I have been thinking a great deal about demographics lately—or rather I have been trying to do so. Humans are not very good at thinking about large numbers of people: there is a limit to how many individuals one can maintain meaningful social relationships with, and, beyond that (tiny) number, the world is a big collection of dangerous & greedy strangers.  Nevertheless it is worthwhile to contemplate some basics about population demographics because these numbers and trends have an astonishing power over the directions which human events take. One of the foremost questions historians ask about any given place during any era is “how many people lived there?” As soon as an answer is found (or approximated—since worthwhile demographic data is scarce throughout most of history) the historian then further wants to know how old the population was, how quickly it was replacing itself, who was doing what, where they came from, and what the gender ratio was.  It is useful to sometimes jump back to these basic queries when thinking about the world today (and planning for the world of tomorrow).

A few contemporary examples will quickly illustrate what I mean. China’s growing ascendancy in economic matters comes as a result of demographics.  China’s population is currently estimated to be 1,331,460,000, whereas the population of the US is estimated to be 307,006,550.  If every Chinese person were a quarter as productive as every American person, China would still be wealthier as a whole.  Knowing a nation’s population (especially in a rapidly developing world) means knowing its future.

Percentage of Population Aged 60 years or older in Asian Nations

Metrics other than sheer population numbers are useful to know as well.  In Japan, nearly a quarter of the population is older than 65—a statistic which is casting long grey shadows over the continued viability of its welfare state (and is raising concerns about Japan’s continued economic and political viability overall).  After decades of the one child policy, China is rapidly coming to face such a problem as well.  Economists and other theorists are openly wondering whether the Chinese can get rich before they are caught in an old age trap similar to the one Japan is in.

All of this is critical because the overall population keeps growing exponentially.  Japan and Europe might be curtailing their birthrates–and thereby diminishing their future economic and national clout–but the overall population keeps trending upwards. Such numbers mean power and wealth for nations and for the rich but they also mean greater struggle for resources for all of us, and, worst of all they mean greater devastation to the environment.

Oh My Goodness....

As you are beginning to see, demographics are one of the few useful tools for meaningfully thinking about the future.  Technology changes, markets boom and bust, nations rise and fall, but the inexorable wave of births rolls on and forms the underlying context for these changes. Even forces which change the population numbers directly–migrations, wars, genocides, or plagues—become part of the larger story of demographics.

A second post on this topic will feature an overview of the different generational cohorts in the United States because, although in some ways we really live up to our motto “e pluribus unum”—out of many one–in other ways we are six (or 7) wildly different nations and the greatest divisions between us are not those of race or class or sex–but rather of age.