The Impact Of Societal Forces On Our Future

Convergence is a big part of how the future reveals itself. I have written often about convergence across geopolitics, science and technology, and other domains. Even a domain like philosophy is converging in ways that help shape our future. Macro-level forces illuminate possible futures, and forces in the societal domain play a major role in determining that future. This article on population provides a great example.

Society is shifting, an historical phenomenon captured brilliantly in the book A Fourth Turning. The book author focused on generations and the cycles of our history (which last the length of a long human life). What intrigued me as a Futurist is the claim that our past can indeed predict our future – it’s a compelling argument when viewed through the lens of these historical cycles. If the cycle which has repeated itself six times was to do so again, we would have entered a crisis period somewhere prior to 2010 (great recession anyone). The crisis period would last one generation – moving towards a resolution that dramatically alters the social order by the late 2020s.

The article referenced above explores the potential for population collapse. It references a 2020 report by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation of the University of Washington which has indicated that the global fertility rate is likely to witness a grave decline by 2050 and 2100. The study projects that people over eighty will likely outnumber those under five around the world by two to one in 2100 as fertility falls. I use a visual in my presentation that shows those over sixty-five already outnumber the those under five. This drop in fertility rates coincides with another societal factor: the extension of our healthy lives. As fertility falls, people will live longer lives. Policy action could be taken, as witnessed by China’s government now allowing (encouraging) families to have three children. This is a global phenomenon, with developed countries like the U.S. facing similar declines, in this case, an annual average of 19% in the last 6 years.

With life expectancy increasing on Earth, children under 5 years age will probably decline by 41% from 681 million in 2017 to 401 million in 2100 while the number of people above 80 years old has been projected to increase six times, from 141 million to 866 million in 2100.

Alaina Ali Beg – Population Collapse: How big a threat is it?

The fertility rate is the average number of children that would be born to a woman over her lifetime. The replacement rate is the total fertility rate at which women give birth to enough babies to sustain population levels (2.1). The current global fertility rate is 2.5, projected to drop to 1.7 by 2100. The pandemic exacerbated the problem. A study by the Brookings Institute suggests that 300,000 babies in the U.S. were never born due to insecurities associated with the pandemic.

Other societal challenges are driven by healthy life extension and declining fertility rates, notably, a drop in working age population and the challenges of supporting the elderly. The author states that there were six working age people for every retired person in the mid twentieth century, but in recent times, the ratio is three-to-one and probably by 2035, two-to-one.

These societal factors (among many) highlight the difficulty in understanding possible futures. Some could say that it has always been challenging. I would argue that the sheer number of factors converging across multiple domains represent a transformative period unlike anything we have seen since the second industrial revolution (I believe we will surpass that period in terms of impact to humanity).

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