Q&A: Looking Into The Future

It's tough to predict what will happen tomorrow, let alone what the world holds in store for us nearly 300 years from now. But some of the world's top demographers are trying to forecast just that.

Earlier this week, more than 20 of these experts, from as far away as India and China, met in New York with Joseph Chamie, director of the United Nations Population Division, to look at past and current trends in population, migration, fertility and mortality and to try to create a scenario for the world in 2300. They will release a report in the fall, the first comprehensive country-by-country, long-term demographic forecast of its kind. NEWSWEEK's Malcolm Beith spoke to Chamie.

NEWSWEEK: Is there any point in forecasting so far into the future?

Joseph Chamie: We can't really tell what's going to happen beyond 25 years, because so much could change. But the projections for 300 years are useful because they get away from dealing with short-term crises like AIDS, SARS or fighting in Liberia or Somalia, and you start looking at relationships. For example, what's going to happen with the status of women and their role in society? When you look at these long-term trends, they point to certain types of demographic behavior: relatively low fertility and women participating in the labor force, therefore many of them postponing or not having children at all. Similarly, the improvements in technology and distribution and methods of transportation have increased tremendously the ability to live longer with a healthier lifestyles. Right now, we're seeing concerns about overconsumption in developing countries: obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure. But many of those are temporal and hopefully they will be resolved by changes in lifestyle, medicine, technology and improved education.

What studies are your predictions based on?

These are scenarios, not so much predictions. We're trying to say, "What is the best-case scenario? What is likely to happen here?" So most of the discussions are on three variables: fertility, mortality and migration. If you look over the last 300 years you see remarkable changes in family sizes, in family patterns. We also look at current trends, like increasing urbanization--people will be moving off the farm and moving to cities. And city life means smaller families.

What scenarios do most demographers agree on?

There is a general agreement that in the next 300 years, world population will peak and then decline very slowly because of the low fertility that is being exhibited. [And] we may see life expectancy of 100.

Surely not everywhere, though?

At the world level, you may have a much rosier picture than you do in some of the more marginal countries. For example, Niger, Somalia, Haiti, Yemen and others may see very extreme fluctuations before they improve tremendously. We're seeing that right now. In Japan and Sweden, life expectancy is very high. [But] we see very low life expectancies in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Somalia and Haiti. We will have some extremes, but the averages--countries like India, China, the United States, Russia, most of Europe--will be far ahead and doing much better in these trends. There [is also] a general consensus that world population will peak somewhere below 10 billion and then fluctuate, but the average over time will be [in a] slow decline. [And] low fertility is in the future, not high fertility. We're not going back to five or six children per couple.

Is lowered fertility due to urbanization?

There are many factors. One, we have increasing urbanization. Two, decreasing mortality, so you don't have to have as many kids to survive. You can have two, and assume, [at least] in the United States, that they'll survive until you die. Three, increasing education. Four, [the] changing role and status of women in the educational and economic sectors. Five, lifestyle changes; people being more concerned with self-development rather than family. And the proliferation of social programs by the government to support you in your old age so you're not as dependent on your family. As a consequence the average [number of children per family] is likely to be less than two for some time. In the long term we assume there will be some intervention and fertility will eventually return back to replacement levels. Governments even today, such as Italy and Japan, are considering how they can raise fertility. France has very family-friendly policies.

How will migration affect nations?

That's probably one of the more difficult ones to anticipate. This is a very volatile issue and extremely politically sensitive because with very little growth of the natural population, we're seeing enormous growth coming about because of migration. We project the U.S. population to be 400 million by 2050. Without migration, it would be closer to 315 million. Eighty percent of the projected growth of the U.S. population in the next 50 years is due to migration, immigrants and their descendants. In countries such as Germany, the deaths have outnumbered the births for decades. As a consequence, the impact of migration is enormous.

Will these countries rethink their immigration policies?

Many of them are reluctant to do that because it would upset the ethnic balance and also [because of] the impact it would have on domestic issues, like what this would do to [already high] unemployment rates. [But] it's very difficult to stop these flows. The Europeans [in particular] have to take into account these changes.

Do Asian countries have to deal with these same issues?

Of course, many of those countries do, [like] Malaysia, Japan and Korea. But there's a great deal of reluctance from some of these countries about having immigrants coming in.

Are Asian populations dropping too?

We haven't seen any significant population decline, but it's anticipated. Europe as a whole is declining. It peaked in 1998, and we foresee that it's going to continue declining significantly.

How do you hope to influence government policies?

These projections are not for people living in 2300. They are projections for people living and making policy today. We need a long-term forecast. Often 50 years is sufficient. Policy makers often only look for the term of their official position, maximum 10 years. After that, it's someone else's problem. But issues of pensions, aging, health care, fertility, population decline--these have to be discussed today. Small changes in policies today have enormous impact on the future. You have to start planning now. It takes at least 25 years to have a baby join the labor force, so if you want to deal with these issues, you have to have a perspective of at least 200 years. In addition, it permits you to start getting away from all these day-to-day ups and downs that we see. The media will cover Liberia and the SARS issue, which [are] important, but in the long term those things are relatively minor on the global level. The real big issues are how many children people are having, how long are they living and where are they moving. In 1950, Europe was about 22 percent of the world's population. Today, it is 12 percent. By 2050, it'll be 7 percent. It will continue to become a smaller and smaller proportion, which will affect world culture.

I understand you are optimistic about the battle against AIDS.

Some of the people that have AIDS will die out. Those that stay around will change their behavior. It's sort of a Darwinian thing: those that have it and don't change their behavior will die out, and those that do change their behavior will continue. During this century, AIDS will wash out, it will be solved. There are many illnesses that have been dealt with technologically. From historical experience--especially polio, tetanus and diphtheria--why not be optimistic based on that?

Will natural resources be a problem? Everyone's worried about oil these days, but some predict that future wars will be fought over water.

There will be short-term problems, no doubt, with water and oil. But as the prices get higher, there will be increasing attempts to conserve and replace. Solar energy will become more and more cost-effective as oil becomes more expensive. And people are becoming more concerned about the environment and I think that education will increase.

How will the role of religion change?

We'll see much more close contact between these groups. This will mean you'll have Muslims in Athens, as well as Greek Orthodox in cities in Asia. Basically, religion in demographic behavior is becoming less and less critical. Historically, all of the major religions recommended to their adherents to go forth and multiply. If they didn't multiply they would die out. Now, we have a very different world--people are not dying out ... [For] most people now, their fertility behavior is not determined by religious edict. It's determined in the bedroom--not in a mosque or in a church. As people move to urban areas and their lifestyles change, and traditions become less of a critical variable in determining demographic behavior, you'll see the convergence of family size and behavior. In the same way you notice that if you don't force people to wear anything [specific] they generally wear sweatshirt and jeans and sneakers. So you'll have a global convergence.