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The World Won't Be Aging Gracefully. Just the Opposite.
Consider China, which may be the first country to grow old before it grows rich. For the past quarter-century, China has been "peacefully rising," thanks in part to a one-child policy that has allowed both parents to work and contribute to China's boom. But by the 2020s, as the huge Red Guard generation born before the country's fertility decline moves into retirement, they will tax the resources of their children and the state. China's coming age wave -- by 2030 it will be an older country than the United States -- may weaken the two pillars of the current regime's legitimacy: rapidly rising GDP and social stability. Imagine workforce growth slowing to zero while tens of millions of elders sink into indigence without pensions, without health care and without children to support them. China could careen toward social collapse -- or, in reaction, toward an authoritarian clampdown.
Russia, along with the rest of Eastern Europe, is likely to experience the fastest extended population decline since the plague-ridden Middle Ages. Amid a widening health crisis, the Russian fertility rate has plunged and life expectancy has collapsed. Russian men today can expect to live to 59, 16 years less than American men and marginally less than their Red Army grandfathers at the end of World War II. By 2050, Russia is due to fall to 20th place in world population rankings, down from fourth place in 1950. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin flatly calls Russia's demographic implosion "the most acute problem facing our country today." If the problem isn't solved, Russia will weaken progressively -- raising the nightmarish specter of a failed state with nukes. Or this cornered bear may lash out in revanchist fury rather than meekly accept its demographic fate.
Of course, some developing regions will remain extremely young in the 2020s. Sub-Saharan Africa -- which is afflicted with the world's highest fertility rates and ravaged by AIDS -- will still be racked by large youth bulges. So will several Muslim-majority countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. In recent years, most of these countries have demonstrated the correlation between extreme youth and violence. If that correlation endures, chronic unrest and state failure could persist through the 2020s -- or even longer if fertility fails to drop.
Many fast-modernizing countries where fertility has fallen very recently and very steeply will experience an ominous resurgence of youth in the 2020s. It's a law of demography that when a population boom is followed by a bust, it causes a ripple effect, with a gradually fading cycle of echo booms and busts. In the 2010s, a bust generation will be coming of age in much of Latin America, South Asia and the Muslim world. But by the 2020s, an echo boom will follow -- dashing economic expectations, swelling the ranks of the unemployed and perhaps fueling political violence, ethnic strife and religious extremism.
These echo booms will be especially large in Pakistan and Iran. In Pakistan, the number of young people in the volatile 15- to 24-year-old age bracket will contract by 3 percent in the 2010s, then leap upward by 20 percent in the 2020s. In Iran, the youth boomerang will be even larger: minus 31 percent in the 2010s and plus 30 percent in the 2020s. These echo booms will be occurring in countries whose social fabric is already strained by rapid development. One teeters on the brink of chaos, while the other aspires to regional hegemony. One already has nuclear weapons, and the other seems likely to obtain them.
All told, population trends point inexorably toward a more dominant U.S. role in a world that will need us more, not less. For the past several years, the U.N. has published a table ranking the world's 12 most populous countries over time. In 1950, six of the top 12 were developed countries. In 2000, only three were. By 2050, only one developed country will remain -- the United States, still in third place. By then, it will be the only country among the top 12 with a historical commitment to democracy, free markets and civil liberties.
Abraham Lincoln once called this country "the world's last best hope." Demography suggests that this will remain true for some time to come.
Neil Howe and Richard Jackson are researchers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and co-authors of "The Graying of the Great Powers: Demography and Geopolitics in the 21st Century."