Changing drivers of change – population dynamics

Changing drivers of change – population dynamics

In a July blogpost, we produced a quick, subjective overview of some of the effects that the pandemic might have on our 2018 set of 12 Drivers of Change.  This is the first in a series of posts updating our previous drivers, both to include the specific effects of the pandemic and other more general changes we have seen, and combining them into a new set of six.  There still remain interactions between the drivers, so they need to be considered together when starting a futures project.

We are calling this first driver “population dynamics”, taking in the related areas of  demographics, urbanisation and migration.  It is perhaps the most fundamental in that it affects social, economic and political developments, with their consequential effects on technology development.

The biggest change from our 2018 work has been a radically new set of population forecasts. In their book, Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, Darrell Bricker and John Ibbotson challenged the UN’s population projections for the 21st century, arguing that the likely population change will be lower than even the UN’s “low” projection.  Recent population forecasts from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington suggest that nearly every country will have shrinking populations by the end of the century. The global population will peak in around 2064. Twenty-three nations – including Spain and Japan – are expected to see their populations halve by 2100. Countries will also age dramatically, with as many people turning 80 as there are being born.  

The reason for this lower, declining forecast is widespread and sustained declines in fertility due to improvements in access to modern contraception, and the education of girls and women.  This is one of the potential counter-trends that we identified in our 2018 set of drivers.

One of the wild-cards we identified was a pandemic.  As of August 2020 there were 800,000 confirmed deaths globally due to Covid-19 – this is likely to be an under-estimate due to difficulties in recording data.  The US and Brazil recorded over 100,000 deaths; Mexico and India over 50,000.  The final toll will depend on many things, in particular when (or, indeed, whether) an effective vaccine becomes widely available.  There are also other excess deaths caused by other diseases which health services have been unable to treat. But even if we assume as many as 5 million excess deaths from Covid-19 and other causes, that makes little impact overall on a global population of 8 billion people.

There are differential effects of the pandemic too. Older people have a higher death rate – but not to the extent of reversing the pattern of population ageing.  In the West, those of a black heritage also have a higher death rate, but this pattern appears not to be replicated in sub-Saharan Africa –  death rates in Kenya and Malawi are notably lower, for reasons as yet unknown.

Deaths from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis (TB), three of the deadliest infectious diseases, together kill 2.4 million people every year and because of the pandemic deaths from these diseases could double over the next year.

Those from the Indian sub-continent also have a higher than average death rate, due it is thought to a higher prevalence of diabetes –32 million in India alone. But again this is unlikely to deflect the overall population trends.

As identified in our 2018 document, climate change driven migration remains a likely trend. By 2070 the proportion of the world that is a barely livable hot zone is projected to have risen from 1% to 19%.  Up to a billion people will be driven by droughts and crop failures from central Africa, central America, India and Eastern China. Many will move towards local cities – others to the US or Europe.  And there is no sign of other drivers of migration – state-failures,  advent of new modes of conflict, proliferation of regional wars – declining. Indeed these are themselves often caused by migration and climate change.  Our 2018 document suggested “Global Peace” as a wild card that would stop the trend, but that remains a distant prospect.

What might change is the Western attitude to migration. Populism and nationalism have been growing in recent years, but the economic benefits of welcoming migrants into a rapidly ageing population could overcome these attitudes. The IHME even suggest we could see countries competing for immigrants through increasingly liberal immigration policies.  A more dystopian view would be an increase in policies that intrude on women’s fertility – restrictions on abortion and contraception, financial rewards for larger families. There have been some suggestions along these lines in Eastern Europe already.

There is also the prospect that the economic inequalities between countries might decline, reducing the motivation for migration. Nigeria, for example, is projected to leap up the GDP league table as its population continues to grow. This is likely to result in further urbanisation, as mega-cities become engines of economic growth.

Although the pandemic may have painful effects on densely populated mega-cities and on migrant transit camps, it seems unlikely that it will have a significant effect on the overall trends. We did refer to pandemics as a possible disruptive wildcard in 2018, but in practice this one appears not to be having very much effect on the scale of most megacities so far.

However, in London and New York there has been a boost to remote working which could continue into the future. Many organisations are re-thinking their working structures; Shroders for example looks to make home-working permanent. If the trend continued, the consequences for organisational structures (more sub-contracting, wider supply chains, micro-multinationals) and cities (supporting service industries badly hit) would be significant, even if people did go to the office a few days a week. The trend seems less pronounced in other countries, so the global trend towards megacities can be anticipated to continue.

In the next blogpost in this series, we will look at the climate emergency and new energy sources, covering recent developments and the impact of the pandemic.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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