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Too Few and Too Many: The Looming Population Crisis

By Michael A. Genovese

Picture 2040, just a quarter-century away: The world’s population is predicted to rise by 45 percent, and urban megacities are crammed with people. New powers such as China and India are flexing their economic and political muscles. Across the globe, the air is foul, the oceans are increasingly encroaching on coastal cities, there are severe shortages of fresh water, mass migration to large urban centers has created unmanageable megacities, and aging populations are eating up vital state resources such as money and medical care. 

Is this a dystopian nightmare or an accurate prediction of the future? Future generations will face a growing population crisis stemming from the ironic fact that we will have both too many people and too few: too many fighting for finite resources and too few to sustain aging populations across the globe.   

The total fertility rate (TFR) numbers tell the complete story: Japan’s TFR is 1.4, China’s is 1.5, South Korea’s is 1.2, and most European countries are in the 1.5 range. The TFRs in African countries, on the other hand, are comparatively high: Niger’s rate is 6.5, and Nigeria is at 5.3.  In Indonesia, the estimated TFR is between 4.1 and 5.0. The same holds for the Philippines and India.  

The populations of developing nations will grow at a brisk pace, and most of these will be incapable of managing the demands of urban growth. Within developed nations, on the other hand, fewer people will be available to support the needs of an aging population. The United Nations Population Division reports that the ratio of working-age people to senior citizens in Western Europe will drop from 3.8:1 today to 2.4:1 by 2030. In the United States today, roughly one in eight of the country’s citizens are over 65. By 2030 it will be one in five. Additionally, the last of the U.S. baby boomers reached age 65 last year. In 2008, 8,000 people turned 65 each day; in 2025 that number will top 11,000. China faces a similar dilemma: by 2050, one-third of its population will be older than 60.  

The aging of populations in Europe and the United States has led to the emergence of what are called post-mature societies. For most of history, births outnumbered deaths worldwide. Today, in countries where that trend has been reversed, populations are not being fully replenished. Instead, people are living longer, using up more resources, and costing their societies a great deal of money. Japan, for example, is the world’s most elderly country with a median age of 45 years old. By contrast, Pakistan’s median age is 22.1. It is expected that by 2050, Japan’s median age will be 55 and Pakistan’s 34. 

The United States and Western European nations can attempt to close the gap between workers and the dependent elderly by using immigration to replenish the aging workforce. Thus, while their elderly dependency rates (EDR, the percentage of those over 65 relative to those between 16 and 65) will still be high, they will be more manageable than that of a country like Japan, whose EDR could reach up to 74 percent in 2050. In China, Mexico, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia, the EDR is expected to triple by that year. In Iran and Singapore, it will quadruple. 

This “gray tsunami” may lead to intergenerational conflict as younger workers begin to resent paying to support the lifestyles of graying populations. That baby boomers largely failed to adequately plan for their retirements also means that a retirement crisis is on the horizon. Many will outlive their money. It is estimated that in the United States, 60 percent of middle-class soon-to-be retirees will live beyond their retirement savings. This means that most Americans cannot afford to retire and are therefore forced to hold on to jobs that younger workers covet, further increasing the risk of intergenerational conflict.  

Too many, too few. Developing nations will be flooded with more and more young people who will drain their limited resources. Developed ones will face an aging crisis with far too few workers to sustain their societies’ increasingly elderly populations. In the West, controlled immigration could be adjusted to serve as a partial solution, rather than the problem some currently see it as. Developing regions of the world could start by increasing access to and education on birth control. The status quo cannot be sustained. Without changes to accommodate the new realities they will bring, these population dynamics could lead to disaster. 

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Michael A. Genovese is author of over 40 books, holds the Loyola Chair of Leadership, and is president of the World Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University.

[Photo courtesy of James Cridland]

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