The world is in the midst of an epochal demographic shift that will reshape societies, economies, and markets over the next century. The big news is that the world population, according to United Nations forecasts, will either stabilize or peak around 2050, after growing for centuries at an ever-accelerating rate. The main reason is the decline occurring in birthrates as nations advance economically, and it is already having a significant impact: As birthrates drop and better health care prolongs life spans, the world’s population is aging rapidly. For example, between 1950 and 2000, the percentage of the world population older than 60 rose almost imperceptibly to 10 percent from 8 percent. By 2050, however, that percentage will more than double, to 21 percent. And in many countries — notably Japan and those in western Europe — the share of population age 60-plus will be more than 40 percent by mid-century.
The demographic dynamics in the developing world are radically different. Birthrates are still high, and populations are both growing and becoming younger. Over the next few decades, many of these countries will experience what David Bloom, chair of the department of global health and population at Harvard’s School of Public Health, has called a “demographic dividend”: a rising proportion of young people entering the workforce, driving productivity and economic growth. (See “India’s Demographic Moment,” by Nandan Nilekani, s+b, Autumn 2009.)
There are also anomalies among nations. In the developed world, the United States has many of the same demographic attributes as Japan and Europe, but high rates of immigration are offsetting the trend toward aging. In the developing world, the population of China is destined to begin aging rapidly as the result of the government’s past policies to limit population growth. Today, only 11 percent of the Chinese population is older than 60, but by 2040 the proportion will rise to 28 percent.
These demographic shifts will drive massive change in markets and economies, and will require entirely new approaches on the part of both policymakers and business leaders. But the shifts seem to get less attention than they deserve — largely because they take place over time spans much longer than the political and business cycles that drive most legislative and managerial agendas. To identify some of the most significant challenges that will need to be addressed as populations age, strategy+business teamed with the World Economic Forum to convene a roundtable of notable thought leaders with expertise in Asia. (A subsequent roundtable, also conducted with the forum, will be published in the Summer 2010 issue, addressing the challenges and opportunities presented by rising young workforces in developing nations, especially India.)