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The weight of the world

A new U.N. Pop­u­la­tion Fund report esti­mates that, as of Oct. 31, there will be 7 bil­lion people on Earth — double the globe’s pop­u­la­tion in the 1960s. We asked soci­ology pro­fessor Luis Falcon to examine the greatest chal­lenges this mile­stone presents for the planet and mankind.

As the world pop­u­la­tion reaches 7 bil­lion, what are the greatest chal­lenges we can expect for com­mu­ni­ties and nations world­wide?

This will vary across coun­tries and regions. Meeting edu­ca­tional and employ­ment needs at rea­son­able stan­dards will con­tinue being a chal­lenge for coun­tries like China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Brazil. For many western coun­tries, including the United States, immi­gra­tion and increasing racial diver­sity in the labor force will, per­haps, present the greatest chal­lenge.

Coun­tries like Italy, Ger­many and now Spain have had declining rates of pop­u­la­tion growth over the last few decades. Growth if any, has been the result of immi­gra­tion and the chil­dren born of immi­grants. While immi­gra­tion may solve labor short­ages — and many have opted for guest labor pro­grams, par­tic­u­larly in agri­cul­ture — cul­tural and social dif­fer­ences have proven extremely dif­fi­cult to manage.

In coun­tries with large num­bers of foreign-​​born workers, ensuring that resources are invested well to edu­cate the chil­dren of immi­grants and of racial minori­ties will help main­tain a well-​​trained labor force and reduce social inequal­i­ties.

Is it the world’s pop­u­la­tion itself that could be the most prob­lem­atic, or the rate at which it has grown to reach this mark, and con­tinues to grow?

The three basic demo­graphic com­po­nents — fer­tility, mor­tality and migra­tion are very much embedded in cul­tural, social and eco­nomic and polit­ical processes that lead to varying changes in rates of pop­u­la­tion growth or decline across time and space. So, while overall size mat­ters, it is the timing and where pop­u­la­tion growth takes place that really makes a dif­fer­ence. It is how fast-​​paced pop­u­la­tion growth can strain soci­etal resources that really matter — how growth affects edu­ca­tional sys­tems, health sys­tems, social sup­port and the ability of the economy to manage large num­bers of new entrants. It is very dif­fi­cult to “con­trol” pop­u­la­tion growth, as China’s expe­ri­ence with the one-​​child policy has shown. At the same time that China was enforcing its one child policy, we had coun­tries in Western Europe (like Italy) imple­menting finan­cial incen­tives for fam­i­lies to have more chil­dren in order to combat a rapidly aging pop­u­la­tion.

One of the poten­tial issues raised when we look at pop­u­la­tion num­bers is an age gap, with often too few people to care for a much larger elderly com­mu­nity. What can younger gen­er­a­tions in the United States expect as the baby boomers con­tinue to age?

The “Baby Boom” phe­nom­enon has pro­found impli­ca­tions for social sup­port sys­tems (social secu­rity, health care) but also for the polit­ical process. For example, when com­pared to those ages 18 to 30, par­tic­i­pa­tion in national elec­tions is almost twice as high among those aged 60 and above. Thus, the “needs” of the old (increas­ingly a baby boomer pop­u­la­tion) will con­tinue to drive the polit­ical debate and influ­ence decision-​​making in the United States for some time.

Within the health-​​care system there has been growing demand for for­eign nurses and doc­tors to meet a labor shortage. This trans­lates into a health system that relies heavily on the for­eign born to care for the elderly and others. Man­aging a diverse work­force and knowing how to handle cul­tur­ally sen­si­tive issues is, and will con­tinue to be, paramount.

– by Greg St. Martin

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