The next challenge: not too many people, but too few?

Mon Oct 24, 2011 7:21am EDT
 
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By Peter Apps, Political Risk Correspondent

LONDON (Reuters) -- If the world follows the demographic habits of Europe -- and that's a big if -- by the year 2200 it could be home to a population of less than half its current level, living in housing built for almost three times that number.

With the global population estimated to pass 7 billion on October 31, many of policymakers' short-term worries revolve around providing resources for the additional 2-3 billion people expected to be born in the next half-century.

Numbers of this magnitude inevitably conjure up terrifying visions of shortage and chaos. But in fact improvements in food production and technology have allowed population growth to continue unimpeded and relatively smoothly, and the real potential nightmare is of a rapidly aging population, combined with collapsing birthrates in both rich and poor states.

Many demographers and long-term planners say the challenge for the next century will be less dealing with growing numbers of people and more managing the much larger population of aged and perhaps dependent people while finding new strategies to deliver prosperity, jobs and essential services.

The trend has already contributed to the current global financial crisis by driving up health and social care bills and perhaps also undermining productivity. But while politicians tie themselves in knots over short-term worries, experts say there is not enough discussion of longer-term demographic challenges.

"It's not a world that's going to look anything like any world or population that has existed before," says Jack Goldstone, professor of public policy and a leading demographics expert at Washington's George Mason University.

"We thought that overpopulation was going to force humanity to expand outward to the stars. That doesn't look like the problem at all. And the policy framework isn't set up at all to handle these longer-term issues."

With many of the world's poorer countries still seeing strong growth, the global fertility rate -- the number of children born per couple -- remains around 2.5, more than enough to replace every person currently alive.   Continued...

 
<p>Commuters emerging from a rail station cross London Bridge on their way to offices in the City of London February 7, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Helgren</p>