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Great Power Demographics
Today, the international arena is dominated by one superpower, the United States, and two great powers, China and Russia. Although conventional measures of economic and military power often receive more attention, few factors influence the long-term competition between great powers as much as changes in the size, capabilities, and characteristics of national populations. And thanks to modern economic development, demographics are more important now than ever before.
Since the Industrial Revolution, technological innovations and other improvements in human productivity have led to a long-term decline in the price of natural resources and basic commodities such as food. At the same time, they have greatly increased the returns to skilled labor. In fact, most global economic growth since World War II can be attributed to two factors: (1) improvements in human capital - a catchall term for education, health, nutrition, training, and other factors that determine an individual worker’s potential - and (2) favorable business climates, which allowed the value of those human resources to be unlocked. Human capital, in particular, has an extraordinary impact on economies.
Consider the facts. Today for each year of increased life expectancy, a country sees a permanent increase in per capita income of about four percent. And for each additional year of schooling that a country’s citizens obtain, the country sees, on average, a ten percent increase in per capita GDP.
Vast disparities between human capital development in different countries have produced gaps in economic productivity that are larger today than at any previous point in history. For example, in 2017, according to World Bank estimates, Ireland’s per capita GDP was roughly 100 times as high as that of the Central African Republic (when adjusted for relative purchasing power). Yet such disparities are not set in stone: thanks to technological breakthroughs, nations can now augment their human capital faster than ever before.
And unlike behavioral or technological forecasts, demographic projections tend to be reasonably accurate for at least a few decades; for instance, most of the people who will be living in the world of 2040 are already alive today. And although such projections cannot predict the future, they can offer a rough guide to the emerging contours of international politics and economics. Therefore, policymakers and managers planning for the medium and long term should pay careful attention to demographic realities.
So, what does today’s demography portend for the United States, Russia, and China? To answer that question let’s start with China.
Unfavorable demographic trends are creating serious headwinds for the Chinese economy. China is the United States’ main international rival, and at first glance, it is indeed an impressive rival. It is still the world’s most populous country, with almost 1.4 billion people. Over the past four decades, it has seen the most rapid and sustained burst of economic growth in human history. Adjusting for relative purchasing power, some argue that the Chinese economy is now the largest in the world. China’s growth since the 1970s is usually attributed to the policies of Deng Xiaoping, who pushed the country in a more market-friendly direction after becoming the paramount leader in 1978. But demographics also played a critical role. Between 1975 and 2010, China’s working-age population, aged 15?to-64, nearly doubled, and total hours worked grew even faster, as the country abandoned Maoist policies that had made paid labor both less available and less appealing. Overall health and educational attainment rose rapidly, as well.
Given this impressive record, many expect that China will surpass the United States as the world’s leading power sometime in the next two decades. Yet the country’s longer-term demographic prospects suggest otherwise. Over the past two generations, China has seen a collapse in fertility, exacerbated by Beijing’s ruthless population-control programs. The “one-child policy,” introduced in 1979, was ended in 2015, but the damage had already been done. China’s total fertility rate (or TFR) has been below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman since at least the early 1990s. According to the UN Population Division, China’s TFR now stands at 1.6. However, Cai Fang, a Chinese demographer and member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, believes it may be as low as 1.4, which is more than 30 percent below replacement. Worse yet, in major cities such as Shanghai, fertility stands at just one birth per woman or even less.
With decades of extremely low fertility in its immediate past, decades more of that to come, and no likelihood of mass immigration, China will see its population peak by 2027. Its working-age population has already been shrinking for the past five years, and the cumulative decrease will exceed 100 million between 2015 and 2040. And the working-age population under 30 may plunge by nearly 30 percent over these years. Although the rising generation will be the best educated in Chinese history, the country’s overall growth in educational attainment will slow as the less educated older generations come to make up a larger and larger share of the total population. The Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital estimates that by 2040, China’s adult population will have fewer average years of schooling than that of Bolivia or Zimbabwe.
As China’s working-age population slumps, its over-65 population is set to explode. Between 2015 and 2040, the number of Chinese over the age of 65 is projected to rise from about 135 million to at least 325 million. By 2040, China could have twice as many elderly people as children under the age of 15, and the median age of China’s population will rise to 48, up from 37 in 2015 and less than 25 in 1990.
No country has ever gone gray at a faster pace! The process will be particularly extreme in rural China, as young Chinese migrate to the cities in search of opportunity. On the whole, China’s elderly in 2040 will be both poor and poorly educated, dependent on others for the overwhelming majority of their consumption and other needs.
Taken together, these unfavorable demographic trends are creating formidable headwinds for the Chinese economy. And, to make matters worse, China faces additional adverse demographic factors. Under the one-child policy, for instance, Chinese parents often opted for an abortion rather than giving birth to a girl, creating the most imbalanced sex ratio in the modern world. In the years ahead, China will have to deal with the problem of tens of millions of surplus men, mostly from disadvantaged rural backgrounds, with no prospects of marrying, having children, or continuing their family line.
China will also face a related problem over the next generation, as traditional Chinese family structures atrophy or evaporate. Since the beginning of written history, Chinese society has relied on extended kinship networks to manage economic risks. Yet a rising generation of urban Chinese youth is made up of only-children of only-children, young men and women with no siblings, cousins, aunts, or uncles. This ending to 2,500 years of family tradition represents a departure into the unknown for Chinese civilization - and Beijing is manifestly unprepared for this impending “great leap.”
For Russia, the demographic outlook maybe even worse. The Kremlin sees itself as helming a global power, yet its grandiose self-conception is badly mismatched with the human resources at its disposal. From the standpoint of population and human capital, Russia looks like a power in the grips of an unrecoverable decline.
In some respects, Russia is a typical European country: it has an aging shrinking population and difficulties assimilating the low-skilled immigrant work force on which its economy increasingly depends. When it comes to human capital, however, Russia faces a more acute crisis. After a full half-century of stagnation, over the last decade Russia has finally seen an improvement in the overall health of its people, as evidenced by measures such as life expectancy at birth. But the situation is still dire. In 2016, according to the World Health Organization, 15-year-old Russian males could only expect to live another 52.3 years: slightly less than their counterparts in Haiti.
In addition to its health problems, Russia is failing in knowledge production. Worl renowneded demographer Nicholas Eberstadt of Harvard calls it “the Russian paradox.” Despite an ostensibly educated citizenry, Russia, with a population of 145 million, earns fewer patents each year than the state of Alabama with a population of just five million. Meanwhile, Russia earns less from service exports than Denmark, with a population of just six million and has less privately held wealth than Sweden, with a population of ten million. And since Russia’s working-age population is set to rapidly age and shrink between 2015 and 2040, its relative economic potential will only diminish.
Ambitious revisionist states such as Russia can, for a time, “punch above their weight” in international affairs. Yet for all of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign meddling and military adventurism, his country is facing demographic constraints that will make it extraordinarily difficult for him and his successors to maintain, much less seriously improve, Russia’s geopolitical standing.
So, what does demography imply for the United States?
Relative to its principal rivals, The United States is in an enviable position. This should come as no surprise: the U.S. has been the most powerful country in the world since World War II, and its demographic advantages including its large and highly educated population, relatively high fertility rates, and welcoming immigration policies - have been crucial to that success.
America’s most obvious demographic advantage is its size. It is the world’s third most populous country, and it is likely to remain so through at least 2040. No other developed country even comes close; the second and third largest are Japan and Germany, which have populations that are, respectively, 40% and 25% the size of the U.S. Between 1990 and 2015, the United States generated nearly all the population growth among the UN’s “most developed countries”; both UN and U.S. Census Bureau projections suggest that the United States will generate all of the net population growth among the developed nations between 2015 and 2040. In fact, excluding sub-Saharan Africa, the U.S. is the only region where the rate of population growth is increasing. And the U.S. population is on track to grow slightly faster than the world population between now and 2040.
The bottom line: No rival is likely to overtake the United States in terms of raw human potential anytime soon.
Why? The United States benefits from what Eberstadt calls “American demographic exceptionalism.”
- Compared with other developed countries, the United States has long enjoyed distinctly high immigration levels and birthrates. Between 1950 and 2015, close to 50 million people immigrated to the United States, accounting for nearly half of the developed world’s net immigration over that time period. These immigrants and their descendants made up most of the United States’ population growth over those decades.
- Furthermore, U.S. fertility is also unusually high for an affluent society. Apart from a temporary dip during and immediately after the Vietnam War, America’s birthrate after World War II has consistently exceeded the developed-country average. Between the mid-1980s and the financial crisis of 2008, the United States was the only rich country with replacement-level fertility.
- Assuming continued levels of immigration and near-replacement fertility, most demographers project that by 2040, the United States will have a population of around 380 million. It will have a younger population than almost any other rich democracy, and its working-age population will still be expanding. Notably, unlike the rest of the developed world in 2040, it will still have more births than deaths.
Furthermore, the United States’ demographic advantage is not merely a function of numbers. For over a century, the United States has benefited from a large and growing cadre of highly-skilled workers. Research on educational attainment, by the economists Robert Barro and Jong-Wha Lee, suggests that between 1870 and 2010, Americans were the world’s most highly educated people in terms of average years of schooling for the working-age population. In 2015, by their estimate, 56 million men and women in the United States aged 25 to 64 had undergraduate degrees or graduate degrees: twice as many as in China and almost one-sixth of the global total. That helps explain why the United States leads the world in research and development, as measured by international patent applications and scientific publications. It also leads the world in wealth generation, with Americans having accumulated more private wealth since 2000 than the Chinese have in all recorded history.
Despite these advantages, the United States still has real challenges. Warning lights are flashing for a number of key demographic metrics. In 2014, for instance, U.S. life expectancy began slowly but steadily dropping for the first time in a century. This drop is partly due to the surge in so-called “deaths of despair,” which include deaths from suicide, drug overdose, and complications from alcoholism, especially in economically depressed regions of the country.
Yet even before the decline began, U.S. progress in public health indicators had been painfully slow and astonishingly expensive. Improvements in educational attainment have also been stalled for decades; as of 2010, Millennial American adults born in the early 1980s had, on average, 13.7 years of schooling, which is only fractionally higher than the average of 13.5 years for Baby Boomer Americans, born in the early 1950s. And, as we’ll explain in trend #5, the quality of that education may not be as high.
Meanwhile, labor force participation rates for American men in the working-age of 25-to-54, are still near levels last seen during the Great Depression.
In short, America’s human capital is truly exceptional compared to the other great powers but, still falls short of realizing its potential.
Given these demographic trends, we offer the following forecasts for your consideration.
First, the United States will continue to build on the unique resources that have enabled it to exploit the potential of its rich human capital.
As home to all but a few of the world’s top research universities, the U.S. remains a magnet for “the best and brightest minds” from around the world. The unique American business culture and legal system encourages entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to tackle ever-bigger challenges. Our critical mass of “intellectual capital” related to info-tech, biotech and nanotech is unmatched. And unlike India and China, the United States is a huge exporter of both food and energy, two critical factors for supporting a large and growing population.
Second, over the coming decade, complex socio-economic factors will be dealt with so America can realize its full potential.
Official population projections assume that U.S. fertility will return to replacement levels in the coming decade even though it fell by about ten percent after 2008 to levels below those of European countries such as France and Sweden; and has, so far, it has shown no signs of recovering. Similarly, demographic projections assume that the United States will maintain net immigration at its current level of roughly one million people per year, even though recent political trends are running the other way. Fortunately, the Golden Age of the Digital Techno-Economic Revolution will enable us to address both problems. First, greater economic opportunities will create jobs for formerly unemployable American men, making them more viable fathers; this will raise fertility rates. Meanwhile, the Golden Age economy will also create a more welcoming environment for “highly-skilled” immigrants prepared to add value to the U.S. economy.
Third, the United States will not be able to rely heavily on its traditional allies to maintain the world order.
The trouble is that many of Washington’s traditional allies face far more daunting demographic challenges than does the U.S. The EU member states and Japan, for instance, all have healthy, well-educated, and highly productive populations. Yet the EU and Japan have both registered sub-replacement fertility rates since the 1970s, and their fertility rates began to drop far below the replacement level in the 1980s. In both the EU and Japan, deaths now outnumber births. Their working-age populations are in long-term decline, and their overall populations are aging at rates that would have sounded like science fiction not so long ago. The main demographic difference between the EU and Japan is that Europe has embraced immigration and Japan has not. Both approaches have their drawbacks. For EU members, immigration has postponed the shrinking of their work forces and slowed the aging of their populations. Yet the EU’s record of integrating newcomers, particularly Muslims from poorer countries, is uneven at best, and cultural conflicts over immigration are roiling politics across the continent. Japan has avoided these convulsions, but at the cost of rapid and irreversible population decline. As in China, this is leading to an implosion of the traditional Japanese family. Japanese demographers project that a woman born in Japan in 1990 has close to a 40 percent chance of having no children of her own and a 50 percent chance of never having grandchildren. Japan is not just graying: it is becoming a country of elderly social isolates, with rising needs and decreasing family support. And,
Fourth, to compensate for the decline of its OECD partners, Washington will turn its attention to South and Southeast Asia.
For instance, as Japan and South Korea lose population, emerging democracies such as Indonesia and the Philippines will continue to grow. By 2040, Indonesia could have a population of over 300 million, up from around 260 million today, and the Philippines’ population could reach 140 million, which is likely to be larger than Russia’s. Both countries are young and increasingly well educated. In 2015, China had almost four times as many people aged 20 to 39 as Indonesia and the Philippines combined; but by 2040, it is projected to have only twice as many. Meanwhile, both Indonesia and the Philippines are likely to come into increasing confrontation with an expansionist China, and as they do, they may discover an interest in deeper security cooperation with the United States. Futhermore, the potential of Indonesia and the Philippines pales in comparison to India. India is on track to overtake China as the world’s most populous country within the next decade, and by 2040, India’s working-age population may exceed China’s by 200 million. Furthermore, India’s population will still be growing in 2040, when China’s will be in rapid decline. By that time, about 24 percent of China’s population will be over 65, compared with around 12 percent of India’s. India has its own demographic and human resource problems like poor public health indicators, low average educational attainment, and egregiously high levels of illiteracy. Yet by 2040, India may have a larger pool of highly educated workers aged 20 to 49 than China, and its advantage will be increasing with every year. The United States and India have already begun defense cooperation in the interest of countering China; American leaders should make it a priority to deepen this partnership in the years ahead.
1. Foreign Affairs. July/August 2019. Nicholas Eberstadt. With Great Demographics Comes Great Power: Why Population Will Drive Geopolitics.
2. Aei.org. March 2019. Derek Scissors. US-China: Who is Bigger and When.
3. Aei.org. July 2019. Derek Scissors. China’s Global Business Footprint Shrinks.
4. Foreign Affairs. November/December 2018. Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay. America’s Allies Must Step Up as America Steps Down.