Jul 21, 2018 - Politics & Policy

Deep Dive: The aging, childless future

Expand chart
Data: United Nations World Population Prospects 2017; Chart: Harry Stevens/since the dawn of humans — the rise and, in the last half century, explosion of the population. Axios

Since the dawn of humans, we have faced one inexorable challenge — how to support the rise and — in the last half century or so — explosion of the population. But, in a momentous reversal, that age-old challenge is changing: the population of most countries is shrinking — for many of them at an alarming pace — and at the same time aging.

Much of the world teeters on the cusp of a childless, elderly future.

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.

  • Loosen up currently fraught politics around migration from still-growing countries.
  • Or populate our countries with robot helpers.

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 formerly 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."

  • Largely because of Africa, the global population is forecast to continue rising through the century past 11 billion. But according to the United Nations, there is a 23% chance the world population will stabilize or fall by then in a phenomenon that some demographers call “peak human.”

Digging underneath the numbers:

  • By 2100, the population of the world's poorest countries will more than triple, from 954 million in 2015 to 3.2 billion.
  • Minus immigration, the populations of the U.S., Japan and all of Europe are shrinking. By 2050, 48 countries or areas will have fewer people. Several will see a 15% decline, including Japan, the Balkans and the Baltics, and some much more.
  • In 2016, the fertility rate in the United States was the lowest it has ever been, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It was 1,765 births per 1,000 women of child-bearing age, below the replacement rate of 2,100.

At the same time, there will be more old people: forecasts include a spike in the number of people 80 and over.

  • Global life expectancy will rise from about 70 in 2015 to 83 in 2100, according to UN figures.
  • Except Africa, by 2050 about a quarter of the world population will be 60 or older. At about 900 million now, their numbers will rise to about 3.2 billion in 21oo. By 2080, those 65 or older will be 29.1% of the global population — and 12.7% will be 80 or over, Eurostat said.

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.

  • By 2050, seven Asian countries, 24 European and four Latin American will fall below two workers per retired person, the UN says.
  • This means “a rising fiscal burden and slower economic growth than if the population was not aging,” says Richard Jackson of the Global Aging Institute.

Worthy of your time:

Editor's note: This deep dive was first published in July of 2018.

Go deeper

The demographic shifts disrupting the political world

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images, Banaras Khan/AFP via Getty Images, and Alfredo Estrella/AFP via Getty Images

America's identity is nearing a tipping point as demographics change, which helps explain why so many 2020 presidential candidates are testing the conventional wisdom about who can win elections.

The big picture: The irony is that the biggest changes haven't been reflected in the kinds of candidates leading the 2020 polls — most of whom are white, rich men. But they could have a big impact on the final outcome.

California sees drop in youth population, Texas sees a jump

Photo: Stephen Simpson/Getty Images

California's youth population dropped by more than 400,000 throughout the past 10 years to 8.9 million young people, attributed, in part, to a drop in immigrant inflows and the state’s lowest birth rate in history, Bloomberg reports, citing the latest Census data.

The big picture: The youth slump is a trend across the U.S., where 30 states noted a dip in the under-18 age group between 2010 and 2019, newly released data shows.

Go deeperArrowJan 11, 2020

Mayors' strategies for graying cities

Rapidly aging populations are set to challenge U.S. cities, five mayors told a roundtable Tuesday.

The big picture: The median U.S. age jumped from 28 to 38 between 1970 and 2016, per CityLab. As cities get older, their mayors are tasked with creating policies and building infrastructure to adapt.

Go deeperArrowJan 22, 2020