sOfficially eight billionth baby, Phineas Mabansag, arrived at a maternity ward in the Philippines this week and delivered another half a million babies. But the world they live in will prove to be very different from anything we have seen previously in human history. Because the old are the ones who suddenly inherit the land.
Sometime around the 1980s, when in November 2022 Mabansaj and her fellow nursery schoolmates celebrate their 60th birthdays, the United Nations expects the world’s population to peak before entering a steady decline. Other demographers claim that a historic moment will happen sooner, perhaps in the 1960s.
The global growth rate is faltering rapidly, falling below one percent annually for the first time since 1950. At the time, the global average fertility was five births per woman, but in 2021 this has fallen to 2.3 births. Although fertility rates continue to rise in a number of African countries, an estimated two-thirds of the world’s population lives in a country where fertility is now below 2.1 births per woman (the level required for the current population to replace itself).
And with lower birth rates, people are living much longer. According to UK life expectancy forecasts released by the Office for National Statistics earlier this year, an estimated 13.6 percent of boys and 19 percent of girls born in the UK can expect to live to at least 100 years of age. UK in 2020. By 2045, this figure will rise to 20.9 percent for boys and 27 percent for girls.
Fewer children and people living longer means that across Europe, Asia and the Americas, a demographic time bomb is ticking – one that will change the global economic order. Work, family and society will be radically upended in the process.
“The world of the future for people between 30 and 50 today may be as much about providing for your grandparents as it is about your grandchildren,” says James Banks, senior fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and professor of economics at the University of Manchester.
When the population peaks, what will our world look like then? Banks certainly suggests that we will all have to work longer. By then, he expects the age at which people can collect their pensions to be in their 70s (the state’s current retirement age of 66 is already proposed to rise to 68 in 2037).
Although the idea of retirement itself may not be there at that point. Professor Banks expects that many more older people will take up “gig jobs” that combine their pension income with gainful work, whether that be part-time or in the gig economy. By the 1960s, more than 70-somethings will be commuting on hoverbikes to deliver packages and fast food; Somewhere between The Jetsons and Last of the Summer Wine.
Experts also expect increased automation in sectors traditionally employed by cheap human labor and younger people. In health and social care, for example, AI diagnostic tools and robotic assistants are already in good use in countries like Japan (which leads the world ranking for oldest society by more than 65 years). With prototypes like Japan’s “Teddy Bear Robot” already trained to transform and lift disabled patients, in the coming decades we may all have to come to terms with the idea that we’ll be spending our points in the arms of a machine.
The agricultural and manufacturing sectors will also become increasingly automated. By the 1960s, some argue, the rolling fields of England will be cultivated mainly by a mechanized 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 over the bulk of agricultural labour. The Robotricks traction unit (which can be programmed to harvest, sow and weed) is already in advanced trials with farmers in the Southwest. Ultimately, he insists, “our machine is part of the solution.” “For humanity to survive and continue, it needs to use technology like this to improve the way we’ve been growing.”
In addition to filling the void of human labor, Shaw-Sutton says, mechanized farming could also be more productive. A study published by the WWF earlier this year found that an estimated 3.3 million tonnes of food is wasted annually on UK farms. By growing and harvesting crops more efficiently, England could free up some 70 percent of its land currently used for agriculture to boost wildlife and biodiversity while increasing food production.
Shaw-Sutton also expects more food production to move away from the countryside to the cities. Vertical farms such as the 26-story “skimmers” built in China to replace pig farms will become an increasing part of the city’s skyline.
There is, of course, another way to avoid a fertility collapse in the developed world. While wealthier populations are stagnating, some developing countries are still experiencing rapid growth. In fact, more than half of the expected increase in the world’s population until 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 have the fastest population growth by 2100 (527 million). China, which will soon be overtaken by India as the world’s most populous country, is expected to see the largest decline (327 million).
While richer countries are producing fewer children, Professor Sarah Harper, director of the Institute of Population Aging at the University of Oxford, says parts of sub-Saharan Africa may defy UN predictions. She and her colleagues have conducted research that indicates 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 choice and empower them through education, health and family planning, they seem to want bigger families,” she says.
Politically, however, the mass migration to replace a dwindling pool of young people can be complicated (to say the least). Harper’s colleague at Oxford, Professor David Coleman, has conducted previous research which revealed that by around 2070 the proportion of the UK population classified as white Britons could be in the minority. He also warns that future governments target high levels of immigration to fill jobs that could become automated in time anyway (such as agricultural labour). “What we are doing now, with high levels of immigration, is importing high levels of redundancy and ultimately unemployment,” he warns.
Governments have tried their policy tools to convince their people to produce more young people. Last year, China, which scrapped its long-standing one-child policy in 2016, changed laws again to encourage people to have three children. South Korea, whose fertility rate fell 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 are all at risk of going out of business in the coming decades. Right now, the number of Koreans aged 18-21 is expected to drop from 2.36 million in 2020 to 1.19 million by 2040 with some universities already warning that they face mass closings. However, this shortfall can be filled over time by mature students as careers lengthen and people increasingly choose to retrain. As Professor Harper points out, “The old model of education, work and retirement simply won’t work.”
Closer to home, Germany managed to register a small increase in its fertility rate from 1.3 to 1.54 (children per mother) by introducing family-friendly policies (including expanding maternity and paternity benefits and investing in state-funded childcare) among higher levels of immigration. However, Alan Walker, professor of social policy and social gerontology at the University of Sheffield and a member of the party’s parliamentary group on longevity, warns that there is little governments can do to increase birth rates. “The decline in fertility is inexorable,” he says.
Professor Walker insists that the most beneficial approach is to ensure the health of the adult population. He believes there needs to be a greater focus on addressing chronic health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, that force people prematurely out of the workplace. “If we do nothing, productivity will decline because the elderly will not be fit enough to continue working,” he warns.
Despite the economic risks of us all living longer, Professor Walker (like many others) maintains that it is ultimately a good news story. “It’s a victory for public health in overcoming many of the causes of premature death in previous generations, and it’s a victory for global development,” he says. Plus who imagines the alternative…?