflected in such best-selling books as "France is Falling," by Nicolas Baverez; "Can Germany Be Saved?" by Hans-Werner Sinn; or "The Last Days of Europe," by Walter Laqueur. The media in Europe are already rife with dolorous stories about the closing of schools and maternity wards, the abandonment of rural towns and the lawlessness of immigrant youths in large cities. A recent cover of Der Spiegel shows a baby hoisting 16 old Germans on a barbell with the caption: "The Last German -- On the Way to an Old People's Republic." In Japan, the government half-seriously projects the date at which there will be only one Japanese citizen left alive.
An important but limited exception to hyperaging is the United States. Yes, America is also graying, but to a lesser extent. We are the only developed nation with replacement-rate fertility (2.1 children per couple). By 2030, our median age, now 36, will rise to only 39. Our working-age population, according to both U.N. and census projections, will continue to grow throughout the 21st century because of our higher fertility rate and substantial immigration -- which we assimilate better than most other developed countries. By 2015, for the first time ever, the majority of developed-world citizens will live in English-speaking countries.
America certainly faces some serious structural challenges, including an engorged health-care sector and a chronically low savings rate that may become handicaps as we age. But unlike Europe and Japan, we will still have the youth and fiscal resources to afford a major geopolitical role. The declinists have it wrong. The challenge facing America by the 2020s is not the inability of a weakening United States to lead the developed world. It is the inability of the other developed nations to be of much assistance -- or indeed, the likelihood that many will be in dire need of assistance themselves.
A major reason the wealthy countries will need strong leadership are the demographic storms about to hit the developing world.
Consider China, which may be the first country to grow old before it grows rich. For the past quarter-century, China has been "peacefully rising," thanks in part to a one-child policy that has allowed both parents to work and contribute to China's boom. But by the 2020s, as the huge Red Guard generation born before the country's fertility decline moves into retirement, they will tax the resources of their children and the state. China's coming age wave -- by 2030 it will be an older country than the United States -- may weaken the two pillars of the current regime's legitimacy: rapidly rising GDP and social stability. Imagine workforce growth slowing to zero while tens of millions of elders sink into indigence without pensions, without health care and without children to support them. China could careen toward social collapse -- or, in reaction, toward an authoritarian clampdown.
Russia, along with the rest of Eastern Europe, is likely to experience the fastest extended population decline since the plague-ridden Middle Ages. Amid a widening health crisis, the Russian fertility rate has plunged and life expectancy has collapsed. Russian men today can expect to live to 59, 16 years less than American men and marginally less than their Red Army grandfathers at the end of World War II. By 2050, Russia is due to fall to 20th place in world population rankings, down from fourth place in 1950. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin flatly calls Russia's demographic implosion "the most acute problem facing our country today." If the problem isn't solved, Russia will weaken progressively -- raising the nightmarish specter of a failed state with nukes. Or this cornered bear may lash out in revanchist fury rather than meekly accept its demographic fate.
Of course, some developing regions will remain extremely young in the 2020s. Sub-Saharan Africa -- which is afflicted with the world's highest fertility rates and ravaged by AIDS -- will still be racked by large youth bulges. So will several Muslim-majority countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. In recent years, most of these countries have demonstrated the correlation between extreme youth and violence. If that correlation endures, chronic unrest and state failure could persist through the 2020s -- or even longer if fertility fails to drop.
Many fast-modernizing countries where fertility has fallen very recently and very steeply will experience an ominous resurgence of youth in the 2020s. It's a law of demography that when a population boom is followed by a bust, it causes a ripple effect, with a gradually fading cycle of echo booms and busts. In the 2010s, a bust generation will be coming of age in much of Latin America, South Asia and the Muslim world. But by the 2020s, an echo boom will follow -- dashing economic expectations, swelling the ranks of the unemployed and perhaps fueling political violence, ethnic strife and religious extremism.
These echo booms will be especially large in Pakistan and Iran. In Pakistan, the number of young people in the volatile 15- to 24-year-old age bracket will contract by 3 percent in the 2010s, then leap upward by 20 percent in the 2020s. In Iran, the youth boomerang will be even larger: minus 31 percent in the 2010s and plus 30 percent in the 2020s. These echo booms will be occurring in countries whose social fabric is already strained by rapid development. One teeters on the brink of chaos, while the other aspires to regional hegemony. One already has nuclear weapons, and the other seems likely to obtain them.
All told, population trends point inexorably toward a more dominant U.S. role in a world that will need us more, not less. For the past several years, the U.N. has published a table ranking the world's 12 most populous countries over time. In 1950, six of the top 12 were developed countries. In 2000, only three were. By 2050, only one developed country will remain -- the United States, still in third place. By then, it will be the only country among the top 12 with a historical commitment to democracy, free markets and civil liberties.
Abraham Lincoln once called this country "the world's last best hope." Demography suggests that this will remain true for some time to come.