For the last four decades, we’ve been worrying about the global population soaring past sustainable levels in just another century and a half, and predicting that our numbers would peak at around 10 billion or so since a human population that numerous would overwhelm almost all the available resources we have, and facing constant war, starvation, and an increase in poverty, just as steps are being made to ease the latter two. But thanks to global industrialization and a cross-pollination of cultures and ideas, the real worry isn’t a continued climb in our population to its absolute possible peak into the mid 2100s, but the halving of it in the same time frame. Why? In a nutshell, the world is getting older and birth rates are down in 59 nations as baby boomer generations start heading into their twilight years while the rest of us are having fewer and fewer children. And as the aging generations live out their last days, there will be plenty of major problems as the world adjusts.
As fewer and fewer workers refill government coffers for pensions and safety nets for the elderly, it costs more and more to run retirement programs. In the United States, healthcare costs are projected to keep soaring as the baby boomers enter old age, and it’s very likely that austerity measures will have to be put in place to keep the government from going bankrupt. Nations across Europe, Asia, and parts of the Middle East will face very similar situations. This is what happens when the population grows not so much because of childbirths, but because our medical and technological advances are keeping people alive longer. As new generations grow, the older ones are still around, so the overall tally goes up. Decades of fewer children, whether by choice and new economic opportunities that place restrictions on having children, or by strict government measures like the population controls imposed by China, have created a world in which the elderly are going to dictate what will happen to future economies and societies. Call it the coming indirect economic gerontocracy if you’re big on sociopolitical buzzwords, or the gerontopocalypse if you’re a fan of sensationalistic ones.
So, you may ask, why not simply entice fertile couples to have children who’ll replace all those aging workers and keep the status quo? This way, retirees are being supported on an almost one to one basis, right? While that my sound good in theory, the reality is far more complex. Younger workers today often face extremely high unemployment rates and senior workers in stable, reliable jobs aren’t in a big hurry to relinquish them, since they’re putting the finishing touches on the nest eggs they’ve set up for their retirement. And the cost of typical retirements is rising, giving them even more incentive to hold on to their jobs. Likewise, as technology keeps on advancing, the skills and knowledge of elderly workers becomes obsolete, relegated to highly specialized teams which are supposed to be experts in legacy tools and design patterns to support future concepts. And while there are skills that are never obsolete, at some point, the elderly workers become sages instead of an archive of practical, easily implemented advice for future cultures and new ways of doing things, which means that it will be difficult to justify employing more of them longer and longer, even in part-time role.
On the younger side of the spectrum, we have couples whose financial commitments limit them to one or two children at most. Unable to take enough time off to tend to their progeny, and in dire need to keep working for nearly two decades to provide their growing kids with food, clothes, and education (not to mention making the time for just being with their children and being able to take them on vacations or give them presents), they’re not going to suddenly start trying to meet government fertility quotas. In other words, even though we’ve finally realized what’s going to happen to the future of our population, there really isn’t much we can do but manage the coming financial and demographic problems as best we can over the next century. When generation Y is headed for retirement, the world could well be populated by less than 5 billion people. After that point, how the societies of the future will adjust to the changing demographics will depend on the state of global economies and labor markets. And if trends stay the same, the next point of equilibrium may be 3.5 billion people instead of the 10 billion predicted by the UN at the beginning of the next century…
[ illustration from a work by Ryan Quackenbush ]