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Aging populations, young societies – The conflict potential of demographic developments

by Prof. Dr. Peter Imbusch / pimbusch@uni-wuppertal.de


Demographic developments are increasingly seen today in the light of their impact on social conflict and violence. While the aging populations of the industrialized West are causing significant problems of adaptation, the young societies of many developing countries are overstretching available resources. Examining contrary development processes, the following article seeks to show the implications of demographic developments for the integration and disintegration of societies, and the conflicts that may arise in future from these processes. The author has long research experience in this field and is currently preparing a comparative research project.

“People will have children whatever happens.” (Konrad Adenauer)
“The demographic future is anything but certain.” (Richard P. Cincotta)

Demographic change is on everyone’s lips. However, demographers and social scientists are seriously divided about the actual figures and composition of the world’s populations, their probable future development, and the consequences this will have at both national and global levels. In Germany, there are population optimists as well as pessimists, not to forget the broad spectrum of variously shaded neutral positions. It is becoming ever more apparent that rapid population growth creates great social challenges. But shrinking populations subject a society to considerable stress too. A further complication arises from the diametrically opposed direction of the demographic developments, for instance in Europe and Africa, where a diminishing and aging European population faces a young and expanding African one. The inevitable problems this is already causing suggest that the 21st century might well be called the ‘demographic’ century.

An anecdote illustrates the point. Any European who lands at an African airport will notice, once the usual turmoil of arrival has subsided, that virtually everyone in and around the premises is young. Older people are few and far between. Landing back in Germany the picture is exactly reversed: one is surrounded by the middle aged with only a sprinkling of young people.

In a recent essay in the journal Foreign Affairs entitled “The New Population Bomb”, Jack Goldstone – with little regard for German sensibilities – made a convincing attempt to link demographic developments with socioeconomic trends in order to explain the shifts in political power that may well occur in the present century. In view of its low birth rate and increasingly aging societies, Europe as a whole – and Germany in particular – is threatened not only with a dramatically diminishing population but also, given the long-term nature of demographic processes, with inevitable decline into insignificance as a global political player.

Fig. 1: The historical development of the world’s population.
Diagram: German Global Population Foundation
Source: World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision, UN 2011 Fig. 1: The historical development of the world’s population.
Diagram: German Global Population Foundation
Source: World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision, UN 2011

The conclusion lies in a simple slogan: ‘Population matters!’ Not that demographic development alone can explain changes of this magnitude, but in the complex interplay with economic processes and social structures it generates considerable – indeed explosive – dynamic force. Problems of over- and under-population, as well as internal demographic conflicts, arise from the impact of demography on societies, cultures, economies and natural environments. These problems are basically the result of three factors: the birth rate, the death rate, and migration. Wherever fertility and mortality are imbalanced, migration is the only answer.

Until recent times, the population of the planet grew very slowly. At the beginning of the Common Era it was a mere 200 million or so, a figure that had quadrupled by 1750. The first billion was reached around 1800 as a by-product of the Industrial Revolution, the second in 1930, the third in 1960, and by 1999 the sixth. It is estimated that the global population will reach 9 billion by 2050; only after 2090 will there be stagnation or diminution in the figures. But the geographical distribution of this booming growth was, and still is, uneven. Until the 19th century it took place above all in the industrialized countries, but since the mid 20th century it has been almost exclusively in the developing countries of the South and East. Although global trends vary, demographic processes may even be directly contrary in individual countries and regions.

Not all countries have already reached the demographic transition; around one third are still at the beginning of the process. So in some countries (among them those of sub-Saharan Africa) the population will again double in the next 50 years. A second group (including China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Mexico, the USA and France) will see further growth up to 2050, but not to the point of doubling present figures. A third group (including Germany, southern European and some eastern European countries) will experience a real decrease in population. These changes will entail considerable shifts in the demographic structure (and hence geopolitical weight) of individual population centers. Viewed globally, a large number of young and very young societies will find themselves standing over against a limited number of old and aging ones.

Evaluation of this demographic transition points in two directions. From the individual point of view it is a great success, because it means an improvement in living conditions and life expectancy that is enabling more and more people to reach old age in relatively good health. Socioeconomically, however, both young and old societies present massive challenges to their institutions and social systems. In this broader context population statistics are excellent indicators of social development: they reveal the prevailing cultural norms and values of a society, the evolution of social structures, and the level of modernization a society has reached. Demographic change affects almost every area of human life, and the transitions of coming decades will have a huge impact on social and economic development. In this respect the demographic transition is at the same time an emancipatory transition.

Tab. 1: Selected world population indicators. *projections [projected figures]
Source: Berlin Institute for Population and Development: Europe’s Demographic Future, 3; based on United Nations calculations.
Tab. 1: Selected world population indicators. *projections [projected figures]
Source: Berlin Institute for Population and Development: Europe’s Demographic Future, 3; based on United Nations calculations.

Yet the demographic trends outlined above harbor a number of problematic, albeit very different, sources of conflict that have also become a focus of research in the social sciences – though (probably for historical reasons) little attention has been paid to this area in the German-speaking countries. The main issue here has been 'youth bulges’ – i.e. the high proportion of young people (15-29 year-olds) – characteristic of developing countries, and their potential for conflict and violence. The problem of social conflict in this context has been recognized for a long time, but it has gained dramatically in weight through Samuel Huntington’s perception of a connection between the apparent potential for violence in the Islamic world and the spectacular population growth rates after the 9/11 attacks. The German economist Gunnar Heinsohn has also underlined the relation between a high incidence of young males and a society’s potential for conflict and war.

Although their simple monocausal theories have been dismissed as artificial constructs and their relations unmasked as containing more phantom than truth, subsequent empirical investigations have succeeded only in differentiating the basic ‘youth bulge’ thesis by incorporating further variables. Many authors (e.g. Urdal, Kröhnert, Wagschal and Cincotta et al.) accept that 'youth bulges’ considerably increase the risk of conflict. Their methodologically diverse research relates demography to other factors, takes a wider view of risk, and selects different orders of magnitude for its investigations. Viewed as a whole, however, it is clear that further systematic empirical analysis of the relation between population growth and conflict potential is necessary before any definitive conclusions can be reached.

It is also clear that the demographic transition harbors considerable potential for conflict below the level of violent confrontation. Thus the surging populations of the developing countries – of which sub-Saharan Africa is a prime example – can be reduced to three cumulative factors: high fertility rates, a high proportion of young people, and aging in society. The rapidity of this growth is a problem, because it dramatically increases the population over a relatively short period and thus overtaxes available resources and existing state and social institutions, none of which are in a position to absorb the new demands being made on them. In such a situation conflict between divergent interest groups is inevitable, with stress developing in various contexts:

  • Ecosystem. Rapid population growth causes competition – at the levels of production, security of access, and distribution – for available resources including foodstuffs, land, and water. It also heightens environmental pollution.
  • Economy and society. To integrate a growing population socially, economically and politically, governments must invest increasingly in education, training, health, labor markets etc. The demand here often vastly exceeds the available means, resulting in severe competition for jobs and trainee places. Widespread unemployment and a growing informal work sector aggravate the conflict.
  • Conflicts between generations. The social burden is shifting increasingly onto the younger generation, while lengthening working lives mean older workers blocking jobs. In more or less paternalistic and authoritarian systems, the numerical superiority of the young promises political conflict.
  • Social inequality and impoverishment. Combined with both aging and modernizing processes, rapid population growth – e.g. in Africa (where birth rates also vary with social class and milieu) – causes increasing social inequality and hence political conflict. A fast growing elderly segment, combined with meager or entirely non-existent social security systems and the dissolution of traditional family structures, heralds rapidly increasing old-age poverty. At the same time, the flight from the land boosts the growth of slums in urban agglomerations.
  • Gender. The social position and role of women is a key demographic factor. Major aspects giving rise to gender and role conflicts are early marriage, early (or overly late) and high-risk pregnancies, inadequate education for family planning, faulty knowledge of contraceptive methods, lack of contraceptives, and a mindset in which large families guarantee social respect and economic (especially old-age) security.
In central Europe, notably in Germany, the demographic development is exactly the opposite. Low fertility and birth rates, and a correspondingly low – and further decreasing – young segment coupled with a burgeoning elderly one, will lead in the next few decades to a drop in population figures that is not only relative but absolute. Lacking historical experience of natural population shrinkage, the industrialized countries have long underestimated the challenges associated with this trend. These are fourfold:

  • Economic. Shrinking populations and changing demographic structures will lead in the short and medium term to a decrease in the economically active population, a corresponding drop in wage-earning potential, and a shortage of (skilled) workers, whose impact is already being felt. This will badly affect the overall conditions of societal growth and economic wellbeing. Changing consumer and demand structures will radically alter the market for consumer goods, and the demographic development will also affect the housing market. Economically unattractive (especially rural) areas will become further depopulated, reinforcing migration processes and devaluing property and other capital assets. Moreover, the ensuing conflicts will have winners and losers, with loss and gain distributed very unequally.
  • Social. The ‘elderly bulge’ will have severe consequences above all for social security systems. With a diminishing number of wage earners paying into the actual system, and an increasing number dependent on it for support, pensions and benefits will become financially unsustainable. Similarly, health system costs will rise in line with the aging population, creating conflicting goals, especially as the younger generation is already losing out in the present system. Conflicts will focus on the overall shape and level of state welfare, as well as on access to specific provision in the form of healthcare, care for the elderly, pension levels, and other social benefits. At the same time, changes in family structures will further erode the intergenerational contract, requiring renegotiation of its underlying concept of distributive equity. Whether expressed in terms of generational interests or of the distribution of goods and benefits, whether targeted on levels of care or of income, the ensuing discord will subject the social state to a severe test of its cohesion and integration, exacerbated by the question who gains from and who pays for this anyway.
  • Political. The demographic transition will affect the representation of interests, and with it the political system itself. Various European countries have already seen attempts to establish permanent party-political representation for the older generation. Furthermore, the natural aging process in the traditional parties will result in any case in a continuous shift toward the interests of the elderly. This may in turn weaken the political will to pursue future-oriented goals and simultaneously reinforce the younger generation’s already marked rejection of traditional parties and politics. Resultant conflicts will focus not only on the right to participate in the debate, but also on genuine political issues like migration and intergenerational equity in the distribution of goods and burdens.
  • Cultural. Finally, the aging of European societies possesses aspects conducive to cultural conflict ranging from intergenerational understanding and communication, through the right to recognition and participation, to numerous covert patterns of discrimination between young and old (affecting especially the aged infirm) that harbor considerable potential for violence ranging from insensibility and neglect to physical assault.
Summing up, demographic factors and processes influence the development perspectives of societies in many ways. Their impact is seldom monocausal. On the contrary, it is the result of numerous complex relations and interdependencies. The ‘demographic century’ invoked above will likely be a century rich in conflict. All the more reason, therefore, to understand the intricate interweave of demography, development and conflict, if answers are to be found to the many, widely different, issues they cover.


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