The great demographic events of the past have shaped our history and made us who we are. The explosion in the number of these islands fueled the settlement of the British and Irish from San Francisco to Tasmania. The great demographic booms of the United States and Russia – later the USSR – allowed these countries to eclipse the former European powers and become the superpowers of the Cold War era. The Soviet decline was supported by the Russian demographic decline within the Soviet Union.
If demographics have shaped our past, they also shape our present and will shape our future. It is impossible to understand the world today without understanding the great shifting tectonic plates of demography that are moving faster than ever.
We are witnessing the emergence of the oldest populations in the history of the world over a vast part of the globe, from Spain to Singapore. Deaths in Britain, for example, are expected to soon exceed births. It completely reshapes a society. It affects its politics and its economy, its culture and its consumption.
At the same time, we are witnessing before our very eyes the greatest demographic expansion in human history in parts of Africa, where infant mortality has fallen, life expectancy has increased and families many continue to be the norm. Until the 1960s, there were two Japanese for every Nigerian. By the end of the present century, there will be nearly ten Nigerians for every Japanese.
Beneath the big trends, something even more striking is happening. In the past, you could pretty much distinguish a country’s demographics from its economy. The more developed and prosperous it would be, the further it would be in the transition from high fertility and high mortality to the low fertility and low mortality societies we know today in the developed world. Now we are beginning to see a trend in which ideas and ideals rather than economics dominate. Countries that are still quite poor, such as Thailand and Brazil, are seeing births drop and life expectancies lengthen, aging before becoming richer.
To think that such changes won’t mean a completely different world in everything from migration to food to architecture to film is to miss what shapes our environment the most; people.
Just about every major story in the news can best be understood if viewed through a demographic lens. When looking at the current conflict in Ukraine, one wonders if Russia’s endurance will be affected by the fact that the average Russian mother will have no more than one son. As body bags begin to return home to Moscow or Vladivostok, this could shape the reaction.
By contrast, the generation of Russians who fought Hitler was the product of families of six or seven. This may well reduce Russia’s readiness to take losses. And Russia might well be short of men for a long war; when the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan, it had a population almost double that of today’s Russia, and many more young people.
Ukraine’s families are just as small, its population is aging and even before the current refugee exodus abates. Demographics can shape the determination of both sides to fight and thus reduce the conflict sooner than would have been the case with the kind of young populations that lash out year after year in Libya, Syria and Yemen.
Armed with an understanding of the great forces of demographic change, we see the world in a different light. With an understanding of demographics, what otherwise looks like one goddamn thing after another turns out to be the play of forces too often hidden in plain sight. Demography has been and will continue to be our destiny because – births and deaths and migrations – it is us.
Paul Morland is the author of Tomorrow’s People: The Future of Humanity in Ten Figures