The New Age Divide

LONDON – So what does 2009 hold in store for us? As ever, the unpredictable – a terrorist atrocity or a rash decision by a national leader – will take its toll. But much of what happens tomorrow will be a result of history.

In the last century, the world’s population increased four-fold, and the number of people living in cities thirteen-fold. The world’s output grew by a factor of forty, water use by nine, energy use by thirteen, and the emission of carbon dioxide by seventeen. The twenty-first century has to live with the consequences of all that, good and bad.

Some of the factors that will shape our lives appear to tug in different directions. The age profiles of our societies are changing dramatically. Asia and Europe have experienced sharp falls in fertility rates. The figures in Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea are even more remarkable than those in Catholic European countries like Spain, Italy, and Poland.

At the same time, people are living longer, so that in a generation the number of elderly dependents in some countries will outgrow that of the young. We have been accustomed to societies with a demographic structure that resembles a pyramid – a broad youth base tapering to an elderly tip. But now the structure is more like the profile of a skyscraper, more or less the same from top to bottom.