People. . .

In 2035 the world’s population will be larger, older and more urban than today, but change will progress unevenly across regions, with rapid growth in many promising but still-developing economies offset by stalled growth—or even shrinking populations—in many developed countries. These trends will challenge the former to provide infrastructure and opportunities for their growing populations and the latter to use technology to minimize their need for new workers and to smoothly integrate migrants from developing countries who seek improved prospects.

  • By 2035, world population will have increased by almost 20 percent to 8.8 billion, while the global median age will have risen from 30 in 2015 to 34 years.
  • By then, more than three-fifths of the world’s population will likely live in urban areas, an approximate 7-percentage point increase from 2016.

Age Structure Changes of Key Countries, 2015-35

Table - Age Structure Changes of Key Countries, 2015-35

Source: UN Population Division, World Population Prospects, 2015 revision (median age data).

Areas of Concern

Five demographic trends will potentially underpin domestic instability and interstate political frictions during the next two decades: chronically youthful states; mass interstate/interregional migrations; transitions through demographic phases; advanced population aging; and majority-minority differential growth.  The dynamics of each are outlined below, with examples of regions/states where the trend is likely to be most relevant within the next five years and during the next 20 years.

Chronically Youthful States.  Age-structurally youthful states have been the most vulnerable to intra-state political violence, whether perpetrated by state or nonstate actors, and many have patronage-based governments ill-equipped to meet the demands of sustained high fertility, rapid urban growth—typically without sufficient fiscal means to plan and accommodate it—and an underemployed young-adult population, potentially contributing to instability.

  • Youthful states suffering from protracted political violence and institutional dysfunction risk drawing intervention from regional and extra-regional powers, as seen during the past 40 years.
  • In the regions where youthful states are clustered—and where the governments involved have been unable to contain or suppress insurgencies—armed violence has periodically spilled over origin-state borders into the region and well beyond.

The US Census Bureau’s International Program Center (USCB-IPC) and the UN Population Division project that  the current clusters of chronically youthful states—the Sahel region of Africa; Equatorial Africa; Iraq-Syria; Yemen, Somalia; and Afghanistan-Pakistan—will persist for the next five years—and nearly all will remain through 2035.

  • The UN projections suggest that Egypt will move out of the youthful category by 2030 and Pakistan will follow by 2035, with Yemen projected to get closer to this category by 2040. However, past growth forecasts for all three countries were optimistically higher than they turned out to be—which may prove true again.

Mass Migration.  Conflict-torn youthful-state clusters have frequently been the source of crisis-spurred migrations in recent decades, and their existence through 2035 suggests a continuation of political stress for population-receiving countries and the periodic disruption of more orderly—and more easily accommodated—flows of labor migrants and tourism to destination countries.  Flows from conflict-torn youthful-state clusters will probably pose the greatest concern for migrant-receiving states, which must bear significant financial, social and political costs in having to accommodate and integrate new members of society—or deal with the stresses of poorly integrated populations.

  • Even predictable flows of economic migrants can pose problems for source and destination countries.  Migrant-source states face the loss of their most promising professionals and trained technicians, and beyond the above-mentioned integration costs, legitimate migrants evading or overwhelming receiving-state border controls—or traveling shared routes with unauthorized migrants—can help transform migration routes into conduits for contraband, trafficked individuals, and terrorist infiltration.

During the next five years, even relatively stable “front-line states” surrounding ongoing conflicts in the Middle East—including Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, with southern and central Europe as a second line of affected states—will have to deal with such stresses.  The UNHCR warns that the number of “protracted” refugee situations—currently at 32 and with an average duration of 26 years—has vastly increased since the early 1990s.  Their length makes it increasingly likely that the “temporary settlements” to accommodate refugees in front-line states will become permanent cities—but lacking the full complement of infrastructure, diversified economic activity, and governance institutions of well-planned and managed cities.

  • During the next 20 years, without sufficient growth and development to maintain stability, the Sahel youthful cluster could spark flows that affect Algeria, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Senegal, and Tunisia, and conflicts in central equatorial Africa could send migrant to Botswana, Kenya, South Africa, and Tanzania.  Iran would need to absorb more migrants if conflicts in the Iraq-Syria and Afghanistan-Pakistan clusters do not abate.

Large Working-Age Populations.  States with relatively large working-age populations—called the “demographic window of opportunity”—typically enjoy improved maternal and child health, increased per-child educational investment and educational attainment, slowing workforce growth, and in some cases, the accumulation of household savings or assets to further support economic growth.  China and South Korea, which recently left this window, vastly expanded human capital, created productive technology sectors, turned their cities into livable, functioning engines of growth, and amassed private and sovereign wealth.

  • Since the 1970s, the demographic window has been associated with the rise and stability of liberal democracies, as seen in Brazil, Chile, South Korea, and Taiwan, during the late 1980s and 1990s, and more recently in Tunisia.  This pattern suggests that in coming years, one or more of the major intermediate-phase countries—a group that includes Algeria, Colombia, Ecuador, Morocco, Myanmar, and Venezuela—could transition to greater democracy.
  • Persistently high birthrates among the chronically youthful states mean that relatively few high-growth African countries will move into the intermediate category during the next five years, although several youthful clusters in Asia—including the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia—and in Latin America will make the transition, potentially setting the stage for strong economic performance in coming years.

Developed States’ Population Aging.  USCB-IPC and UN projections suggest that by 2035, countries with “post-mature” age structures will expand from only Japan and Germany today, to a group that comprises states in eastern, central and southern Europe, much of East Asia, and Cuba—with China nearly qualifying as well.  These states will be to adjust—but maintain—the institutional frameworks developed during their structurally favorable periods, including social safety nets, liberal democracy, and global capitalism, so that they remain sustainable amid challenges that unfold in their advanced post-maturity stages.

  • In all regions, the decline in the prime military recruitment pool will press more governments to consider smaller, technologically sophisticated militaries, use of for-hire soldiers, and broader military alliances.

Post-mature state governments are already trying to adjust; declines in young working-age populations in Europe, Japan and South Korea have led governments to subsidize efforts to boost per-worker productivity with measures such as decentralized networked workplaces, increased use of robotics, and support for life-long learning. Efforts to increase workforce participation include incentives to attract women and under-represented groups into the skilled workforce, and subsidized childcare to retain them.  Governments have boosted part-time senior work and increased retirement ages to keep people working longer and reduce rolls of older dependents, with mixed success.

  • In Europe during the next five years, efforts to roll back retirement ages and liberalize workplace rules are likely to continue to be met with stiff resistance.  While immigration was once thought of as a stop gap form for support to maintain the welfare state, it is now politically “off the table” as a solution. Residents of East Asian “aging states,” where benefits are typically less generous than in Europe, may be more willing to contribute more for pension and healthcare reforms, but they still expect government to ensure living standards.
  • Countries where governments are politically incapable of reining-in pension and healthcare benefits will face difficult fiscal choices, potentially cutting education or other investment in their diminished youthful populations—and further undermining their economic prospects.  Efforts to move from state-run, “pay-as-you-go” and employer-funded pensions to personal savings-based programs will alleviate pressure on government finances but will leave individuals’ retirements at risk of losses from financial market volatility, potentially leading to calls for government intervention after financial crises.

Majority-Minority Differential Growth.  In multi-ethnic states, gaps in population growth rates can aggravate social and political disparities between often better-educated, more-prosperous urbanized majority-group members, and ethnoreligious minorities that typically retain higher fertility rates or whose population growth is augmented by immigration.  Limiting the political and economic participation and educational opportunities of minority groups—and encouraging their residential segregation—can widen the population-growth and prosperity gaps and worsen tension—called a minority demographic security dilemma by political demographers.

  • These growth gaps often become instruments of political rhetoric—by both sides—with the differences exaggerated.  This can have inter-generational impact, since large gaps can cause visibly apparent changes in ethnic composition among the youngest school-age populations, whose education is subsidized by the taxpaying majority and could be jeopardized if targeted by hostile politicians.
  • Because of this political dimension, the effects of ethnic-composition shifts during the next twenty years are potentially greatest on electoral democracies, particularly when the political leadership of the dominant group works to stave off the group’s loss of electoral power.  Such shifts are occurring in Israel, where today’s majority of secular and traditionally religious Jews are projected to decline in voting power over the next two decades in the face of rapid growth among Ultra-Orthodox Jews, National Religious Jews, and Palestinian Israelis.
  • Similarly, in southeast Turkey the rapidly growing Kurdish population could gain electoral power as it becomes larger and more efficiently organized.  Shifts are also occurring in the central Andes, as indigenous populations make up a growing share of the electorate.

Continued Urbanization. The world’s urban population first exceeded the rural population about a decade ago, and it continues to grow through natural causes and migration while rural-population growth has been flat in recent years.  Urbanization will shape global social and political dynamics, but its effects are likely to be uneven and depend on states’ capacity to manage the political, economic, and social stresses that urban growth causes.

With proper planning, urbanization can provide the setting, the underlying population base, and momentum for sustainable growth by enabling governments, businesses and individuals to reduce transaction costs; more efficient public infrastructure and services; and greater knowledge generation and diffusion.  By some estimates, the world’s “megaregions”—networks of metropolitan areas that share environmental systems and topography, infrastructure, economic links, settlement, and land-use patterns—account for 66 percent of the world’s economic activity and are the breeding ground for 85 percent of all technological and scientific innovation.  Poorly-managed cities and urban centers, however, can serve as incubators for poverty, inequality, crime, pollution, and disease.  Near-term decisions on infrastructure for developing megacities will determine their vulnerability to extreme events and climate change.

  • Increased urbanization enables new social and political movements by concentrating social stresses without adequate capacity to deal with demands on infrastructure.  In particular, urbanization without sufficient economic development and consideration of environmental sustainability contributes to poverty and poor living conditions.  Such stresses have spurred calls for social change and resource redistribution that adds to volatility at the local political level and causes regional spillover if people move elsewhere.
  • Even if city development is efficient, urban areas will challenge city planners and governments, including some in Europe, to fund adequate infrastructure, transportation, energy, clean water and air, stable food systems, and healthcare.

The Emerging Gender Imbalance

During the next 20 years, higher rates of education for women, access to birth control, and more equal participation in labor markets suggest birth rates will continue to decline, although biotechnology advances will make it more likely that children survive to adulthood. The male to female ratio of children born in many Middle Eastern, East Asian, and South Asian countries is likely to continue to rise. In recent decades, unbalanced sex ratios have grown in favor of males in countries, such as Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, China, Georgia, India, Montenegro, South Korea and Vietnam because of sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, and female selective neglect.

  • During the next 20 years, large parts of China and India are projected to have 10 to 20 percent more men than women. The two countries are already seeing significant numbers of men without prospects for marriage, and the imbalances, which would take decades to correct, have been linked to abnormal levels of crime and violence, as well as human rights violations such as abduction and trafficking of girls and women for marriage or sexual exploitation.
  • The spread of gender imbalances appears linked to the influence patrilineal systems play in providing security when government capacity dwindles. As this mindset gains greater traction, groups that abide by this ideology are likely to depress the perceived value of women’s lives even further.
  • Limited economic opportunity in the Arab world is causing many men to delay marriage because they cannot amass the funds to start a household in patrilineal societies where paying a bride price is obligatory. Escalating bride-price and wedding costs place a regressive tax on all young men in the society and become a potent source of grievance. Marriage market obstruction—whether from escalating costs, abnormal sex ratios, or high prevalence of polygyny—facilitates recruitment of young men into rebel and terrorist groups.