The ripple effect of global population shifts

A tectonic movement is taking place in world demographics as population shifts from the first (industrialized) to the third (developing) world. It will have profound effects on relations between countries and on political, economic, and social forces within countries.

Populations in the first world are getting older; those in the third world are getting younger. The first world has slow population growth - the third world, fast. The first world needs more workers to fill jobs; the third world needs more jobs to employ idle workers.

These disparities are interrelated. Aging populations mean declining populations - fewer young people and fewer babies.

Smaller workforces have to support more people receiving social security and needing more-expensive medical care. Even with increasing productivity per worker, sooner or later, there will be economic decline. There will be reduced manpower for defense establishments. This means deadlier weaponry as an offset.

Conversely, younger populations mean more babies and more people. There are more people of working age to support fewer people of retirement age. There is also more manpower to support defense establishments. (Remember the waves of Chinese pouring across the Yalu River to attack UN forces in Korea in the winter of 1950-51.) Whether more manpower means more economic growth and stronger military forces depends on governments' success in providing productive employment and better weapons.

There are a number of other consequences. Most environmental pollution is caused by people, and most people are in the third world. They use coal-burning plants for power generation and wood-burning fires for cooking and heating. They use either trucks and automobiles or animal-drawn wagons to move themselves and their goods. They dispose of their waste in streets and fields, or by dumping it in rivers and drainage ditches. If there are 100 people per square mile, nobody notices these things; if there are 100,000, they create a major problem.

Disease comes from crowding. Sanitation breaks down. Contagion spreads more easily. Crowding also tends to make people more fractious, to put them in a bad humor. There come times in every person's life when he or she needs to be alone. If this cannot happen, and especially if there are major frustrations in life as well, civil unrest or radical political movements are likely.

These shifts are so massive that there is not much any country or group of countries can do about them in the short term. Trade and immigration policies could have at least mitigating effects, but important groups in both industrialized and developing countries present formidable obstacles.

In the case of trade, labor groups - especially in the United States - argue that expansion of free-trade zones would encourage the movement of industry and jobs abroad. In the third world, it is argued that trade expansion would facilitate exploitation of third-world workers and resources by economic (mainly Yankee) imperialists. Both views are simplistic and mistaken, but firmly held.

Agricultural trade is a different matter. Almost everywhere, farmers are dug in behind ancient government support policies so entrenched that they could only be moved by political earthquakes. In the developed world, governments are rich enough to subsidize agricultural exports. In the US, we disguise the subsidies by calling them foreign aid.

On immigration, opposition to new policies paradoxically is found in countries that need it most. Labor groups fear competition for jobs. There is prejudice against foreigners, merging at times into xenophobia.

But the strongest opposition comes from countries such as Japan and Germany, which have long traditions of cultural homogeneity, but also desperately need more manpower. There are already only 3 Japanese of working age to every 1 of retirement age. The UN projects a ratio of 1 to 1 by 2050.

In Germany, there is not even a provision for immigrants to become citizens. A government-appointed commission recently recommended that Germany adopt a more-liberal immigration policy, and that is now the subject of a national debate.

Popular opposition to immigration is especially hard to understand in the US, a nation built on immigration. This probably comes from the changing ethnicity of immigrants. Until not long ago, they were mainly from Europe. Now, they are mainly from Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

In any event, they are coming - legally if possible, illegally if necessary. With indefensible borders north and south, we might as well get used to it.

Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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