Magazine article Foreign Policy

Here's How a Less Christian Europe, an Looking Aging Population in the West, at and the Empowerment of Women Are You, Going to Shape the Future. 2050

Magazine article Foreign Policy

Here's How a Less Christian Europe, an Looking Aging Population in the West, at and the Empowerment of Women Are You, Going to Shape the Future. 2050

Article excerpt

THE 21ST CENTURY is still just a teenager, but we can already forecast with a fair degree of confidence what its demographic profile will look like by 2050.

Population growth will have slowed down. Global aging will have risen to unprecedented levels. Birthrates will drop. The working-age share of the world's population will shrink. Poverty will ameliorate in poor countries; income inequality will worsen in wealthy ones. And for the first time ever, Islam will challenge Christianity as the world's largest religion.

What's notable about these disparate trends is how much they are interrelated. They're driven not just by the traditional demographic triad of births-deaths-and-migration, but by myriad powerful new forces that define modernity--from the empowerment of women, to improvements in health care, to the information and technology revolutions, to the concurrent rise of secularization and religious fundamentalism.

However, the fact that they are connected does not mean they are universal. Beneath the broad umbrella of global demographic change, there will be sharp variances across regions (and sometimes within countries).

Consider the most basic demographic metric of all--population size. By mid-century, the world's fastest-growing region, Africa, is projected to see its population more than double, while the slowest-growing region, Europe, is expected to see its population decline by about 4 percent.

This means that in 2050 there will be around 3.5 times more Africans (2.5 billion) than Europeans (707 million). In 1950, there were nearly twice as many Europeans as Africans. Demography is a drama in slow motion. But tick by tock, it transforms the world.

The staggering reversal of population fortunes is largely the result of the huge continental differences in birthrates--1.6 children per woman in Europe today versus 4.7 children per woman in Africa. By midcentury, however, those rates are expected to increase in Europe and decrease in Africa, as both continents converge toward the projected global rate of roughly 2.25 down from 5 in 1950 and 2.5 in 2015.

Declining global birthrates mostly stem from women's empowerment. As more girls and women have acquired more education, economic independence, and control over their reproductive decisions, they have had fewer babies. In the 35 years from 2015 to 2050, the world's population is expected to rise by only 32 percent. During the 20th century, it nearly quadrupled.

As population growth slows, median ages will rise--the result not just of fewer children but also of steady increases in human longevity. By 2050, the share of the global population that is 60 or older will nearly double to 21.5 percent, from today's 12.3 percent. Aging will be most pronounced in economic powerhouses like Japan, where the median age by midcentury will be 53, South Korea (54), Germany (51), China (50), and the United States (42). The global median age will be 36, up from today's 30.

These aging societies will be hard-pressed to maintain their economic vitality as the working-age shares of their populations decline and the fiscal pressures on their health care systems and old-age social insurance programs grow.

Meanwhile, the less-developed countries throughout Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and parts of Asia are still experiencing a youth bulge (albeit one with less girth than in the past). Countries like India, Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa, and Kenya will see the working-age shares of their population grow between now and midcentury. Their challenge will be to make the investments in human and physical capital needed to take advantage of this demographic dividend.

Since the turn of the millennium, these disparate age structures, along with the incessant march of technology, have already yielded different economic outcomes around the world. According to the World Bank, 1 billion people have climbed out of extreme poverty since 2000, the vast majority of them in poor countries, where inexpensive mobile technology has

The world's leading economies will likely see their dependency ratios rise sharply by midcentury, while India and much of Africa will see the working-age shares of their populations grow. …

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