The coming of the silver age

There is an old cartoon that shows Adam and Eve being chased out of the Garden of Eden, with Adam turning to Eve saying, “we’re going through a period of transition”. And, yes, humanity has been going through transitions ever since. Some transitions, however, are faster and deeper than others.

Let’s start with population growth. It took from the start of humanity eons ago to 1804 to reach the first billion people; from the first to the second billion it was a telescoped 123 years (1927); steep drop to 33 years to reach the third billion (1960); but then only 14 years to reach the fourth billion (1974); and since then the average for the next billion has been in the 12-13 years bracket. So in the last 50 years there has been a huge increase in population, from 3 billion in 1960 to 7 billion in 2011. The increase will continue for the next few decades, and then taper off.

bigstock-A-traditional-red-phone-booth-26567297The composition of the world population is shifting quite dramatically. In 1950 among the ten biggest countries there were four European nations: Russia, Germany, Britain and Italy. For this year (2013) only Russia is left. By 2050 the last European, Russia, will have disappeared from the top ten, which will be composed of six from Asia, two from Africa, one from Latin America and with only the US still in there representing the West. Percentages tell an even more radical story. In 1950 Europeans corresponded to 22% of world population, in 2000 12% and for 2050 it will be 7%. Africa’s demographic story is almost exactly the reverse: 8.8% (1950), 13% (2000), and 20% (2050).

Demographic and economic power shifts

The demographic shifts are accompanied by economic power shifts, with the latter only becoming truly evident in the last decade or so. Fundamentally we are going from an Atlantic dominated global economy to a Pacific dominated global economy. Just as Europe was the centre of the world for the last two hundred years, now Asia has taken up that position. Asians will not only be more numerous, they will also be significantly richer. It is estimated that there are approximately 1 billion “middle-income” people in the developing world today, which should double by 2030, with much of the increase occurring in Asia.

Yuyuan Bazar in the old town of Shanghai, China. Photo taken at 17th of November 2010.Asia is also where much of the action in respect to another quite dramatic and rapid demographic shift is occurring: urbanisation. When I was born (1945) approximately 25% of the world population was urban and the remainder rural. At the moment the global urban population has passed the 50% mark and is expected to continue to climb to 75% by 2050. Throughout history the planet has had a majority of country dwellers with a minority of city residents. Now the reverse will be the case. The urban bomb, the rise of mega-mega cities throughout the developing world, though again, primarily in Asia, is one of the most explosive in human history.

Ageing will be the most dramatic shift

Arguably, however, none of these shifts will be as dramatic as that of aging. Average female life expectancy in 1950 in India and China (as in most of the developing world) was in the 25-30 bracket. Now it is about 70-75 in India and 80-85 in China. I only knew one of my grandparents, who died when I was ten at an age younger than I am now. My children knew all their grandparents well into their twenties and thirties, while my grand-children have one great-grandparent (my mother aged 103) still alive. At present there are 19,000 centenarians in my country, France (in 1980 there were 1500); estimates are that by 2060 there will be 200,000.

Indeed the global population sixty and over is projected to expand by more than three times to reach nearly 2 billion in 2050. Aging will be especially acute in East Asia and throughout Europe. In 1980 the average Japanese was thirty-three, in 2010 forty-five and by 2040 s/he will be fifty-four. Italy is in second place in the average old age league, over the same period going from thirty-four to forty-three to fifty-one. By no means is the aging phenomenon limited to industrialised countries. Take Mexico and Indonesia, over the same period (1980-2010-2040): seventeen, twenty-eight, forty (Mexico); and nineteen, twenty-eight, thirty-nine (Indonesia).

The most dramatic aging shift is in China, propelled by the one-child policy: in 1980 twenty-two, in 2010 thirty-four and in 2040 forty-four. Since the one child policy favoured overwhelmingly sons, it is no exaggeration to say that by 2040 China will be a country of old men. This will surely have some bearing on China’s longer-term economic prospects. Even India with a younger population – with the average ages of twenty (1980), twenty-five (2010) and thirty-five (1940) – will still have over 200 million people over the age of 65 by 2040.

The coming of the silver age

As the Japanese population began to age in the 1980s, the term “silver age” was coined to describe this increasingly prominent feature of the country and its market potential. It might serve as a description of our age globally. For over 200 years the world was dominated by Europe, it was young and rural; now we are transiting to a world that will be increasingly dominated by Asia, as it ages and urbanises. The world population that will need to adjust to these transformations will be old – the silver age. It will be interesting to see how things evolve.

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