Looking Beyond 2050 – Some Interesting and Disturbing Trends

  • Published on January 25th, 2010

Trends in the proportion of children


Fertility rates are declining around the world and most of what is written about this trend casts it in a positive light.  The cover story of last November’s Economist magazine carried the headline: “Falling Fertility – How the Population Problem is Solving Itself.”  It claimed that countries like China are enjoying a “demographic dividend” over the coming decades.  As positive as an end to human population increase might be for the planet, the question that is not getting much attention is, “what next?”  After population reaches an inflection point and begins to decline, what will society be like?  I won’t live to see this, but my grand daughter who was born last month certainly will.

My good friend John sent me a link to the IIASA website (International Institute for Applied System Analysis) where it is possible to download data from their models of global demographic trends (I’ve made some graphs of that data).  Most such models stop at 2050 but this one goes out to 2100.  If these models are correct, there are some major challenges ahead for humanity.  The most immediate is how to feed the population that will continue to increase until about 2060.  The next is how to deal with a population that is getting very old.  If you are an American, the trends in the following graphs should be seriously unsettling.  We have a dysfunctional, hyper-partisan-dominated, political establishment that is chronically unable to find reasonable solutions to the challenges of medical costs, Social Security insolvency or immigration reform, and yet addressing these very issues will become even more critical in the future pictured in these graphs.

Fewer and Fewer Children

The first thing that strikes me (see graph above) is the declining proportion of children.  This global trend is well under way in the developed world and is only slightly less so in North America because of immigration.  I wonder at what point colleges will start competing for the few remaining students?

Proportion of societies that will be over 80

More and More Old People

The opposite trend is occurring in terms of the octogenarian segment of the population. Look at the graph above and imagine what Medicare is going to cost in 20-30 years!  Maybe we can start converting elementary schools into assisted living facilities.

Proportion of the population in the traditional working age category

A Declining Workforce

The biggest concern that I see is the impending decline in the proportion of the “working age” population in every part of the world except Sub-Saharan Africa.  Who is going to do the jobs that require physical stamina?  Who is going to do construction or take care of labor-intensive crops?  Why should people continue to come to work hard in a place like the US that unethically continues to rely on a force of immigrant laborers to whom they won’t even give “guest worker status?”  In not that many years, the nations of the world will be competing for a shrinking supply of able-bodied folks willing to do physically challenging jobs.  In the decades after that I’m relatively sure that labor-intensive crops (like many fruits and vegetables) will become very high priced delicacies.  Only the crops that can be highly mechanized will be affordable in a world that will still have a major food supply challenge until the last part of the century. It won’t be too long until a Tom Tancredo or Brian Billbray sort of anti-immigration politician will look positively ridiculous (I mean even more than they do today).

Trends in the working age population

Aging Baby Boomers

Of course, In the short term, the big shift will be the huge increase of people in the 60-80 year-old range as we “baby boomers” age.  It has been obvious for decades that our generation would break the existing Social Security system that is based on a massive wealth transfer from the younger generation to the older.  Of course that obviously inevitable problem has never lead to any reform or adjustment of the system because it has always been too easy to turn logical ideas into negative campaigning ammunition.  It is clear that we are going to need to keep as many of the baby boomers as possible in the work force (and tax base) until 70 or 75.

Trends in the dependency ratio

A Growing Burden for the Young

IISAA tracks an interesting statistic called the “Old Age Dependency Ratio” which is simply the projected population over 60 divided by the projected population of “working age” people between 20 and 60.  Look how many regions will have six people over 60 for every ten working people by 2050!  Even if we manage to keep people working past 60, the most age-challenged countries will increasingly want to be able to attract people of reproductive age through immigration and tax policy.

Overall, it strikes me that what is needed to adjust to these unprecedented trends is something that is sorely lacking in most political establishments – Statesmanship.  Trying to make your opponents fail as a means of re-securing power will not continue to be tolerable behavior.  Passing-off problems and costs to future generations will also be a decreasingly viable strategy. We need to be thinking about long-term policy and investment strategies for this strange new chapter of human history.

I would be interested to know your reaction to this information. You are welcome to comment on this post or to email me at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com

About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)


  • Joe and Gordon,

    Good points. I'm sure that humanity will adapt in many ways, but one that is needed is to understand these trends and how we need to change our views and policies to meet these new challenges. It also wouldn't hurt for people in the developed world to have some more babies!

  • Great article Steve. I live in South Africa and by the looks of your graphs it's the place to be in the future.

    But addressing your observations I would point out that science and technology are moving fast, faster than at any point in history and the likelihood is that advances in physical health and aging treatments may mean that 60 year olds will be the new 35 year olds. My own father is 84 and still lives a very active and productive life and he has not benefited from new advances that will happen in the future. So maybe your graphs are on the face of it quite alarming but the future reality of what they represent maybe quite different.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Despite the slope of the data, there are opportunities to reinvent how we live at all ages as well as new technologies and services to meet the needs of the old. As it has been said, 'aging is not about the old, it is about all of us.'

  • Chris, I agree that most of the solutions to these new challenges will come from the private sector

    Derek, It is interesting how reluctant governments and politicians can be to talk about long-term issues

    Franke, Glad to hear about the design effort. With time we can make the world more old-person friendly

    Global Patriot,

    Yes, it would be nice not to go to 8 or even 10 billion. If we really wanted to avoid that we should have been pouring money into infrastructure development in Africa so that the standard of living could have risen there sooner

  • Population swings, like the baby boom, have dramatic effects on society, from the early education system to the workforce and ultimately retirement. It would be nice to see the planet stabilize at 6 billion, as that would contribute greatly to our sustainability, but going from 6.8 to 8.0 then back to 6.0 is not an easy thing to deal with.

  • –We can “create a society that needs fewer workers” with robotics etc, but there are limits.–

    You (and by 'you' I mean that demographic tsunami we call boomers) had better find a way to live out the remaining 20 years of your lives within that limit; welcome to the idea of ecology, living your live with a share of a finite sphere.

    I heard a story once that the guy in-charge of this 'whole demographic social security bubble' in the gov't got fed up one day and just started taking the last ten minutes of each day to write the projected short-fall in social security in a single negative number and walk it down to his bosses office and slip it under the door. He was never contacted to explain the problem further, or to be part of a discussion to try to think of a way to mitigate the problem; essentially the boss considered his own silence on the matter most important.

    I often wonder about this strategy if it is a type of personal fear (losing a cushy Fed. job, looking incompetent, etc.) or if it is a fear that 'letting the cat out of the bag' (even if that is just up the ladder of bureaucracy) would incite panic and civil unrest.

    It is the same with Peak oil (which arguably will bite harder and sooner than these 100 yr. demo. forecasts); why is no one in political "charge" talking straight about it? We know the pentagon has run models on it, we know they are investing heavily in deploying solar power systems, nuclear ships and even electric hybrid vehicles, why the silence to the public?

    It makes me think that 'conspiracy theories' arent all they are cracked up to be, and that all it takes is silence from a few authority positions to keep the VAST majority of people completely clueless.

  • Of course, the most important factor is to get governments out of business and allow the market to right itself. Only this will allow the continued growth of wealth and innovation that will be necessary to solve the problems that arise.

    The world of 2050 will be no more recognizable to us than 2010 would be to someone from 1960. In fact, it will likely more resemble as great a difference as 1900 to today.

    If we can hold on to our capitalist base, then the issues presented will be solved, but not by us. Imagine how ridiculous it sounds for us to surmise that people of the turn of the century needed to anticipate and plan for the world that we live in today.

  • Erin,

    You raise some good points, but there are some jobs that need physical work that not all of us could do. We can "create a society that needs fewer workers" with robotics etc, but there are limits.

  • What factors effect how much of a population needs to be "working"? In the US, the proportion of that 20-60 age group that is actually working has gone up as we have more 2-income families and fewer stay-at-home moms. But back when most households had just one worker, the basic functions of society happened just fine with that smaller workforce, and I expect we weren't any more dependent on immigrants and imports then than we are now. What changed? And can we change some of those factors to create a society that again needs fewer workers?

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