There are few things in this unstable world that we can project over the long term, but demographics are destiny. These five facts explain the key demographic forces that will shape the future of the world’s most powerful countries over the next generation.
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For all the nativist bluster this election season, the U.S. has always been a land of immigrants and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Fifty years ago, the U.S. population stood at 193 million. Today it’s at 324 million, and it’s projected to top 440 million by 2065. Credible estimates are that 88 percent of that increase will come from future immigrants, their children and grandchildren.
In the last 50 years, Hispanics have gone from 4 percent of the population to 18 percent; by 2065, they are forecast to represent nearly a quarter of the overall population. But the political ramifications will be felt well before that. Some 23.7 million Hispanics are eligible to vote today; by 2030, that figure will jump to 40 million. Hispanics already represent 18 percent of the voting age population in Florida, 28 percent in California, and 28 percent in Texas. So when pundits warn that Democrats and Republicans must compete for the Hispanic vote, they’re not just being politically correct. They’re acknowledging demographic reality.
Immigration will also shift the demographics and politics of Europe. About 43 million Muslims lived in Europe in 2010. Pew Research has forecast that by 2050 a little more than 70 million Muslims will reside in Europe, comprising 10 percent of the continent’s overall population. Germany was already home to the E.U.’s largest Muslim population with 4.8 million, but that number will rise as migrants from around the Middle East stream across Germany’s borders; 1.1 million of them arrived just in the past year. We also see this trend in Sweden, which has accepted more refugees per capita than any other European country.
France has virtually the same number of Muslims as Germany, but they make up a larger percentage of the country’s smaller population (7.5 percent). And while the political fallout from the flow of Muslim migrants is just beginning in Germany, it’s well underway in France, where Marine Le Pen and her party, the Front National, have capitalized on rising anti-Muslim sentiment to boost their popularity to 27 percent. Far-right politicians across the continent are reading from a similar script. The arrival of so many Muslims will play an outsized role in European politics for years to come.
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3. The Middle East
The Middle East faces a very different demographic challenge: a swelling youth population. In Saudi Arabia, roughly half the country’s 31.5 million people are under 25, and the kingdom has a youth unemployment rate of 30 percent. When oil sold at $100 a barrel, the government could buy domestic support. That’s more difficult with oil at $30 and falling.
This isn’t just a Saudi story. Between 2010 and 2040, the UN estimates that the youth population will grow by 4 percent in Libya, 10 percent in Egypt, 14 percent in Syria, 22 percent in Saudi Arabia, 87 percent in Yemen and 107 percent in Iraq. These are not countries equipped to handle the expectations and demands of young people looking to make something of their lives, creating more problems for the Middle East—and maybe for Europe.
As the Middle East grows younger, China grows older. In 15 years, the country will have more than 400 million people over the age of 60, giving it the world’s largest elderly population. By 2050, its working-age population will have declined by 200+ million people. Constructing a social safety net to meet the needs of all these people will be expensive and complicated.
In the meantime, other problems loom. About 1 million Chinese graduated from college in 2001; by 2014, that number had jumped to 7.3 million. Job opportunities have not kept pace. The official unemployment rate for college grads six months out of school is 15 percent, but analysts fear the real rate is closer to 30 percent, while unemployment for non-college graduates is just 4 percent. Beijing has fueled expectations of a better life for its burgeoning middle class. The ruling party’s monopoly hold on political power may depend on keeping that promise.
But the most complex demographic challenge belongs to Japan, which has a population that is aging—and shrinking—quickly. There are now 127 million people living in Japan. If the country’s birthrate of 1.39 children per woman remains constant, the country’s overall population will plummet to less than 87 million by 2060; a full 40 percent of those 87 million will be 65 or older. Japan faces a 40 percent reduction to its overall working-age population between 2000 and 2050.
That’s frightening, but it’s also a golden opportunity for Japanese companies, which are already at the forefront of developing assistive technologies. The Japanese company Cyberdyne, for example, is building powered exoskeletons designed to assist the elderly at work and at home. Toyota has begun testing “human support robots” that can move around rooms and pick up objects. Panasonic is currently working on a bed that transforms into a wheelchair. So while Japan faces the most immediate demographic challenges, its resilient and innovative culture leaves it well positioned to help its own aging population and to lead the way toward helping others.
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