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« A war that no one wants but everybody needs | Main | The coming battle in the Pentagon »
Sunday
Jul062008

Demographic challenges need not be dangerous

The advanced Western world is getting old, and the rising East grows gray around the temples. Meanwhile, the developing South is in the midst of processing huge "youth bulges" that should keep it restless for another couple of decades before slipping into middle age. In short, the entire planet is aging in an unprecedented fashion, according to demographers Richard Jackson and Neil Howe in their intriguing new book.

Entitled "The Graying of the Great Powers," this slim volume presents a host of compelling demographic trends that are undeniable, even if the authors' follow-on geopolitical strategizing borders on the vague fear-mongering usually associated with national security experts hellbent on finding new ways to predict wars.

I was one of the many national security experts interviewed for the book. I'm also one of the demographic optimists cited in the text as assuming an aging population will - by all historical experience - experience less crime, warfare, and revolutionary ferment while enjoying more political pluralism.

When economies develop, including shifts like urbanization, women tend to put off pregnancy and have fewer babies, triggering the demographic transition to an older, wealthier society. In my mind, demographic aging is less a cause of democracy and peace and more its reflection.

But being demographers, Jackson and Howe naturally spot more causality. We know, for example, about the demographic "dividend" that happens early in the transition toward development: when a society has lots of workers and relatively few nonworkers to support. Obviously, your society wants to get rich before it grows old, something the West pulled off.

What's so odd today is that Asia's emerging economies are rapidly aging while they're still developing, suggesting a demographic train wreck down the road: not enough workers to support an elder-heavy society that's just grown accustomed to a better life.

So here's the witch's brew that Jackson and Howe fear we'll face in the 2020s: the West settling into its old age - and economic decline - just as the East absorbs a tsunami of elders slowing down its economic advance, sabotaging its transition to peaceful democracy. Meanwhile, the restless South, even if it successfully processes its current youth bulge, faces its destabilizing "echo boom."

In their geopolitical analysis, Jackson and Howe predict a weakened and withdrawn West, a more authoritarian and thus aggressive East, and a South full of social strife. In their defense, it is precisely - as they repeatedly point out-the unprecedented nature of all this simultaneous aging that justifies such pessimism.

But here's how we reign in such fears of future global conflict.

History says wealth equals military power, even if you pay somebody else to pull the trigger, so don't write off the West just yet, especially the United States, which Jackson and Howe predict must carry a larger share of the West's military burden - no shocker there.

Second, we're looking at the unprecedented emergence of a global middle class, largely based in the East but also increasingly in the South. Sure, history tells us that an angry, threatened middle class can get you fascism if you're not careful, but frankly, that wouldn't be much of a setback for many of these states.

But here we must factor in the empowering nature of the information revolution still sweeping the planet, which, contrary to George Orwell's famous fears, progressively weakens the power of autocrats. Plus, you need to remember how nuclear weapons basically killed great power war - six-plus decades and counting.

Add it all up, and it's fair to say the planet is heading into uncharted territory but not necessarily a more dangerous world. The key for the West, as Jackson and Howe wisely conclude, is to expand its definition of the developed world, meaning we need to integrate the East into our power networks well before all those demographic pressures kick into high gear about a generation from now.

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