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Posted: August 19, 2009

Empty playgrounds

Global populations in decline

Thomas Frey and Raymond Alvarez

In the next sixty seconds, 245 babies will be born in the world. Of these 36 will be from India and 29 will be from China. When numbers such as these are reported by the news media they paint a very gloomy picture of the world to come. However, a radically different picture is now emerging.

The population bomb is a misfire.

Notions that a massive wave of humanity will swamp the globe are simply wrong. Fears of over population are now being replaced with fears of under population. From a global perspective, we haven’t reached negative population growth just yet, but the numbers are painting an ominous picture.

Population growth is generally expected to decline gradually from 1.13 today to 0.60 by 2039. But several glaring features of the global population measurements make this prediction suspect. 

Radical new picture emerging
Modern pressures on infrastructure reinforce a belief that population growth is a problem. Crowded restaurants, brownouts, urban sprawl and other irritants of modern life leads to the familiar refrain: Too many people, too few resources.

It has been tempting to think that if we could deal with runaway population growth many of our woes would disappear. This notion paints a totally incorrect picture of the situation.

U.S. Census Bureau numbers show the world population growth rate peaked over 40 years ago in 1963 and has been trending downward ever since. Demographers now predict that absolute human population will peak at 9 billion by 2070 and then diminish. This prediction of racing to 9 billion, once forecast to occur 1950, just keeps getting pushed back – and may be so far into the future as to lack relevance.

Long before 2070, many nations will shrink in absolute size. At the same time, the average age of the world's citizens will shoot up dramatically. For example Mexico is aging five times faster than the United States. By aggressively addressing the dangers of overpopulation, the world may have jumped on the brakes too hard.

Before giving in to the temptation of thinking fewer is better, consider again. Growth is an economy driver. A world with fewer people has fewer people buying cribs, college educations, new cars and new homes. A world with a shrinking population has a tired and sometimes sickly economy.

Demographic shifts
Within 10 years, adults will outnumber children for the first time. The report, “An Aging World: 2008,” forecasts that over the next 30 years the number of people over 65 is expected to almost double, from 506 million in 2008 to 1.3 billion – a leap from 7 percent of the world's population to 14 percent. No other developed country will see as large a percentage increase in the elder population as the United States because it has the most baby boomers.

China’s approach
Formerly isolationist China and its “one child per family” restrictions have come under increasing world scrutiny.

Combined with a cultural preference for male babies, the policy skewed population gender makeup, which now is 122 male births for every 100 female births. In some rural areas the imbalance has been reported as high as 28 men for every woman. Long-term effects of the policy have generated much discussion.

Followed to its logical extreme, the one-child policy will mean death rates will outstrip birth rates by two to one until the nation’s total population dwindles to a fraction of itself. Under pressure of economic collapse, China might be expected to lift its one-child rule. But the change in culture may prove irreversible by then.

The public policy dilemma
Many expect social programs to be hit hard. Between the rock of a shrinking working population and the hard place of expanding benefits, most countries face a ticking social time bomb. None of the scenarios for avoiding massive problems look promising.

In 1950, Japan was one of the "youngest" countries in the world; it had a median age of 22. Now its median age is 41, and by 2025 it will be approaching 50. The growing imbalance between the producers and non-producers will only put larger pressures on benefit programs.

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Wild card disruptors

Similar to the unpredictable rare occurrences that Nicholas Taleb describes as “Black Swans” in his book by the same name, wildcards become an insistent variable with which we must contend.

An unlimited number of downside scenarios exist. Here are five:

1. Economic turmoil
Rapidly aging populations of Japan and most European countries have the potential to destabilize the global economy. Dated immigration policies will become the new political hot potato.

2. War
Most wars today are being fought with far greater precision than in the past, resulting in far fewer collateral deaths among civilians. However, a war among historic adversaries the likes of China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and India could be devastating for civilian populations.

3. Pandemics
An increasingly mobile society is dangerous to itself. Coupled with a globally dependent food supply, a major bio-disaster with global consequences could ravage the population before authorities have a chance to react. Two worrisome components on radar: the disappearance of the honeybee and an unstoppable wheat virus.

4. Natural Disasters
Hurricanes last year resulted in over 250,000 deaths. Tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, and other natural disasters are all well known. History is far greater than the length of human habitation, and much of that pre-human history has been occasioned by mass extinctions.

5. Unknowns
The unknown may produce the cruelest of consequences for our species, which has only the imaginings of science fiction writers to give us any hint of danger. Disasters by human design is a common theme of science fiction, and soon we will have that capability, born of activities such as bio engineering.

The mask of immigration
The U.S. has the enviable position of being able to turn the immigration spigot on at any time. For a variety of reasons, the U.S. remains the most attractive nation in terms of lifestyle, universities, culture, and opportunities for wealth. A drop in population is fixable.

Not all nations enjoy such luxury, and the legendary status of the U.S. is well known among the less fortunate. A recent Gallup Poll of the world’s 15 to 30-year-olds reveals what may be a distressing feature of the Middle East population. A stunning 59 percent of young men and 84 percent of young women would prefer to live elsewhere.

If the U.S. retains its attractiveness, continued growth can be assured. Unless other nations catch up, regions such as Western Europe, where immigration is limited, will continue losing population and stature. Japan, which faces the prospect of losing a quarter of its population over the next 25 years, makes little allowance for immigrants.

Global population growth rates are continuing to decline with negative growth rates showing up in most developed nations being offset by positive growth rates in undeveloped nations.

A long-term view might wither in the face of a strong anti-illegal immigration movement that has gained traction here in the U.S. But, economic realities eventually will assert themselves.

Proliferation of communication technology on the African continent will bring about improved health, education, earnings and another surprising trends. Competition for human resources will heat up and migration could become problematic.

As health systems improve, we will see greatly expanding age demographics, with rapidly growing numbers in the 70-plus age range. Many will continue to work, but most will opt for less onerous jobs, leaving the physically demanding and highly stressful positions to the young.

With birth rates declining and seniors shifting to less-arduous work, many nations will begin experiencing worrisome talent shortages.

Coupled with the other challenges associated with an aging, shrinking society, the elderly are less inclined to innovate, learn technical skills, or take risks as their younger counterparts. If these tendencies hold, a grayed society will be less equipped to meet the challenges ahead in the coming age of empty playgrounds.

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Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities.Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

Raymond Alvarez is a journalist, microblogger and emerging expert in social media. He is president and owner of Nextwave Communications, which provides cutting edge communication services to the Colorado business community. The Boulder County firm offers research, writing, strategic planning and analysis.

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