Security and Governance

Elizabeth Leahy on Demography and “Aging Alarmists”

In an op-ed published in The Washington Post on January 4, Neil Howe and Richard Jackson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) sound the alarm about the “massive disruption” the world may face in the 2020s due to population aging. Howe and Jackson co-authored The Graying of the Great Powers (see New Security Beat review), a 2008 CSIS report that elaborates on the supposed “political warfare” that will break out as a result of aging in the developed world, accompanied by turmoil in developing countries with young populations.

As fertility in many developed countries has fallen below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per couple necessary to maintain a stable population, an “aging alarmist” perspective has gained increasing credence among policymakers and the media. Using ominous rhetoric (as in the title of Phillip Longman’s book The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity And What To Do About It and the recent film “The Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family”), aging alarmists have successfully inspired fears of economic collapse and even near-extinction of the populations of entire countries (Howe and Jackson highlight a magazine cover story entitled “The Last German”). At times, these arguments take an overtly xenophobic tack (as in Pat Buchanan’s 2002 book The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization).

Demographic experts certainly agree with the basic argument that population aging will have significant economic and social consequences. Human societies have had little experience addressing aging populations, and governments have so far proven largely unsuccessful at spurring higher fertility levels. However, the claim that aging will create social and economic implosion across most of the developed world crosses the line into pure speculation. Population aging is not a shock or a catastrophe; it occurs over a period of decades, allowing governments to plan and develop appropriate policy responses. While some protests over reductions in entitlement benefits such as pensions are likely, the repercussions of aging may not be entirely negative. Older adults in developed countries, whose life expectancies have lengthened, may be economically productive into their sixties and beyond, rather than simply decimating national health care budgets. In addition, governments may adjust to aging by modifying their labor force and outsourcing work to the developing world, where the need for jobs is plentiful.

Although no one can predict the future, we can accurately describe the present. Yet alarmists often present a skewed picture of current population trends and minimize the world’s demographic divide. The world still gains 78 million people per year, and 57 percent of the world’s people live in countries with growing populations. More than 95 percent of population growth through mid-century is projected to occur in the developing world. The huge challenge of addressing developing-country population growth by providing sufficient educational and employment opportunities despite high poverty rates is likely to be much more difficult to resolve than the challenge of population aging faced by wealthy developed countries with a high degree of human capital.

Motivated by such complex factors as access to basic health services, the social status and education levels of women, and migration patterns, demographic trends are far from static. Many countries have witnessed dramatic progress through the demographic transition–the shift from high mortality and fertility rates to longer lives and smaller family size–and these countries are now generally the most peaceful, the most democratic, and the wealthiest on the planet. The sustained declines in fertility that these countries have experienced are largely due to the availability of voluntary, rights-based family planning and reproductive health care. The impact of these programs is visible in the lower fertility rates of countries as diverse as Mexico, Indonesia, Iran, the Philippines, and Tunisia. In contrast, countries with extremely young populations–including many in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa–face a significantly higher risk of civil conflict than countries with more balanced age structures. Senior intelligence officials such as CIA Director Michael Hayden have recently highlighted population’s key role in security and development.

Howe and Jackson conclude by citing Abraham Lincoln’s description of the United States as “the world’s last best hope”–in this case, because its relatively constant population may leave it as the only stable democracy while the rest of the world faces demography-induced mayhem. Although this vision may be overstated, U.S. leadership is indeed critical to moving global demographic trends in a positive direction. Even as the policy debate surrounding population aging continues, the United States must remain a staunch supporter of development assistance programs, including family planning and reproductive health, for countries on the other side of the demographic divide.

Elizabeth Leahy is a research associate at Population Action International (PAI). She is the primary author of the 2007 PAI report The Shape of Things to Come: Why Age Structure Matters to a Safer, More Equitable World.


Re-posted from The New Security Beat

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