journal 4


  1. As described in “The New Population Bomb: The Four Megatrends”, How are the four megatrends shaping the local and global interrelations among nations? What are the major implications?
  2. Howe and Jackson argue that demographic storms, from the premature aging of China’s population to the implosion of Russia’s, will increase the risk of social and political upheaval. Do you accept their analysis? Why? (make sure you justify your position with examples from the readings).

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“The risk of social and political upheaval could grow throughout the develop-
ing world—even as the developed world’s capacity to deal with such threats

Global Aging and the Crisis of the 2020s
neil howe And richArd JAckSon

From the fall of the Roman and the Mayan
empires to the Black Death to the coloniza-
tion of the New World and the youth-driven

revolutions of the twentieth century, demographic
trends have played a decisive role in many of
the great invasions, political upheavals, migra-
tions, and environmental catastrophes of history.

By the 2020s, an omi-
nous new conjuncture
of demographic trends
may once again threat-

en widespread disruption. We are talking about
global aging, which is likely to have a profound
effect on economic growth, living standards, and
the shape of the world order.

For the world’s wealthy nations, the 2020s are
set to be a decade of rapid population aging and
population decline. The developed world has been
aging for decades, due to falling birthrates and
rising life expectancy. But in the 2020s, this aging
will get an extra kick as large postwar baby boom
generations move fully into retirement. According
to the United Nations Population Division (whose
projections are cited throughout this article),
the median ages of Western Europe and Japan,
which were 34 and 33 respectively as recently as
1980, will soar to 47 and 52 by 2030, assuming
no increase in fertility. In Italy, Spain, and Japan,
more than half of all adults will be older than the
official retirement age—and there will be more
people in their 70s than in their 20s.

Falling birthrates are not only transforming
traditional population pyramids, leaving them
top-heavy with elders, but are also ushering in

a new era of workforce and population decline.
The working-age population has already begun
to contract in several large developed countries,
including Germany and Japan. By 2030, it will
be stagnant or contracting in nearly all developed
countries, the only major exception being the
United States. In a growing number of nations,
total population will begin a gathering decline
as well. Unless immigration or birthrates surge,
Japan and some European nations are on track to
lose nearly one-half of their total current popula-
tions by the end of the century.

These trends threaten to undermine the ability
of today’s developed countries to maintain global
security. To begin with, they directly affect popula-
tion size and GDP size, and hence the manpower
and economic resources that nations can deploy.
This is what RAND scholar Brian Nichiporuk
calls “the bucket of capabilities” perspective. But
population aging and decline can also indirectly
affect capabilities—or even alter national goals

Rising pension and health care costs will place
intense pressure on government budgets, poten-
tially crowding out spending on other priorities,
including national defense and foreign assistance.
Economic performance may suffer as workforces
gray and rates of savings and investment decline.
As societies and electorates age, growing risk aver-
sion and shorter time horizons may weaken not
just the ability of the developed countries to play
a major geopolitical role, but also their will.

The weakening of the developed countries might
not be a cause for concern if we knew that the
world as a whole were likely to become more
pacific. But unfortunately, just the opposite may be
the case. During the 2020s, the developing world
will be buffeted by its own potentially destabilizing
demographic storms. China will face a massive age
wave that could slow economic growth and pre-

neil howe and richArd JAckSon are, respectively, a senior
associate and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies. They are the authors of The Graying
of the Great Powers: Demography and Geopolitics in the
21st Century (CSIS, 2008). This essay is the fourth in a Cur-
rent History series on demographic dilemmas.


Global trends, 2011

CH_January 2011.indd 20 12/14/10 3:49 PM

Global Aging and the Crisis of the 2020s • 21

cipitate political crisis just as that country is over-
taking America as the world’s leading economic
power. Russia will be in the midst of the steepest
and most protracted population implosion of any
major power since the plague-ridden Middle Ages.
Meanwhile, many other developing countries,
especially in the Muslim world, will experience a
sudden new resurgence of youth whose aspirations
they are unlikely to be able to meet.

The risk of social and political upheaval could
grow throughout the developing world—even as
the developed world’s capacity to deal with such
threats declines. Yet, if the developed world seems
destined to see its geopolitical stature diminish,
there is one partial but important exception to the
trend: the United States. While it is fashionable
to argue that US power has peaked, demography
suggests America will play as important a role in
shaping the world order in this century as it did
in the last.

graying economieS
Although population size

alone does not confer geopo-
litical stature, no one disputes
that population size and eco-
nomic size together consti-
tute a potent double engine
of national power. A larger
population allows greater
numbers of young adults to
serve in war and to occupy and pacify territory. A
larger economy allows more spending on the hard
power of national defense and the semi-hard power
of foreign assistance. It can also enhance what
political scientist Joseph Nye calls “soft power” by
promoting business dominance, leverage with non-
governmental organizations and philanthropies,
social envy and emulation, and cultural clout in the
global media and popular culture.

The expectation that global aging will diminish
the geopolitical stature of the developed world is
thus based in part on simple arithmetic. By the
2020s and 2030s, the working-age population of
Japan and many European countries will be con-
tracting by between 0.5 and 1.5 percent per year.
Even at full employment, growth in real GDP could
stagnate or decline, since the number of workers
may be falling faster than productivity is rising.
Unless economic performance improves, some
countries could face a future of secular economic
stagnation—in other words, of zero real GDP
growth from peak to peak of the business cycle.

Economic performance, in fact, is more likely
to deteriorate than improve. Workforces in most
developed countries will not only be stagnating or
contracting, but also graying. A vast literature in
the social and behavioral sciences establishes that
worker productivity typically declines at older
ages, especially in eras of rapid technological and
market change.

Economies with graying workforces are also
likely to be less entrepreneurial. According to the
Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s 2007 survey
of 53 countries, new business start-ups in high-
income countries are heavily tilted toward the
young. Of all “new entrepreneurs” in the survey
(defined as owners of a business founded within
the past three and one-half years), 40 percent were
under age 35 and 69 percent under age 45. Only 9
percent were 55 or older.

At the same time, savings rates in the devel-
oped world will decline as a larger share of the
population moves into the retirement years. If sav-
ings fall more than investment demand, as much

macroeconomic modeling
suggests is likely, either busi-
nesses will starve for invest-
ment funds or the developed
economies’ dependence on
capital from higher-saving
emerging markets will grow.
In the first case, the penalty
will be lower output. In the

second, it will be higher debt service costs and the
loss of political leverage, which history teaches is
always ceded to creditor nations.

Even as economic growth slows, the developed
countries will have to transfer a rising share of
society’s economic resources from working-age
adults to nonworking elders. Graying means pay-
ing—more for pensions, more for health care, more
for nursing homes for the frail elderly. According
to projections by the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, the cost of maintaining the
current generosity of today’s public old-age benefit
systems would, on average across the developed
countries, add an extra 7 percent of GDP to gov-
ernment budgets by 2030.

Yet the old-age benefit systems of most devel-
oped countries are already pushing the limits of
fiscal and economic affordability. By the 2020s,
political conflict over deep benefit cuts seems
unavoidable. On one side will be young adults
who face stagnant or declining after-tax earnings.
On the other side will be retirees, who are often

The working-age population
has already begun to contract in

several large developed countries,
including Germany and Japan.

CH_January 2011.indd 21 12/14/10 3:49 PM

22 •  CURRENT HISTORY  •  January 2011

wholly dependent on pay-as-you-go public plans.
In the 2020s, young people in developed coun-
tries will have the future on their side. Elders will
have the votes on theirs.

Faced with the choice between economically
ruinous tax hikes and politically impossible ben-
efit cuts, many governments will choose a third
option: cannibalizing other spending on every-
thing from education and the environment to for-
eign assistance and national defense. As time goes
by, the fiscal squeeze will make it progressively
more difficult to pursue the obvious response to
military manpower shortages—investing massive-
ly in military technology, and thereby substituting
capital for labor.

diminiShed Stature
The impact of global aging on the collective

temperament of the developed countries is more
difficult to quantify than its impact on their
economies, but the consequences could be just
as important—or even more so. With the size
of domestic markets fixed or shrinking in many
countries, businesses and unions may lobby for
anticompetitive changes in the economy. We may
see growing cartel behavior to protect market
share and more restrictive rules on hiring and fir-
ing to protect jobs.

We may also see increasing pressure on govern-
ments to block foreign competition. Historically,
eras of stagnant population and market growth—
think of the 1930s—have been characterized by
rising tariff barriers, autarky, corporatism, and
other anticompetitive policies that tend to shut
the door on free trade and free markets.

This shift in business psychology could
be mirrored by a broader shift in social mood.
Psychologically, older societies are likely to become
more conservative in outlook and possibly more
risk-averse in electoral and leadership behavior.
Elder-dominated electorates may tend to lock in cur-
rent public spending commitments at the expense of
new priorities and shun decisive confrontations in
favor of ad hoc settlements. Smaller families may be
less willing to risk scarce youth in war.

We know that extremely youthful societies are
in some ways dysfunctional—prone to violence,
instability, and state failure. But extremely aged
societies may also prove dysfunctional in some
ways, favoring consumption over investment, the
past over the future, and the old over the young.

Meanwhile, the rapid growth in ethnic and
religious minority populations, due to ongoing

immigration and higher-than-average minority
fertility, could strain civic cohesion and foster
a new diaspora politics. With the demand for
low-wage labor rising, immigration (at its cur-
rent rate) is on track by 2030 to double the
percentage of Muslims in France and triple it in
Germany. Some large European cities, including
Amsterdam, Marseille, Birmingham, and Cologne,
may be majority Muslim.

In Europe, the demographic ebb tide may
deepen the crisis of confidence that is reflected
in such best-selling books as France Is Falling
by Nicolas Baverez, Can Germany Be Saved? by
Hans-Werner Sinn, and The Last Days of Europe by
Walter Laqueur. The media in Europe are already
rife with dolorous stories about the closing of
schools and maternity wards, the abandonment
of rural towns, and the lawlessness of immigrant
youths in large cities. In Japan, the government
has half-seriously projected the date at which only
one Japanese citizen will be left alive.

Over the next few decades, the outlook in the
United States will increasingly diverge from that in
the rest of the developed world. Yes, America is also
graying, but to a lesser extent. Aside from Israel and
Iceland, the United States is the only developed
nation where fertility is at or above the replacement
rate of 2.1 average lifetime births per woman. By
2030, its median age, now 37, will rise to only 39.
Its working-age population, according to both US
Census Bureau and UN projections, will also con-
tinue to grow through the 2020s and beyond, both
because of its higher fertility rate and because of
substantial net immigration, which America assimi-
lates better than most other developed countries.

The United States faces serious structural
challenges, including a bloated health care sec-
tor, a chronically low savings rate, and a political
system that has difficulty making meaningful
trade-offs among competing priorities. All of
these problems threaten to become growing
handicaps as the country’s population ages. Yet,
unlike Europe and Japan, the United States will
still have the youth and the economic resources
to play a major geopolitical role. The real chal-
lenge facing America by the 2020s may not be so
much its inability to lead the developed world
as the inability of the other developed nations to
lend much assistance.

perilouS tranSitionS
Although the world’s wealthy nations are lead-

ing the way into humanity’s graying future, aging

CH_January 2011.indd 22 12/14/10 3:49 PM

Global Aging and the Crisis of the 2020s • 23

is a global phenomenon. Most of the developing
world is also progressing through the so-called
demographic transition—the shift from high mor-
tality and high fertility to low mortality and low
fertility that inevitably accompanies development
and modernization. Since 1975, the average fer-
tility rate in the developing world has dropped
from 5.1 to 2.7 children per woman, the rate of
population growth has decelerated from 2.2 to
1.3 percent per year, and the median age has risen
from 21 to 28.

The demographic outlook in the developing
world, however, is shaping up to be one of extraor-
dinary diversity. In many of the poorest and least
stable countries (especially in sub-Saharan Africa),
the demographic transition has failed to gain trac-
tion, leaving countries burdened with large youth
bulges. By contrast, in many of the most rapidly
modernizing countries (especially in East Asia),
the population shift from young and growing to
old and stagnant or declining is occurring at a
breathtaking pace—far more rapidly than it did in
any of today’s developed countries.

Notwithstanding this
diversity, some demogra-
phers and political scientists
believe that the unfolding of
the transition is ushering in
a new era in which demo-
graphic trends will promote
global stability. This “demo-
graphic peace” thesis, as we dub it, begins with
the observation that societies with rapidly grow-
ing populations and young age structures are
often mired in poverty and prone to civil violence
and state failure, while those with no or slow
population growth and older age structures tend
to be more affluent and stable. As the demograph-
ic transition progresses—and population growth
slows, median ages rise, and child dependency
burdens fall—the demographic peace thesis pre-
dicts that economic growth and social and politi-
cal stability will follow.

We believe this thesis is deeply flawed. It fails
to take into account the huge variation in the tim-
ing and pace of the demographic transition in the
developing world. It tends to focus exclusively on
the threat of state failure, which indeed is closely
and negatively correlated with the degree of demo-
graphic transition, while ignoring the threat of
“neo-authoritarian” state success, which is more
likely to occur in societies in which the transition
is well under way. We are, in other words, not

talking just about a hostile version of the Somalia
model, but also about a potentially hostile version
of the China or Russia model, which appears to
enjoy growing appeal among political leaders in
many developing countries.

More fundamentally, the demographic peace
thesis lacks any realistic sense of historical process.
It is possible (though by no means assured) that
the global security environment that emerges after
the demographic transition has run its course will
be safer than today’s. It is very unlikely, however,
that the transition will make the security environ-
ment progressively safer along the way. Journeys
can be more dangerous than destinations.

Economists, sociologists, and historians who
have studied the development process agree that
societies, as they move from the traditional to the
modern, are buffeted by powerful and disorient-
ing social, cultural, and economic crosswinds. As
countries are integrated into the global market-
place and global culture, traditional economic and
social structures are overturned and traditional
value systems are challenged.

Along with the econom-
ic benefits of rising living
standards, development also
brings the social costs of
rapid urbanization, grow-
ing income inequality, and
environmental degradation.
When plotted against devel-

opment, these stresses exhibit a hump-shaped or
inverted-U pattern, meaning that they become
most acute midway through the demographic

The demographic transition can trigger a rise
in extremism. Religious and cultural revitalization
movements may seek to reaffirm traditional iden-
tities that are threatened by modernization and
try to fill the void left when development uproots
communities and fragments extended families. It
is well documented that international terrorism,
among the developing countries, is positively cor-
related with income, education, and urbanization.
States that sponsor terrorism are rarely among the
youngest and poorest countries; nor do the terror-
ists themselves usually originate in the youngest
and poorest countries. Indeed, they are often dis-
affected members of the middle class in middle-
income countries that are midway through the
demographic transition.

Ethnic tensions can also grow. In many soci-
eties, some ethnic groups are more successful

China will face a massive age wave
that could slow economic growth

and precipitate political crisis.

CH_January 2011.indd 23 12/14/10 3:49 PM

24 •  CURRENT HISTORY  •  January 2011

in the marketplace than others—which means
that, as development accelerates and the market
economy grows, rising inequality often falls along
ethnic lines. The sociologist Amy Chua docu-
ments how the concentration of wealth among
“market-dominant minorities” has triggered vio-
lent backlashes by majority populations in many
developing countries, from Indonesia, Malaysia,
and the Philippines (against the Chinese) to
Sierra Leone (against the Lebanese) to the former
Yugoslavia (against the Croats and Slovenes).

We have in fact only one historical example of
a large group of countries that has completed the
entire demographic transition—today’s (mostly
Western) developed nations. And their experi-
ence during that transition, from the late 1700s to
the late 1900s, was filled with the most destruc-
tive revolutions, civil wars, and total wars in the
history of civilization. The nations that engaged
in World War II had a higher median age and
a lower fertility rate—and thus were situated
at a later stage of the transition—than most of
today’s developing world is
projected to have over the
next 20 years. Even if global
aging breeds peace, in other
words, we are not out of the
woods yet.

StormS ahead
A number of demographic

storms are now brewing in different parts of the
developing world. The moment of maximum
risk still lies ahead—just a decade away, in the
2020s. Ominously, this is the same decade when
the developed world will itself be experiencing its
moment of greatest demographic stress.

Consider China, which may be the first coun-
try to grow old before it grows rich. For the past
quarter-century, China has been “peacefully ris-
ing,” thanks in part to a one-child-per-couple
policy that has lowered dependency burdens and
allowed both parents to work and contribute to
China’s boom. By the 2020s, however, the huge
Red Guard generation, which was born before the
country’s fertility decline, will move into retire-
ment, heavily taxing the resources of their chil-
dren and the state.

China’s coming age wave—by 2030 it will be an
older country than the United States—may weak-
en the two pillars of the current regime’s legitima-
cy: rapidly rising GDP and social stability. Imagine
workforce growth slowing to zero while tens of

millions of elders sink into indigence without
pensions, without health care, and without large
extended families to support them. China could
careen toward social collapse—or, in reaction,
toward an authoritarian clampdown. The arrival
of China’s age wave, and the turmoil it may bring,
will coincide with its expected displacement of
the United States as the world’s largest economy
in the 2020s. According to “power transition”
theories of global conflict, this moment could be
quite perilous.

By the 2020s, Russia, along with the rest of
Eastern Europe, will be in the midst of an extended
population decline as steep or steeper than any in
the developed world. The Russian fertility rate has
plunged far beneath the replacement level even
as life expectancy has collapsed amid a widening
health crisis. Russian men today can expect to
live to 60—16 years less than American men and
marginally less than their Red Army grandfathers
at the end of World War II. By 2050, Russia is due
to fall to 16th place in world population rankings,

down from 4th place in 1950
(or third place, if we include
all the territories of the for-
mer Soviet Union).

Prime Minister Vladimir
Putin flatly calls Russia’s
demographic implosion “the
most acute problem facing
our country today.” If the

problem is not solved, Russia will weaken pro-
gressively, raising the nightmarish specter of a
failing or failed state with nuclear weapons. Or
this cornered bear may lash out in revanchist fury
rather than meekly accept its demographic fate.

Of course, some regions of the developing
world will remain extremely young in the 2020s.
Sub-Saharan Africa, which is burdened by the
world’s highest fertility rates and is also ravaged by
AIDS, will still be racked by large youth bulges. So
will a scattering of impoverished and chronically
unstable Muslim-majority countries, including
Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, Somalia,
Sudan, and Yemen. If the correlation between
extreme youth and violence endures, chronic
unrest and state failure could persist in much of
sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Muslim world
through the 2020s, or even longer if fertility rates
fail to drop.

Meanwhile, many fast-modernizing countries
where fertility has fallen very recently and very
steeply will experience a sudden resurgence of

Demography suggests America
will play as important a role in
shaping the world order in this

century as it did in the last.

CH_January 2011.indd 24 12/14/10 3:49 PM

Global Aging and the Crisis of the 2020s • 25

youth in the 2020s. It is a law of demography that,
when a population boom is followed by a bust, it
causes a ripple effect, with a gradually fading cycle
of echo booms and busts. In the 2010s, a bust
generation will be coming of age in much of Latin
America, South Asia, and the Muslim world. But
by the 2020s, an echo boom will follow—dashing
economic expectations and perhaps fueling politi-
cal violence, religious extremism, and ethnic strife.

These echo booms will be especially large in
Pakistan and Iran. In Pakistan, the decade-over-
decade percentage growth in the number of peo-
ple in the volatile 15- to 24-year-old age bracket is
projected to drop from 32 percent in the 2000s to
just 10 percent in the 2010s, but then leap upward
again to 19 percent in the 2020s. In Iran, the
swing in the size of the youth bulge population is
projected to be even larger: minus 33 percent in
the 2010s and plus 23 percent in the 2020s. These
echo booms will be occurring in countries whose
social fabric is already strained by rapid develop-
ment. One country teeters on the brink of chaos,
while the other aspires to regional hegemony.
One already has nuclear weapons, while the other
seems likely to obtain them.

pax americana redux?
The demographer Nicholas Eberstadt has

warned that demographic change may be “even
more menacing to the security prospects of the
Western alliance than was the cold war for the
past generation.” Although it would be fair to
point out that such change usually presents
opportunities as well as dangers, his basic point is
incontestable: Planning national strategy for the
next several decades with no regard for popula-
tion projections is like setting sail without a map
or a compass. It is likely to be an ill-fated voyage.
In this sense, demography is the geopolitical car-
tography of the twenty-first century.

Although tomorrow’s geopolitical map will
surely be shaped in important ways by political
choices yet to be made, the basic contours are
already emerging. During the era of the Industrial
Revolution, the population of what we now call
the developed world grew faster than the rest of
the world’s population, peaking at 25 percent of

the world total in 1930. Since then, its share has
declined. By 2010, it stood at just 13 percent, and
it is projected to decline still further, to 10 percent
by 2050.

The collective GDP of the developed countries
will also decline as a share of the world total—and
much more steeply. According to new projections
by the Carnegie Endowment for International
Peace, the Group of 7 industrialized nations’ share
of the Group of 20 leading economies’ total GDP
will fall from 72 percent in 2009 to 40 percent
in 2050. Driving this decline will be not just the
slower growth of the developed world, as work-
forces age and stagnate or contract, but also the
expansion of large, newly market-oriented econo-
mies, especially in East and South Asia.

Again, there is only one large country in the
developed world that does not face a future of stun-
ning relative demographic and economic decline:
the United States. Thanks to its relatively high
fertility rate and substantial net immigration, its
current global population share will remain virtu-
ally unchanged in the coming decades. According
to the Carnegie projections, the US share of total
G-20 GDP will drop significantly, from 34 percent
in 2009 to 24 percent in 2050. The combined
share of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan,
and the United Kingdom, however, will plunge
from 38 percent to 16 percent.

By the middle of the twenty-first century, the
dominant strength of the US economy within the
developed world will have only one historical
parallel: the immediate aftermath of World War II,
exactly 100 years earlier, at the birth of the “Pax

The UN regularly publishes a table ranking
the world’s most populous countries over time.
In 1950, six of the top twelve were developed
countries. In 2000, only three were. By 2050, only
one developed country will remain—the United
States, still in third place. By then, it will be the
only country among the top twelve committed
since its founding to democracy, free markets, and
civil liberties.

All told, population trends point inexorably
toward a more dominant US role in a world that
will need America more, not less. ■

CH_January 2011.indd 25 12/14/10 3:49 PM




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Record: 1

The New Population Bomb: The Four Megatrends That Will
Change the World

Jack A. Goldstone

Foreign Affairs. 89(1):31-43

Council on Foreign Relations, 2010.


Population dynamics
Political geography
Health information
Population studies
Human geography
Urban studies
Economic disciplines
Health care industry
Social sciences
Behavioral sciences
Health sciences
Population growth
Ethnic groups
Rapid urbanization
Population aging

Twenty-first-century international security will be affected by four
major demographic trends: the relative demographic weight of the
world’s developed countries is dropping; those countries’ labor
forces are aging and declining; the populations of the poorest,
youngest, and most heavily Muslim countries are growing the
most; and for the first time in history, the world is becoming more
urban than rural. Policymakers will have to adapt current global
institutions to these new realities.

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JSTOR Journals

The New Population Bomb 

The Four Megatrends That Will Change the World
FORTY-TWO years ago, the biologist Paul Ehrlich warned in The Population Bomb that mass starvation
would strike in the 1970s and 1980s, with the world’s population growth outpacing the production of food
and other critical resources. Thanks to innovations and efforts such as the “green revolution” in farming
and the widespread adoption of family planning, Ehrlich’s worst fears did not come to pass. In fact, since
the 1970s, global economic output has increased and fertility has fallen dramatically, especially in
developing countries.

The United Nations Population Division now projects that global population growth will nearly halt by
2050. By that date, the world’s population will have stabilized at 9.15 billion people, according to the
“medium growth” variant of the UN’s authoritative population database World Population Prospects: The
2008 Revision. (Today’s global population is 6.83 billion.) Barring a cataclysmic climate crisis or a
complete failure to recover from the current economic malaise, global economic output is expected to
increase by two to three percent per year, meaning that global income will increase far more than
population over the next four decades.

But twenty-first-century international security will depend less on how many people inhabit the world
than on how the global population is composed and distributed: where populations are declining and
where they are growing, which countries are relatively older and which are more youthful, and how
demographics will influence population movements across regions.

These elements are not well recognized or widely understood. A recent article in The Economist, for
example, cheered the decline in global fertility without noting other vital demographic developments.
Indeed, the same UN data cited by The Economist reveal four historic shifts that will fundamentally alter
the world’s population over the next four decades: the relative demographic weight of the world’s
developed countries will drop by nearly 25 percent, shifting economic power to the developing nations;
the developed countries’ labor forces will substantially age and decline, constraining economic growth in
the developed world and raising the demand for immigrant workers; most of the world’s expected
population growth will increasingly be concentrated in today’s poorest, youngest, and most heavily
Muslim countries, which have a dangerous lack of quality education, capital, and employment
opportunities; and, for the first time in history, most of the world’s population will become urbanized, with
the largest urban centers being in the world’s poorest countries, where policing, sanitation, and health
care are often scarce.

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Taken together, these trends will pose challenges every bit as alarming as those noted by Ehrlich.
Coping with them will require nothing less than a major reconsideration of the world’s basic global
governance structures.

AT THE beginning of the eighteenth century, approximately 20 percent of the world’s inhabitants lived in
Europe (including Russia). Then, with the Industrial Revolution, Europe’s population boomed, and
streams of European emigrants set off for the Americas. By the eve of World War I, Europe’s population
had more than quadrupled. In 1913, Europe had more people than China, and the proportion of the
world’s population living in Europe and the former European colonies of North America had risen to over
33 percent.

But this trend reversed after World War I, as basic health care and sanitation began to spread to poorer
countries. In Asia, Africa, and Latin America, people began to live longer, and birthrates remained high
or fell only slowly. By 2003, the combined populations of Europe, the United States, and Canada
accounted for just 17 percent of the global population. In 2050, this figure is expected to be just 12
percent far less than it was in 1700. (These projections, moreover, might even understate the reality
because they reflect the “medium growth” projection of the UN forecasts, which assumes that the fertility
rates of developing countries will decline while those of developed countries will increase. In fact, many
developed countries show no evidence of increasing fertility rates.)

The West’s relative decline is even more dramatic if one also considers changes in income. The
Industrial Revolution made Europeans not only more numerous than they had been but also
considerably richer per capita than others worldwide. According to the economic historian Angus
Maddison, Europe, the United States, and Canada together produced about 32 percent of the world’s
GDP at the beginning of the nineteenth century. By 1950, that proportion had increased to a remarkable
68 percent of the world’s total output (adjusted to reflect purchasing power parity).

This trend, too, is headed for a sharp reversal. The proportion of global GDP produced by Europe, the
United States, and Canada fell from 68 percent in 1950 to 47 percent in 2003 and will decline even more
steeply in the future. If the growth rate of per capita income (again, adjusted for purchasing power parity)
between 2003 and 2050 remains as it was between 1973 and 2003–averaging 1.68 percent annually in
Europe, the United States, and Canada and 2.47 percent annually in the rest of the world–then the
combined GDP of Europe, the United States, and Canada will roughly double by 2050, whereas the
GDP of the rest of the world will grow by a factor of five. The portion of global GDP produced by Europe,
the United States, and Canada in 2050 will then be less than 30 percent–smaller than it was in 1820.

These figures also imply that an overwhelming proportion of the world’s GDP growth between 2003 and
2050–nearly 80 percent–will occur outside of Europe, the United States, and Canada. By the middle of
this century, the global middle class–those capable of purchasing durable consumer products, such as
cars, appliances, and electronics-will increasingly be found in what is now considered the developing
world. The World Bank has predicted that by 2030 the number of middle-class people in the developing
world will be 1.2 billion a rise of 200 percent since 2005. This means that the developing world’s middle
class alone will be larger than the total populations of Europe, Japan, and the United States combined.

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From now on, therefore, the main driver of global economic expansion will be the economic growth of
newly industrialized countries, such as Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, and Turkey.

PART OF the reason developed countries will be less economically dynamic in the coming decades is
that their populations will become substantially older. The European countries, Canada, the United
States, Japan, South Korea, and even China are aging at unprecedented rates. Today, the proportion of
people aged 60 or older in China and South Korea is 12-15 percent. It is 15-22 percent in the European
Union, Canada, and the United States and 30 percent in Japan. With baby boomers aging and life
expectancy increasing, these numbers will increase dramatically. In 2050, approximately 30 percent of
Americans, Canadians, Chinese, and Europeans will be over 60, as will more than 40 percent of
Japanese and South Koreans.

Over the next decades, therefore, these countries will have increasingly large proportions of retirees and
increasingly small proportions of workers. As workers born during the baby boom of 1945-65 are retiring,
they are not being replaced by a new cohort of citizens of prime working age (15-59 years old).
Industrialized countries are experiencing a drop in their working-age populations that is even more
severe than the overall slowdown in their population growth. South Korea represents the most extreme
example. Even as its total population is projected to decline by almost 9 percent by 2050 (from 48.3
million to 44.1 million), the population of working-age South Koreans is expected to drop by 36 percent
(from 32.9 million to 21.1 million), and the number of South Koreans aged 60 and older will increase by
almost 150 percent (from 7.3 million to 18 million). By 2050, in other words, the entire working-age
population will barely exceed the 60-and-older population. Although South Korea’s case is extreme, it
represents an increasingly common fate for developed countries. Europe is expected to lose 24 percent
of its prime working-age population (about 120 million workers) by 2050, and its 60-and-older population
is expected to increase by 47 percent. In the United States, where higher fertility and more immigration
are expected than in Europe, the working-age population will grow by 15 percent over the next four
decades–a steep decline from its growth of 62 percent between 1950 and 2010. And by 2050, the
United States’ 60-and-older population is expected to double.

All this will have a dramatic impact on economic growth, health care, and military strength in the
developed world. The forces that fueled economic growth in industrialized countries during the second
half of the twentieth century–increased productivity due to better education, the movement of women
into the labor force, and innovations in technology–will all likely weaken in the coming decades. College
enrollment boomed after World War II, a trend that is not likely to recur in the twenty-first century; the
extensive movement of women into the labor force also was a one-time social change; and the
technological change of the time resulted from innovators who created new products and leading-edge
consumers who were willing to try them out–two groups that are thinning out as the industrialized
world’s population ages.

Overall economic growth will also be hampered by a decline in the number of new consumers and new
households. When developed countries’ labor forces were growing by 0.5-1.0 percent per year, as they
did until 2005, even annual increases in real output per worker of just 1.7 percent meant that annual

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economic growth totaled 2.2-2.7 percent per year. But with the labor forces of many developed countries
(such as Germany, Hungary, Japan, Russia, and the Baltic states) now shrinking by 0.2 percent per year
and those of other countries (including Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, and Italy)
growing by less than 0.2 percent per year, the same 1.7 percent increase in real output per worker yields
only 1.5-1.9 percent annual overall growth. Moreover, developed countries will be lucky to keep
productivity growth at even that level; in many developed countries, productivity is more likely to decline
as the population ages.

A further strain on industrialized economies will be rising medical costs: as populations age, they will
demand more health care for longer periods of time. Public pension schemes for aging populations are
already being reformed in various industrialized countries–often prompting heated debate. In theory, at
least, pensions might be kept solvent by increasing the retirement age, raising taxes modestly, and
phasing out benefits for the wealthy. Regardless, the number of 80- and 90-year-olds–who are unlikely
to work and highly likely to require nursing-home and other expensive care–will rise dramatically. And
even if 60- and 70-year-olds remain active and employed, they will require procedures and medications
hip replacements, kidney transplants, blood-pressure treatments–to sustain their health in old age.

All this means that just as aging developed countries will have proportionally fewer workers, innovators,
and consumerist young households, a large portion of those countries’ remaining economic growth will
have to be diverted to pay for the medical bills and pensions of their growing elderly populations. Basic
services, meanwhile, will be increasingly costly because fewer young workers will be available for
strenuous and labor-intensive jobs. Unfortunately, policymakers seldom reckon with these potentially
disruptive effects of otherwise welcome developments, such as higher life expectancy.

EVEN AS the industrialized countries of Europe, North America, and Northeast Asia will experience
unprecedented aging this century, fast-growing countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and
Southeast Asia will have exceptionally youthful populations. Today, roughly nine out often children under
the age of 15 live in developing countries. And these are the countries that will continue to have the
world’s highest birthrates. Indeed, over 70 percent of the world’s population growth between now and
2050 will occur in 24 countries, all of which are classified by the World Bank as low income or lower-
middle income, with an average per capita income of under $3,855 in 2008.

Many developing countries have few ways of providing employment to their young, fast-growing
populations. Would-be laborers, therefore, will be increasingly attracted to the labor markets of the aging
developed countries of Europe, North America, and Northeast Asia. Youthful immigrants from nearby
regions with high unemployment–Central America, North Africa, and Southeast Asia, for example–will
be drawn to those vital entry-level and manual-labor jobs that sustain advanced economies: janitors,
nursing-home aides, bus drivers, plumbers, security guards, farm workers, and the like. Current levels of
immigration from developing to developed countries are paltry compared to those that the forces of
supply and demand might soon create across the world.

These forces will act strongly on the Muslim world, where many economically weak countries will
continue to experience dramatic population growth in the decades ahead. In 1950, Bangladesh, Egypt,

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Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkey had a combined population of 242 million. By 2009, those six
countries were the world’s most populous Muslim-majority countries and had a combined population of
886 million. Their populations are continuing to grow and indeed are expected to increase by 475 million
between now and 2050–during which time, by comparison, the six most populous developed countries
are projected to gain only 44 million inhabitants. Worldwide, of the 48 fastest-growing countries today–
those with annual population growth of two percent or more–28 are majority Muslim or have Muslim
minorities of 33 percent or more.

It is therefore imperative to improve relations between Muslim and Western societies. This will be difficult
given that many Muslims live in poor communities vulnerable to radical appeals and many see the West
as antagonistic and militaristic. In the 2009 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, for example, whereas
69 percent of those Indonesians and Nigerians surveyed reported viewing the United States favorably,
just 18 percent of those polled in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and Turkey (all U.S. allies) did. And in 2006,
when the Pew survey last asked detailed questions about Muslim-Western relations, more than half of
the respondents in Muslim countries characterized those relations as bad and blamed the West for this
state of affairs.

But improving relations is all the more important because of the growing demographic weight of poor
Muslim countries and the attendant increase in Muslim immigration, especially to Europe from North
Africa and the Middle East. (To be sure, forecasts that Muslims will soon dominate Europe are
outlandish: Muslims compose just three to ten percent of the population in the major European countries
today, and this proportion will at most double by midcentury.) Strategists worldwide must consider that
the world’s young are becoming concentrated in those countries least prepared to educate and employ
them, including some Muslim states. Any resulting poverty, social tension, or ideological radicalization
could have disruptive effects in many corners of the world. But this need not be the case; the healthy
immigration of workers to the developed world and the movement of capital to the developing world,
among other things, could lead to better results.

EXACERBATING twenty-first-century risks will be the fact that the world is urbanizing to an
unprecedented degree. The year 2010 will likely be the first time in history that a majority of the world’s
people live in cities rather than in the countryside. Whereas less than 30 percent of the world’s
population was urban in 1950, according to UN projections, more than 70 percent will be by 2050.

Lower-income countries in Asia and Africa are urbanizing especially rapidly, as agriculture becomes less
labor intensive and as employment opportunities shift to the industrial and service sectors. Already, most
of the world’s urban agglomerations–Mumbai (population 20.1 million), Mexico City (19.5 million), New
Delhi (17 million), Shanghai (15.8 million), Calcutta (15.6 million), Karachi (13.1 million), Cairo (12.5
million), Manila (11.7 million), Lagos (10.6 million), Jakarta (9.7 million)–are found in low-income
countries. Many of these countries have multiple cities with over one million residents each: Pakistan
has eight, Mexico 12, and China more than 100. The UN projects that the urbanized proportion of sub-
Saharan Africa will nearly double between 2005 and 2050, from 35 percent (300 million people) to over
67 percent (1 billion). China, which is roughly 40 percent urbanized today, is expected to be 73 percent

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urbanized by 2050; India, which is less than 30 percent urbanized today, is expected to be 55 percent
urbanized by 2050. Overall, the world’s urban population is expected to grow by 3 billion people by

This urbanization may prove destabilizing. Developing countries that urbanize in the twenty-first century
will have far lower per capita incomes than did many industrial countries when they first urbanized. The
United States, for example, did not reach 65 percent urbanization until 1950, when per capita income
was nearly $13,000 (in 2005 dollars). By contrast, Nigeria, Pakistan, and the Philippines, which are
approaching similar levels of urbanization, currently have per capita incomes of just $1,800-$4,000 (in
2005 dollars).

According to the research of Richard Cincotta and other political demographers, countries with younger
populations are especially prone to civil unrest and are less able to create or sustain democratic
institutions. And the more heavily urbanized, the more such countries are likely to experience
Dickensian poverty and anarchic violence. In good times, a thriving economy might keep urban
residents employed and governments flush with sufficient resources to meet their needs. More often,
however, sprawling and impoverished cities are vulnerable to crime lords, gangs, and petty rebellions.
Thus, the rapid urbanization of the developing world in the decades ahead might bring, in exaggerated
form, problems similar to those that urbanization brought to nineteenth-century Europe. Back then,
cyclical employment, inadequate policing, and limited sanitation and education often spawned
widespread labor strife, periodic violence, and sometimes–as in the 1820s, the 1830s, and 1848–even

International terrorism might also originate in fast-urbanizing developing countries (even more than it
already does). With their neighborhood networks, access to the Internet and digital communications
technology, and concentration of valuable targets, sprawling cities offer excellent opportunities for
recruiting, maintaining, and hiding terrorist networks.

AVERTING THIS century’s potential dangers will require sweeping measures. Three major global efforts
defused the population bomb of Ehrlich’s day: a commitment by governments and nongovernmental
organizations to control reproduction rates; agricultural advances, such as the green revolution and the
spread of new technology; and a vast increase in international trade, which globalized markets and thus
allowed developing countries to export foodstuffs in exchange for seeds, fertilizers, and machinery,
which in turn helped them boost production. But today’s population bomb is the product less of absolute
growth in the world’s population than of changes in its age and distribution. Policymakers must therefore
adapt today’s global governance institutions to the new realities of the aging of the industrialized world,
the concentration of the world’s economic and population growth in developing countries, and the
increase in international immigration.

During the Cold War, Western strategists divided the world into a “First World,” of democratic
industrialized countries; a “Second World,” of communist industrialized countries; and a “Third World,” of
developing countries. These strategists focused chiefly on deterring or managing conflict between the
First and the Second Worlds and on launching proxy wars and diplomatic initiatives to attract Third

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World countries into the First World’s camp. Since the end of the Cold War, strategists have largely
abandoned this three-group division and have tended to believe either that the United States, as the
sole superpower, would maintain a Pax Americana or that the world would become multipolar, with the
United States, Europe, and China playing major roles.

Unfortunately, because they ignore current global demographic trends, these views will be obsolete
within a few decades. A better approach would be to consider a different three-world order, with a new
First World of the aging industrialized nations of North America, Europe, and Asia’s Pacific Rim
(including Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, as well as China after 2030, by which point the
one-child policy will have produced significant aging); a Second World comprising fast-growing and
economically dynamic countries with a healthy mix of young and old inhabitants (such as Brazil, Iran,
Mexico, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam, as well as China until 2030); and a Third World of fast-growing,
very young, and increasingly urbanized countries with poorer economies and often weak governments.

To cope with the instability that will likely arise from the new Third World’s urbanization, economic strife,
lawlessness, and potential terrorist activity, the aging industrialized nations of the new First World must
build effective alliances with the growing powers of the new Second World and together reach out to
Third World nations. Second World powers will be pivotal in the twenty-first century not just because
they will drive economic growth and consume technologies and other products engineered in the First
World; they will also be central to international security and cooperation. The realities of religion, culture,
and geographic proximity mean that any peaceful and productive engagement by the First World of
Third World countries will have to include the open cooperation of Second World countries.

Strategists, therefore, must fundamentally reconsider the structure of various current global institutions.
The G-8, for example, will likely become obsolete as a body for making global economic policy. The
G-20 is already becoming increasingly important, and this is less a short-term consequence of the
ongoing global financial crisis than the beginning of the necessary recognition that Brazil, China, India,
Indonesia, Mexico, Turkey, and others are becoming global economic powers. International institutions
will not retain their legitimacy if they exclude the world’s fastest-growing and most economically dynamic
countries. It is essential, therefore, despite European concerns about the potential effects on
immigration, to take steps such as admitting Turkey into the European Union. This would add youth and
economic dynamism to the EU–and would prove that Muslims are welcome to join Europeans as equals
in shaping a free and prosperous future. On the other hand, excluding Turkey from the EU could lead to
hostility not only on the part of Turkish citizens, who are expected to number 100 million by 2050, but
also on the part of Muslim populations worldwide.

NATO must also adapt. The alliance today is composed almost entirely of countries with aging, shrinking
populations and relatively slow-growing economies. It is oriented toward the Northern Hemisphere and
holds on to a Cold War structure that cannot adequately respond to contemporary threats. The young
and increasingly populous countries of Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia could
mobilize insurgents much more easily than NATO could mobilize the troops it would need if it were
called on to stabilize those countries. Long-standing NATO members should, therefore–although it
would require atypical creativity and flexibility–consider the logistical and demographic advantages of

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inviting into the alliance countries such as Brazil and Morocco, rather than countries such as Albania.
That this seems far-fetched does not minimize the imperative that First World countries begin including
large and strategic Second and Third World powers in formal international alliances.

The case of Afghanistan–a country whose population is growing fast and where NATO is currently
engaged–illustrates the importance of building effective global institutions. Today, there are 28 million
Afghans; by 2025, there will be 45 million; and by 2050, there will be close to 75 million. As nearly 20
million additional Afghans are born over the next 15 years, NATO will have an opportunity to help
Afghanistan become reasonably stable, self-governing, and prosperous. If NATO’s efforts fail and the
Afghans judge that NATO intervention harmed their interests, tens of millions of young Afghans will
become more hostile to the West. But if they come to think that NATO’s involvement benefited their
society, the West will have tens of millions of new friends. The example might then motivate the
approximately one billion other young Muslims growing up in low-income countries over the next four
decades to look more kindly on relations between their countries and the countries of the industrialized

THE AGING industrialized countries can also take various steps at home to promote stability in light of
the coming demographic trends. First, they should encourage families to have more children. France
and Sweden have had success providing child care, generous leave time, and financial allowances to
families with young children. Yet there is no consensus among policymakers–and certainly not among
demographers–about what policies best encourage fertility.

More important than unproven tactics for increasing family size is immigration. Correctly managed,
population movement can benefit developed and developing countries alike. Given the dangers of
young, underemployed, and unstable populations in developing countries, immigration to developed
countries can provide economic opportunities for the ambitious and serve as a safety valve for all.
Countries that embrace immigrants, such as the United States, gain economically by having willing
laborers and greater entrepreneurial spirit. And countries with high levels of emigration (but not so much
that they experience so-called brain drains) also benefit because emigrants often send remittances
home or return to their native countries with valuable education and work experience.

One somewhat daring approach to immigration would be to encourage a reverse flow of older
immigrants from developed to developing countries. If older residents of developed countries took their
retirements along the southern coast of the Mediterranean or in Latin America or Africa, it would greatly
reduce the strain on their home countries’ public entitlement systems. The developing countries
involved, meanwhile, would benefit because caring for the elderly and providing retirement and leisure
services is highly labor intensive. Relocating a portion of these activities to developing countries would
provide employment and valuable training to the young, growing populations of the Second and Third

This would require developing residential and medical facilities of First World quality in Second and Third
World countries. Yet even this difficult task would be preferable to the status quo, by which low wages
and poor facilities lead to a steady drain of medical and nursing talent from developing to developed

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countries. Many residents of developed countries who desire cheaper medical procedures already
practice medical tourism today, with India, Singapore, and Thailand being the most common
destinations. (For example, the international consulting firm Deloitte estimated that 750,000 Americans
traveled abroad for care in 2008.)

Never since 1800 has a majority of the world’s economic growth occurred outside of Europe, the United
States, and Canada. Never have so many people in those regions been over 60 years old. And never
have low-income countries’ populations been so young and so urbanized. But such will be the world’s
demography in the twenty-first century. The strategic and economic policies of the twentieth century are
obsolete, and it is time to find new ones.

By Jack A. Goldstone

JACK A. GOLDSTONE is Virginia E. and John T. Hazel, Jr., Professor at the George Mason School of
Public Policy.

The contents of Foreign Affairs are protected by copyright. © 2004 Council on Foreign Relations, Inc., all
rights reserved. To request permission to reproduce additional copies of the article(s) you will retrieve,
please contact the Permissions and Licensing office of Foreign Affairs.

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