Sarah Harper is the founder and director of the Oxford Institute of Ageing and a global thought leader on the demographics of the 21st century. The Institute is a multi-disciplinary research unit concerned with the implications of population ageing on society, the economy, and policy. She works on globalisation and population trends, addressing questions related to demographic growth, extreme longevity, shifting age pyramids and their impacts. She is an author of the UK Royal Society’s report on population change “People and the Planet”, advises governments around the world, and is a member of the World Demographic Association.
There is no doubt that today’s demographic changes will influence tomorrow’s global economy. According to current parameters, it is anticipated that these changes will bring about an increase in the world’s population from a little over 7 billion today to 10 or 11 billion by 2050. This gigantic leap, as Sarah Harper points out, is above all due to increasing longevity. “Today, we’re seeing a downward trend in fertility rates in most parts of the world. Even in emerging countries, the birth rate has barely increased. Only sub-Saharan Africa is bucking the trend with a fertility rate that is still higher than 4%. However, the planet will become more and more populated because life expectancy just keeps going up. It’s an outstanding achievement, of course, but it raises certain issues. The main one is its impact on labour reserves, that’s people between 15 and 59, who are the lifeblood of the future economy.’
In this respect, it goes without saying that we are already seeing a marked shift towards Asia (Greater China and Japan to the east of the continent and India, Pakistan, Burma and Bangladesh to the south) and Africa. The former currently has more than a billion workers aged between 15 and 59, and the latter more than 500 million. With less than 100 million, Europe is clearly lagging behind. Between now and 2050, according to the Oxford Institute of Ageing’s calculations, the balance of power should reverse, with Africa and South Asia eclipsing China, but Europe still amongst the most impoverished in terms of its labour force. “In other words,” Sarah Harper goes on, “North America, the continent of Europe in its widest sense, China, Russia and Australia will have to reckon with 30% of their populations being over the age of 60. We know that these countries are going to lack manpower in the near future, that the birth rate is not going to rise and that the health of retirees has never been so good. There seems to be an obvious answer to this: the demographic gap with Asia and Africa will not be closed, even partially, without using the professional skills of older people. But people’s mindsets are not really ready to change on this front.”
But Sarah Harper doesn’t think we need to go down this road quite yet. “Take sub-Saharan Africa. Its economic growth, level of education and training and public health conditions are equivalent to those in Europe at the turn of the 20th century. As long as the fertility rate remains as it is today, progress will be slow. Conversely, with some 127 million Europeans likely to reach the venerable age of 100, what is there to pass down to the next generation? What is the use of inheriting when you’re 80? In view of the unemployment figures we are seeing today, isn’t this succession of age cohorts creating a lost generation?” In 2050, we might have an answer.
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