One of the things that we have often discussed on this blog is the ageing of many societies around the world. Countries such as the United States, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, many of those in Western Europe and Australasia are having fewer children. This, combined with improved healthcare which is extending the lifespans of the elderly, is making their population pyramids more top-heavy. As we often discussed, this is a large economic problem in the making. Social security bills are increasing, the number of workers and taxpayers are decreasing as a proportion of the population and innovation is drying up.
The USA is not the worst of these countries in the ageing stakes, but still has about 15 per cent of its population older than 65, and this proportion is expected to climb. Thus, by 2050 (which is not so far into the future now that we have arrived at 2020!) there will be more Americans over the age of 65 than under the age of 20.
While we have focussed on the downsides of an ageing population there might be geopolitical upsides. According to this piece in the National Interest, there may be one very important benefit that flows from an ageing population: more peaceful international relations.
Countries with large numbers of young people as a percentage of the population are more likely to engage in international hostilities than countries with an older age structure. This is partly due to the greater opportunity for countries with younger populations: with a surplus of military-aged citizens, soldiers and cheaper to recruit and replace. Furthermore, younger populations, especially in poorer nations, are also much more easily radicalized making the clamour for war more likely to occur in such nations.
By way of contrast, older societies tend to be both less able and less willing to go to war. Not only are there fewer military aged recruits, meaning it is harder to maintain high numbers of armed forces, but the state’s resources are also increasingly diverted to supporting the elderly population. Furthermore, an elderly society’s population is less likely to be supportive of war than a younger one, making the political pressure against conflict greater as the population ages.
Now, these factors all apply to the USA as it ages, but it also applies to its two greatest geopolitical rivals: Russia and China. And indeed these rivals are in a more advanced state of ageing: they are having fewer babies and do not have large numbers of immigrants clamoring to move inside their borders. Thus, while the USA’s working aged population will increase by 13 per cent over the next 30 years, China’s and Russia’s will decline by around a fifth. This means that while the USA will be ageing, it will have a comparative demographic advantage over its adversaries.
However, whether this ageing phenomenon will also make either China or Russia less belligerent is harder to predict. While the USA, as a democratic nation, may be constrained by its population’s wishes, as well as by its requirement to provide increasing funds for the electorally powerful “grey vote”, similar constraints do not apply as strongly to Beijing or Moscow.
One wonders if the demographic ageing of these three nations might work in opposite ways. While it may sap the USA’s will to use force in the years to come, it may strengthen the will of its great power competitors. If their economic growth is stymied by demographic headwinds, I can see China for example search for an external “threat” as a way to unite the country and distract its population from internal issues. In fact this might be happening right before our eyes: see Hong Kong, India and the East China Sea.
While an ageing population might make a country less likely to go to war, I could see a scenario where the threat of continued ageing (combined with other economic pressure) may also precipitate conflict…just what we need to hear in 2020!