Happy Saturday and welcome to a Deep Dive into the colossal population shifts around the world, and what they'll mean for future generations, economies and politics.
Since the dawn of humans, we have had to figure out how to support a rising population. But in a momentous change, that age-old challenge is reversing: The population of most countries is shrinking — for many of them, at an alarming pace — and at the same time aging, writes Axios Future Editor Steve LeVine.
Why it matters: A growing, youthful population is typically a bedrock sign of vitality. In the industrial age, that's included a growing economy, greater opportunity, advancing technology, and a more comfortable retirement for older people. The turnaround on all continents except Africa means supporting an increasing number of retired people with many fewer workers, and confronts the world with two primary solutions, both of them controversial:
Whichever the case, almost no one seems prepared. People are going to have to work longer, experts say. And the U.S. requires "major reforms" in its programs for the elderly, says Richard Cincotta, director of the Global Political Demography Program at the Stimson Center, and fofrmerly a lead demographer for the U.S. intelligence community. But the government "seems to be nowhere near making the social security reforms that are needed."
Digging underneath the numbers:
At the same time, there will be more old people: Forecasts include a spike in the number of people 80 and over.
The most worrying figure: The world will not have sufficient working-age people to support the elderly. Currently, North America has just under four workers per retired person. Seven European countries have three, and Japan has just a bit more than two.
Changing economic incentives, social expectations for women, and religious landscapes have upended the age structure of populations around the world — and we're only seeing the beginning.
Axios' Stef Kight reports: The developed world is having fewer babies, which means fewer working-age people to support the bulge of retiring baby boomers. Meanwhile the population of Africa is surging.
Better-educated women correlate with lower fertility rates and vice versa, according to Our World in Data.
What the chart above shows: Each country’s age-structure from 2000 to 2050. The bars show the percentage of the population that falls into each 5-year age group.
For instance, you can see Nigeria‘s continuing baby boom in the longer bars at the base of its pyramid. China and Germany, however, have bulges in the 60-85 age ranges.
The 10 fastest shrinking countries on Earth are in Eastern Europe, according to the United Nations. Japan, perhaps the country with the most often-analyzed demographic challenges, is only 11th, per Axios' Dave Lawler.
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Go deeper: Read the rest of Dave's piece.
In 2010, the number of American workers for every recipient of Social Security fell below three for the first time. In Japan, the ratio has fallen to just two workers per retiree. Globally, the figure is expected to fall to four by 2050.
Robust immigration has buoyed the populations of the U.S., U.K. and other developed nations, keeping them from shrinking. A number of countries also rely on migrants to support the weight of their economy, Stef reports.
Be smart: Demographers report a link between falling fertility rates and the incidence of populism, which in many countries has coincided with strong anti-migrant resistance. But immigration is one of the few solutions to aging, decreasing populations.
Industrial robots are stepping in to perform the jobs of aging and missing middle-age workers in some countries, Axios' Alison Snyder writes:
In a Lagos market. Photo: Stefan Heunis/AFP/Getty
Nigeria is on track to have the third-highest population in the world, behind only India and China, according to the U.N., a change that could reverberate globally since on its current trajectory the country is likely to remain poor, Stef reports.
Nigeria is expected to surpass the U.S. population by 2050 and make up 39% of the global population by 2100.
If fertility rates could be reduced, it could help boost Africa's economy, with fewer children to care for and more workers to contribute. Such a "demographic dividend" helped fuel the economic expansion of the East Asian "Tigers" between 1965 and 1990.
Kimiko Nishimoto, a Japanese great-grandmother, in her Kumamoto home. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty)
Japan is in a population shrinkage crisis like no other developed nation: Its numbers are plummeting, though by how much is disputed, Steve writes.
Whichever is correct, Japan is one of the planet's cases of extreme demographic change, shrinking and growing old at a greater pace than anyone.
While we are aging and shrinking, we also are getting healthier. The average number of years babies around the world are expected to live without serious health issues increased by five years between 2000 and 2016, Stef writes.
China surpassed the U.S. for healthy life expectancy for the first time in 2016. One reason is that obesity and drug use are less common in China, Stef writes.
Some other countries are also healthier, Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, tells Axios:
Key quote: "There’s a potential for some significant positive offset through higher elderly workforce participation," Richard Jackson, president of the Global Aging Institute, told Axios. "It’s also possible — but not certain — that health spans will continue to rise along with life spans, and that may take some pressure off."
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
The health trend means people will live routinely to 100 in the coming decades, and as long as 150 years, scientists say. That suggests a much longer working life, possibly involving serial careers, and lasting well into our 70s, 80s, and even 100, say researchers with Pearson and Oxford University.
"We can be richer without having to produce more," Jesus Crespo Cuaresma, of the Vienna University of Economics and Business, tells Axios. "You can get people out of poverty without harming the environment."