The three great demographic challenges of the 21st century

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In the 21st century, the world faces intense demographic challenges. However, throughout history, there has always been a concern about the implications of demographic changes in the development of societies.

Authors like Malthus They already warned in the 19th century of the risks of population growth. More recently, scientists and international organizations have focused their analyzes on the links between demographic dynamics and sustainability.

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The world population has grown from 200 million in the early seventeenth century to 1 billion in 1850 and 7,500 today. And, according to the United Nations Population Fund, at the end of this century will exceed 11 billion. To this growth must be added important transformations, such as the process of urbanization, aging and migratory movements.

The World Economic Forum (Davos forum), which brings together the richest and most powerful countries and people in the world, publishes each year a report on Global Risks. Year after year aging, the lack of opportunities for young people, the failure of urban planning and involuntary migratory movements appear as major risks to the world economy and growth.

Where is the world’s population concentrated and where is it growing the most?

60% of the world’s population is in Asia, where some of the world’s most populous countries are located, such as China, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia. Meanwhile, other regions of the world, particularly Europe, are losing demographic importance. In 1950, 21.7% of the world’s population resided in the old continent, in 2015 only 10% did it and in 2100 it will be 5.5%. But Europe is not only losing demographic weight, but its population is aging, as can be seen in the table.

The key to the future lies in the demographic dynamics of Africa. In 2015 it concentrated 16% of the world’s population, a percentage that is expected to rise to 39% by the end of the century. More than half of the world’s population growth is concentrated in Nigeria, Congo, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Angola, and Niger.

World population (in millions of people and as a percentage of the total) Source: Own elaboration, based on public information from the UN Population Division

Growing urbanization: the exodus from the country to the city

The development of countries is usually linked to an industrialization process that generates significant displacements from the countryside to the city (internal migration). In 1950 only 29.4% of the world’s population lived in urban areas. Today that figure has risen to 56% and by the end of the century it will be 67%.

However, the reality in each of the world’s regions it’s very different. Between 70% and 80% of the European and North American population lives in cities, compared to only 40% -50% in the countries of Asia and Africa.

The move towards cities poses two major challenges: the viability of cities and the depopulation of the countryside.

Increasing urbanization also creates problems: urban poverty and megacities, with a strong relationship to each other, are perhaps the most important.

Urban poverty has its maximum expression in slums (suburbs, towns, ranches, favelas …), which bring together people in lamentable living conditions due to the lack of basic services. In addition, those who live in these places suffer from a significant lack of job opportunities and a high risk of social exclusion. In 30 countries of the world, more than 55% of its urban population lives in slums.

The other big problem is the proliferation of megacities. In 1980 there were only five cities with more than 10 million inhabitants; in 2021 there are already 16. Many of them (Delhi, Shanghai, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Dhaka) are located in highly impoverished countries, where the risk of urban failure is greater. These large cities pose problems of congestion and saturation, which reduce the quality of life of their citizens and introduce strong environmental stresses.

Concern for urban viability has been included in the 2030 Agenda, through the Sustainable Development Goal number 11. The aim is to make cities more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. To this end it also works UN-Habitat, which is in charge of developing a Roadmap for urban development planning.

The aging of the population

Although the process of aging population it is generalized, there are great differences by region. Europe and North America are the oldest areas on the planet. However, Asia, the most populous continent, is experiencing a rapid aging process. In 2020, 56.7% of its population was over 65, compared to 44% in 1990. Some say that China will be an old country rather than a rich one.

Aging brings great challenges for governments. Perhaps the most important is maintaining the sustainability of public pension systems (delivery). In recent decades, the vast majority of European countries have reformed their systems, with a view to increasing the legal retirement age and the minimum contribution time necessary to qualify for a pension. Opposite the pay-as-you-go system is the capitalization system, based on the personal savings of each individual.

However, whatever the model, the reality is that almost a third of the world’s population does not receive any type of pension, public or private. In addition, there are major gaps depending on the level of development of the country, but also according to the sex of the worker.

After the financial crisis of 2009, the structural adjustment measures had evil effects on social policies, particularly for the most disadvantaged. The current coronavirus crisis, at least initially, is being managed with a greater support for citizens. However, the increase in debt and deficit levels in the economies as a whole establishes an uncertain future.

The goal 1.3 of the 2030 Agenda seeks the implementation of social protection systems for all, paying special attention to the poor and vulnerable, as a fundamental tool to end extreme poverty.

International migratory movements

The migrant population represents only the 3.5% of the total population. However, the differences between countries are very important. For example, in the vast majority of the Persian Gulf countries the population of foreign residents exceeds 50%.

Migrations are mostly intra-regional, that is, people who move within their continent to neighboring countries. Corridors such as Bangladesh-India, Russia-Ukraine (and vice versa) and Kazakhstan-Russia (and vice versa) are some of the most important in the world.

In the European Union, the Schengen treaty, together with other policies such as the recognition of degrees or the educational program Erasmus, facilitates the movement of working people. The movements in America are from south to north, highlighting the Central America-Mexico corridor to the United States.

Globalization has been based on the free movement of goods, services and capital, but to a much lesser extent of people. Moreover, the barriers to the free movement of people are still very present. The fall of the Berlin Wall, icon of the end of an era of restrictions on the movement of people, does not reflect reality. The United States-Mexico wall, the demilitarized zone between South Korea-North Korea, the fences of Ceuta and Melilla or the wall of the West Bank are some examples of the physical barriers created to limit the movements of people.

A Palestinian boy walks past one of the paintings on the Gaza wall.
A Palestinian boy walks past one of the paintings on the Gaza wall.REUTERS

The other migrants: refugees and stateless persons

In addition to the movements of people for work reasons and family grouping, there are involuntary or forced movements: that of the refugees. Before the pandemic there were 26 million refugees and 4.2 million asylum seekers.

The start of the war in Syria, in 2015, triggered the number of refugees in the world. Currently Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar are the origin of 68% of forced movements. Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan, Uganda and Germany host 73% of the refugees. Contrary to what it might seem, people mostly move to neighboring countries.

The Convention on the Refugee Status of 1951 grants them rights in the countries of asylum. The problem arises when the periods in which the person is asylum seeker, and therefore, Your rights they are very restricted.

These migrants must be added to the stateless, people to whom no country grants nationality and who, therefore, lack access to basic rights such as education, health, employment and freedom of movement. Some examples of stateless peoples they are the Rohingya in Myanmar or the Nubians in Kenya, among many others.

The uncertainty of the future: new gaps?

Demographic challenges were already significant before the pandemic, but they have become more acute and will most likely worsen in the future. In the medium term we will have to see the repercussions of fiscal pressures derived from the increase in public debt on social policies such as pensions.

More uncertain is whether the excessive increase in cities will continue or there will be a “return to rural”, Facilitated by telecommuting opportunities. This will depend on the investment of the countries to close the technological gap between urban and rural areas. However, this opportunity will be essentially exclusive to developed countries.

Immigrants, whether forced or voluntary, will also have to find their space in a world with increasing restrictions on mobility, for which it is not known how long they will last.

Ángeles Sánchez Díez belongs to the Department of Economic Structure and Development Economics. Coordinator of the Group for the Study of the Transformations of the World Economy (GETEM), Autonomous University of Madrid.

This article originates from a chapter in the book: The transformations of the world economy (Ángeles Sánchez Díez, coord., 2021, Study Group on Transformations of the World Economy-UAM, Madrid). It was originally published in The Conversation Spain.

The Conversation

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