About a week ago I came across this fascinating article on the Washington Post website which shows the United Nations’ predictions of how demographic changes shall develop in the future. I’d best roughly explain a basic theory of demographics first – current models identify five stages in a country’s development:
- Before development there are high, fluctuating birth and death rates (influenced by factors like war, disease and famine) with the population remaining stable.
- Advanced to medical procedures, number of hospitals, more food, better diets, more access to vaccinations and many other factors cause a country to enter the second stage. There are too many existing theories to discuss here as to why this happens – a liberalised economy, intellectual freedom and industrialisation being some of them – but this causes a distinct fall in the death rate. Consequently, the population experiences a sudden, unprecedented rise (as Europe did in the 19th century, as much of the developing world is now).
- The birth rate falls about a generation later, perhaps due to a shift in culture (couples marrying later, there being less necessity to have lots of children) and a wider availability of family planning. This causes the population growth to decrease, though it still occurs – this is where India is now, for instance.
- The birth and death rates largely level out, where few people die young, infant mortality is down and less babies are born.
- The country experiences an ageing population which causes an increase to the death rate and decrease to birth rate (older people tend to die more and have less children).
- Who knows?
Each of these stages have various implications for the countries experiencing them, as the article explains. I find the graphs it includes to be incredible. Never does a day pass without some article getting published about the West’s decline, the rise of China and Asia, etc. This is true, to an extent – we are experiencing ageing populations which will decrease our economic output (though this is being counteracted to an extent by immigration), while the likes of China are continuing to shoot upwards and achieve their full potential. But what we’re never told is that Asia’s rise on the world stage might be equally as temporary. If the 18th, 19th centuries belonged to Europe, the 20th belonged to America and the 21st moving to Asia, could the 22nd century be the dawn of an African golden era? None of us will be around to see it, of course, but it’s a fascinating theory.
What could the implications of these changes be? Asian languages are expected to become ever more significant this century, but how would that be affected by the rise of Africa? Many African countries still have English and French as their national languages; when Africa contains almost half the world’s population, will these languages see a resurgence? Or by this point will Africa have cast off its colonial legacy and promote traditional languages around the world? That would be rather nice. And I enjoy very much this irony of colonialism: Europe colonised Africa to subjugate it and steal its resources, but we inadvertently introduced systems which promoted population growth and could result in Africa becoming a leader in world affairs.
One major flaw in my idea is that the size of population is not necessarily equal to power and influence, particularly if a country lacks the resources to support such a population. But it certainly helps. And regardless of economics, in this globalised, connected age, the size of a population really has an impact upon its status around the world.
To conclude, these graphs are terrifying. Not because of what they tell us – there’s no reason to fear the growth of either Asia or Africa, or even the decline of our own Western countries – but because of what do not. Right now we know nothing except that the world will change dramatically in the next 100 years. There’s a strong argument for saying that major events in human history, including the world wars, the rise of democracy, most revolutions and our entire economic system, is a result of demographic changes in Europe and the Americas. What sort of world will similarly dramatic changes in Asia and Africa usher in? I haven’t even mentioned the obvious issue of producing food for all these people, nor the massive strain it will put upon water management and energy production. The ‘Western model’ gives us a vague insight but, really, the future is impossible to predict. That said, I’m sure excited to find out!