Generation Change

27 December 2004

Generation Change

By Gwynne Dyer

The disasters of the world are due to its inhabitants not being able to grow old simultaneously. There is always a new and intolerant nation eager to destroy the tolerant and mellow.

Cyril Connolly, “The Unquiet Grave,” 1945

That’s history for you. King Lear was a striking exception, but half the kings and princes in Shakespeare were under thirty. Many of them were under twenty. Their hormones were still raging, so of course they committed murders, massacres and the like. In a world where average life expectancy was thirty and most people didn’t even survive childhood, politics was bound to be pretty turbulent. It was always the same, in every part of the planet — but what if all the nations grew up together?

At the end of a discouraging year, here is an encouraging thought: the world IS growing up. The average age in the world today is twenty-eight.. (In Shakespeare’s time, it was around fifteen.) By 2050, it will be forty. At the age of forty, calculations of long-term self-interest have largely prevailed over hormones. It doesn’t necessarily make people nicer, but it certainly makes them more careful.

When the experts play around with population growth statistics these days, they are mostly concerned about overpopulation (current world population is 6.5 billion), pressure on resources and the environment, all the usual worries — and they are right to worry about those things. They pay less attention to the political effects, because they are less easy to trace. But they are there, and they are very important.

There has been a steady run of good news on the population front in the past few decades. In 1968 the United Nations Population Division predicted that the world populartion would grow to 12 billion by 2050. By 1992, the same office was predicting 10 billion people by 2050. Last month it predicted that the world’s population would peak at 8.9 billion, and not until 2300 — although it will already be pretty close to that figure by 2050.

In reality, even that is probably a pessimistic prediction. All these projections have been based on an assumption that birth-rates will continue to fall — a straightforward projection of the world’s population based even on today’s birth-rate yield would a total of around 15 billion people by 2050 — but the assumptions about how fast they will fall have consistently been too conservative.

You can see why the forecasters tended towards pessimism: the recent history of human population growth has resembled an avalanche. It took all of history for the human race to reach a total of two billion people, around 1927. It took less that fifty years to add the next two billion, by 1974. It took less than 25 years to add another two billion, by 1999. And we’re still growing at 76 million a year: an extra Germany (Iran, Philippines, Ethiopia, two Argentinas) every year.

In 1950 there was not a single country on the planet where the population was not growing rapidly, the average woman had over five children in her lifetime, and the birthrate was not dropping significantly anywhere. Then came the new birth-control technologies and the rise of women’s liberation ideologies, and in many Western countries the birth-rate halved in ten years. As recently as 1974, however, the median birth-rate worldwide was still 5.4 children per woman, so the pessimists were still winning the arguments.

They believed that only literacy could spread the ideas and techniques that made the birth-rates fall, and that literacy would not grow fast enough. Well, literacy has grown a lot faster than they expected — between 1980 and 2000, literacy rose from 18 percent to 47 percent in Afghanistan, from 33 percent to 64 percent in Nigeria, from 66 percent to 85 percent in China, and from 69 percent to 87 percent in Indonesia. But birth-rates have dropped even more steeply than literacy has risen: the global average is now 2.7 children per woman.

Some of the most startling recent drops have been in places where women’s illiteracy is still quite high — Bangladesh and parts of India, for example — so we clearly need a broader criterion than mere literacy. In fact, ANY form of mass media, including broadcast media that do not require literacy, seem to produce the same effect in many places. (Though purely local cultural factors also play a role: Pakistan and Bangladesh both had a birth-rate of 6.3 in 1981; now Bangladesh’s is 3.3, while Pakistan’s is still 5.6.)

The global birth-rate may be no more than a decade away from dropping to replacement level, only 2.2 children per woman. Most developed countries have already dropped well below that rate. This does not immediately stop population growth, since all the children who have already been born will have a child or two themselves, and then live for another fifty years afterwards. It does not solve the environmental crisis either, since all of these seven or eight billion human beings will aspire to the kind of lifestyle now enjoyed only by the privileged billion or so.

But it does mean that populations almost everywhere will start greying within the next decade, and in due course the old will come to outnumber the young. (The exceptions are practically all African and Arab countries, amounting altogether to only a tenth of the world’s population.) Countries where the average age is rising are unlikely, on all historical precedent, to become aggressor nations. Peace through exhaustion, perhaps?


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“In reality…every year”)