A demographic timebomb is about to reshape our world

Ssince Vinice Mabansag, officially the eight billionth human, arrived at a maternity ward in the Philippines this week, a further half a million babies have been born. But the world they inhabit will prove very different to anything previously witnessed in human history. For it is the old who are suddenly inheriting the earth.

At some point around the 2080s, when Mabansag and her fellow creche of November 2022 are marking their 60th birthdays, the UN projects that the world’s population will reach its peak before entering a steady decline. Other demographers claim that landmark moment will occur even sooner, perhaps the 2060s.

The global growth rate is rapidly faltering, falling below one percent per year for the first time since 1950. Back then the average global fertility stood at five births per woman, but in 2021 this dropped to 2.3 births. Despite fertility rates continuing to rise in a number of African countries, an estimated two-thirds of the global population live in a country where fertility is now below 2.1 births per woman (the level needed for the existing population to replace itself).

And as birth rates tumble, people are living much longer. According to projections of UK life expectancy released by the Office for National Statistics earlier this year, an estimated 13.6 per cent of boys and 19 per cent of girls born in the UK in 2020 are expected to live to at least 100 years of age. By 2045, that figure will increase to 20.9 percent of boys and 27 percent of girls.

Fewer babies and people living far longer means that across Europe, Asia and the Americas, a demographic timebomb is ticking – one which will transform the world economic order. Work, family and society will all be radically improved in the process.

Birth rates across the globe are falling

Families in the West continue to shrink, but that will become a global trend by the end of the century

source: un

“The future world for people aged 30 to 50 today may well be as much about providing for your grandparents as it is about your grandchildren,” says James Banks, a senior fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Professor of economics at Manchester University.

When the population peaks, what will our world look like? Certainly, Banks suggests, we will all have to work far longer. By then he expects the age at which people can access their pensions to be well into the 70s (the current state pension age of 66 is already proposed to increase to 68 in 2037).

Although by that stage the notion of retirement itself may well no longer exist. Prof. Banks expects far more older people to take on “bridging jobs” combining their pension income with paid work, whether part-time or in the gig economy. By the 2060s, ever more septuagenarians will be zipping around on hover bikes delivering parcels and takeaways; somewhere between The Jetsons and Last of the Summer Wine.

Experts also predict increased automation in sectors typically staffed by cheap human labor and people of younger working age. In health and social care, for example, artificial intelligence diagnostic tools and robotic assistants are already well-utilized in countries like Japan (which tops the world ranking for the oldest society by proportion of the over 65s). With prototypes such as Japan’s ‘Teddy Bear Robot’, already trained to turn and lift disabled patients, in future decades we may all have to come to terms with the idea that we will spend our dotage in the arms of a machine.

In the care homes of the future, robotic helpers may be part of everyday life

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The agricultural and manufacturing sectors will also increasingly become automated. By the 2060s, some argue, England’s rolling fields will be farmed primarily by a robotic land army.

Jake Gibson Shaw-Sutton, a robotics engineer who founded Robotricks at Plymouth University in 2018, is one of those working to develop robots to take on the bulk of agricultural labor. His Robotricks Traction Unit (which can be programmed to harvest, plant and weed) is already in advanced trials with farmers in the southwest. “Ultimately our machine is part of the solution,” he insists. “For mankind to be able to survive and continue, it needs to use technology such as this to optimize the way we have been growing.”

Shaw-Sutton says that as well as filling the void of human labor, automated agriculture can also be far more productive. A WWF study published earlier this year found an estimated 3.3 million tonnes of food is wasted across UK farms annually. By growing and harvesting crops more efficiently, England could free up some of the 70 percent of its land currently used for agriculture to boost wildlife and biodiversity while at the same time maximizing food production.

Robots could help British farmers fill the void left by a shortage of human workers

Credit: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

Shaw-Sutton also predicts more food production will move away from the countryside into cities. Vertical farms such as the 26-storey ‘sty-scrapers’ built in China to replace pig farms will become an increasing part of the urban skyline.

There is, of course, another way to avert the fertility bust in the developed world. For while richer populations are stagnating, some developing countries are still experiencing rapid growth. Indeed, more than half of the projected increase in the global population up to 2050 will be concentrated in just eight countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and Tanzania.

Nigeria, in particular, is expected to record the fastest population growth by 2100 (527m). China, soon to be surpassed by India as the world’s most populous country, is expected to see the biggest decline (327m).

While typically richer countries produce fewer babies, Professor Sarah Harper, director of Oxford University’s Institute of Population Aging, says parts of sub-Saharan Africa may well defy UN projections. She and her colleagues have conducted research which suggests the ideal number of children wanted by women in sub-Saharan Africa is between three and five, compared to roughly two elsewhere in the world. “When you give them the choice and empower them through education, health and family planning, they seem to want larger families,” she says.

Politically, however, mass migration to replace a diminishing pool of young people can prove complicated (to say the least). Harper’s Oxford colleague, Professor David Coleman has previously conducted research which revealed that by around 2070 the proportion of the UK population classified as white British could be in the minority. He also warns of future governments targeting high levels of migration to fill jobs which in time could become automated anyway (such as agricultural labor). “What we are doing now, with high levels of immigration, is importing high levels of eventual redundancy and unemployment,” he cautions.

Governments have attempted their own policy levers to cajole their populations into producing more youth. Last year China, which scrapped its long-running one child policy in 2016, changed the laws once again to encourage people into having three children. South Korea, whose fertility rate dropped to a record low of 0.92 in 2019, has increased child allowances and subsidies for fertility treatments.

Against this backdrop of decline, schools, universities and even nurseries all risk being mothballed over the coming decades. Currently the number of Koreans aged between 18 and 21 is projected to fall from 2.36 million in 2020 to 1.19 million by 2040 with some universities already warning they face mass closures. However, this is a shortfall which could in time be filled with mature students as careers lengthen and people increasingly choose to retrain. As Prof. Harper points out, “the old model of education, work and retirement simply isn’t going to work”.

Closer to home, Germany has managed to record a small uptick in its fertility rate from 1.3 to 1.54 (children per mother) through introducing family friendly policies (including the expansion of maternity and paternity benefits and investment in state-funded childcare) among higher levels of migration. However Alan Walker, a professor of social policy and social gerontology at Sheffield University and member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Longevity, warns there is little governments can do to boost birth rates. “The decline in fertility is remorseless,” he says.

Prof. Walker insists that a far more beneficial approach is to ensure the health of the adult population. He believes there needs to be an increased emphasis on tackling chronic health conditions, such as type-2 diabetes and heart disease, which prematurely force people out of the workplace. “If we do nothing,” he warns, “productivity will decline because older people will not be fit enough to continue working.”

Despite the economic risks of all of us living longer, Prof. Walker (like many others) stresses that ultimately it represents a good news story. “It is a triumph of public health in overcoming many of the causes of premature death in earlier generations and it’s a triumph of global development,” he says. Plus, who fancies the alternative…?

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