October 12, 2023
As headlines announce fewer babies and more older people the data are clear: The world is undergoing a massive demographic shift. But is demography our destiny? In her TED Talk, Jennifer D. Sciubba, Vice Chair of PRB’s Board of Trustees, presents three potential paths we might take to navigate these demographic changes and outlines how we can build a more resilient world.
This one-hour virtual event featured a screening of Dr. Sciubba’s TED Talk, followed by a discussion with a distinguished panel, including:
- Diana Elliott, Vice President for U.S. Programs, PRB (moderator).
- Bintu Zahara Sakor, Doctoral Researcher, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and Visiting Scholar, Harvard University Center for African Studies.
- Jennifer D. Sciubba, Vice Chair of PRB’s Board of Trustees and author of 8 Billion and Counting: How Sex, Death, and Migration Shape Our World.
- Rebecca Shamash, Research Director, Institute for the Future.
Speaker, Diana Elliott: We will kick off today’s event by watching Dr. Jennifer Sciubba’s newly released TED Talk, The Truth About Human Population Decline. And then we’ll continue our watch party with a panel discussion, including Jennifer, as well as additional panelists Bintu Zahara Sakor and Dr. Rebecca Shamash. We welcome questions from the audience about ideas presented today. Finally, a bit of housekeeping before we begin. If you have any questions during the presentation, please type them into the question mark box in your webinar control panel. All attendees are muted. We will also share a recording of the webinar after the event on PBS’s YouTube channel.
And now I invite Dr. Jennifer D. Sciubba to turn her camera on. Jennifer D. Sciubba is an internationally recognized expert in the field of demographic security. In addition to numerous academic articles, she is the author of 8 Billion and Counting How Sex, Death, and Migration Shape Our World from 2022 and the Future Faces of War, Population and National Security from 2011, and the editor of A Research Agenda for Political Demography from 2021. Dr. Sciubba is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and is vice chair of PRB’s Board of Trustees. She has a Ph.D. in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland, and a bachelor’s degree from Agnes Scott College. I now turn things over to Dr. Sciubba to introduce her TED Talk.
Speaker, Jennifer Sciubba: Thank you so much, Diana, and a big thank you to everyone at PRB for helping to put this on, Nancy and Raquel and Lillian, and thank you all for joining us today. I’m so excited to have these two distinguished panelists help me bring this talk to an audience, to this audience, and be able to expand on the ideas there.
When I had the opportunity to put this TED Talk together, it’s really obviously an intimidating process, as I’m sure you can imagine, and knowing that you only have ten minutes (because these talks are shorter than they used to be), I wanted to make sure that I had some concrete goals and, as you’ll hear, those of you who have not watched it yet, the number one goal is a really simple one, which is just to point out that trends really have changed.
And as someone who’s been studying population aging for the last 20 years, it’s like I’ve been watching all along. But even for me, it has surprised me how much trends have changed in the past few years. And so I thought, if I can still be surprised by population trends and still excited by them, then this is a message that needs to get out there. Because as I started to launch 8 Billion and Counting in 2022, most of the rhetoric around population aging, excuse me, around population was really about overpopulation still, and how we really needed to come together to slow population growth and how there were so many people and the audiences couldn’t believe that we were about to hit 8 billion collectively. And I thought, while it’s true that hitting 8 billion is a milestone, I realized that not many people understood how radically global birth trends had changed.
And so the main purpose of this talk, if it did nothing else, was to try to help people update what they knew about population trends. Secondly, though, I think the really important thing is to go from there and change the narrative, because I’ve also noticed, and many of you may have as well, that once people do buy into the fact that globally, trends are changing and two out of three people in the world live somewhere with below-replacement fertility, the next step in that conversation seems to just be, and now how do we turn that trend around?
I think that’s the wrong approach, as you’ll hear in the Talk. I think that’s the approach that happens in a fearful world. And I have a lot of worries about human rights that go along with that. But I also think that that kind of narrative is not preparing us for the very near future. And so I’m hoping that we can all work together to be much more innovative about what this population moment means for us, and think about how we can be resilient and adapt to make a greater, smaller world a better one, as you will hear. So, I hope that you enjoy it. I hope it sparks lots of conversation for us, and I look forward to your response.
Speaker, Jennifer Sciubba, TED Talk: Astronomers tell us that when we look to the night sky, we’re actually looking back in time. Light from those faraway stars take so long to reach our eyes here on earth. That by the time we wish upon a particular star, it may no longer even exist. I’m here to tell you, the population of Earth is a lot like those stars in parts of the globe. The human population is already or will soon be shrinking.
I know what you’re thinking and, yes, total population is still growing from 8 billion today to a peak of probably 9 or 10 billion. But when we track total increase, we’re looking at the star that seems to be shining brightly, but in actuality has already imploded. And that’s because there’s a difference between what’s happening on the surface, which is obvious total growth and the tectonic forces beneath.
Since the 1960s, world population has more than doubled, but the growth rate has been falling the entire time. We’re witnessing the most fundamental shift to take place in modern human history. The shift towards pervasive and permanent low fertility, population aging and eventual population fertility is down everywhere, just at different rates in different places. If fertility stays the same as it is today—just hold still—by the end of this century, China’s population will be less than half of its current size. It’s a loss of 800 million people. South Korea’s will be down by 63%. Poland’s and Japan’s by half. Italy’s and Thailand’s by 44%, Eastern Europe by 40%.
Even greater number of countries are already ageing again. Just 20 years ago, if we’d lined up everyone in Japan or Italy or Germany, from the youngest person to the oldest, and we ask that person in the middle of their age, they would have been 40 years old. Today, the populations of Thailand, Kuwait and Cuba are just as old, with Chile, Iran, and Vietnam close behind and even India as it seems to be. This bright star, assuming the throne as world’s most populous country, has below-replacement fertility. The number of young people entering into India’s workforce has already peaked.
People are the foundation of everything in a society, we’re the workers and the voters and the soldiers and the caregivers. So how many of us there are and who we are, that matters? We’re on track for there to be more people over age 60 than under the age of 14 by the middle of this century. That radical shift in modern human society presents us with a world of possibilities.
Our demography is our destiny, yes, but how we react to that demography is not preordained. What possible worlds might we create if we thoughtfully plan for an older, smaller population?
In one possible world. We put our heads in the sand and keep going about our business as usual. We have seen most societies react like they’re living in this world and throw money at people to have more babies, but it doesn’t work. South Korea has spent $210 billion over the last 16 years trying to raise fertility, and they keep hitting record lows under one child per woman on average.
In this status quo world, we keep the same economic models that assume infinite population growth and amass more debt to pay for our public spending, our social safety net, stay the same, which those rely on more inputs from workers than withdrawals from retirees. That’s what we call a pay-as-you-go system. Western Europe is already struggling to keep these systems afloat because in many of those countries, there are only two workers for every retiree. You can see how top heavy the population’s age structure is here, and how in the next few years it will grow even more so that way.
In a status quo world, the world’s most powerful countries continue to increase military spending and try to project power beyond their borders, even as their national budgets strain and the recruiting pool for soldiers shrinks. Hello Russia, China, and maybe even the United States. So, what results from failing to adapt and clinging to the status quo? Systems overload and break. We have higher labor costs which lead to inflation, and that just makes it even more expensive to have children. Social security systems go bankrupt, and we lose the gains we’ve made in reducing old age poverty.
But a head-in-the-sand world isn’t as bad as a fearful one. In a fearful world, the ability to choose how many children to have and when to have them gets taken away. Something that’s easier and less democratic settings. And not good news here either. Twenty years ago, almost all of our aging countries were democracies. Now, a quarter of them, those with median ages of 35 or higher, aren’t free.
And I know we see this idea of coercion in science fiction, but it’s not just science fiction. In 1965, when Nicolae Ceausescu took the helm in Romania and he wanted more Romanian babies, he forced it to happen through invasive measures. Fertility temporarily spiked, but not without dire consequences for women and for those children, many of whom were abandoned to orphanages.
In a fearful world, immigration becomes more restricted. There’s more hatred and division as majority groups fear being replaced by people who don’t look like them. There’s less global cooperation as aging, shrinking countries, or they lose the willingness and ability to think about causes outside their borders and fund those. We can’t come together on pandemics or climate change or other transboundary issues. Does any of this sound familiar?
I actually don’t think we’re fully in this world yet, even if way too much of this hits close to home. But I can imagine how we might get there if we aren’t proactive to shape the world we want.
And what kind of world would we want? Well, in a resilient world, we compete to attract talent from across the globe and set aside our nationalist tendencies. A shrinking world is in our future, but obviously some places are much closer than others. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania, fertility is still high enough that each generation is twice the size of the one before it. Those young and growing populations can be a tremendous resource for their national economies. If we have investments in human capital and other policies that can help these countries reap a demographic dividend. And they can be a resource for the global economy, too. I mean.
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Speaker, Jennifer Sciubba, TED Talk: The U.S. and Canada. They stand out as still growing despite below replacement fertility in both. And in fact, Canada had record population growth last year, 96% of which was due to immigration. Those aren’t the only models for immigration, and there are obvious trade-offs to opening your borders. But no one said this would be easy.
And speaking of things not being easy, we’re going to have to work longer. Me too. You too. And that’s because in nearly half of economies that the OECD tracks, fewer than 10% of people over the age of 65 still work. That is not going to fly in a resilient world. But in a resilient world, we’ve re-thought what work looks like at older ages, and we strategically leverage technology to maximize our productivity. And we can work longer because we’re healthier in a resilient world. We finally realized that investing in health is a much better use of time and resources than trying to dictate population size.
Similarly, in a resilient world, we’ve put in place policies, incentives and technologies that recognize how we consume is just as important as how many of us consume. And the environment is healing. In a resilient world, those societies closer to the start of this demographic transition take advantage of the time to plan and institute sustainable systems in the face of their demographic change. This is important because for the population ages 60 plus to go from 15% of the total to 30%.
It’ll take Ireland 92 years, the United Kingdom 89 years, and Germany 70 years for that same demographic shift to happen. Now, it’ll take India 34 years. Mexico 32. Iran 20. And Thailand only 19. It’s happening faster now. We really need to realize this because those countries have to act, including suites of policies like moving away from informal economies that increase the risk of poverty in older ages.
You know, there are so many people on the planet right now, just between the ages of 65 and 74, that altogether they’d be the third most populous country in the world. There’s far more of them than there are global migrants, which we don’t hear about. Right. And there’ll be 800 million of them by the middle of this century. They’re a vast untapped resource in most places in the world right now, but a well-utilized one in a resilient world and to mutual benefit.
We should run from a fearful world and get our heads out of the sand, and we should be able to imagine a much better, more resilient world. I’ve always thought that the way we feel about population aging to a large extent reflects the really negative way we feel about our individual aging. And that bias has held us back. But just as with our own aging, this shift is inevitable.
So, what are we going to do about it? As individuals, we know that our actions now set us up to live longer, healthier, more financially secure lives. Our society’s actions set us up for one of these three worlds to become our reality. Let’s make it a resilient world and reimagine a grayer, smaller world as a beautiful one. Thank you.
Speaker, Diana Elliott: That was terrific and incredibly thought provoking. Jennifer, um, so you’ve presented ideas here that few of us have begun to grapple with. So I’m curious, what’s been the reaction so far to your talk?
Speaker, Jennier Sciubba: You know, it’s it has surprised me how it hit half a million views last night, which, if you are most of the everyone on here probably loves population, and you know that we don’t have the hot topic. This is especially—think about what’s happened in the world, this is in under two weeks and what has happened in the last two weeks, which is just unbelievable.
I think it touched a nerve. I think it touched a nerve. And the same motivation that I had for giving that message, to really draw attention to how much trends have changed people, some people do not want to hear it. And, you know, I have a lot of thoughts about why that is the case, but it just shows me that we have so much more work to do at the very basics, which I hope that we will all be motivated to do, so that we can then get that resilient narrative going even more.
But I’ve had lots of support and I would say the industries, there are some industries that figured this out a long time ago, a lot in the housing industries, retirement planning, obviously, and I’ve heard from a lot of those folks who are grateful to have a different kind of person, someone outside their industry, sharing this message to bring more attention to that. And by the way, you know, sorry to everyone about the the blip [the advertisement interruption] in the middle. TED is great, but they won’t give you your own file. I’m sure that surprises no one. So we have to use the online version.
Speaker, Diana Elliott: Yes, and special thanks to Raquel behind the scenes who made that show flawlessly. So, thank you. Um, excellent. So now let’s turn to our panel discussion.
I’d like to welcome all of our panelists to turn on their cameras and a reminder to the audience that you can submit questions to the panel at any time using the Q&A feature. So, we’re thrilled today to be joined by panelists Binta Zahara Sakor and Rebecca Shamash. So Binta Zahara Sakor is a doctoral researcher at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, or PRIO, and a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Center for African Studies. Her key research areas include political and economic development of sub-Saharan Africa, demography, youth bulges, and gender and conflict in West Africa and the Sahel. Zahara holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a master’s degree in conflict resolution from University of Essex, United Kingdom.
Rebecca Shamash is a research director at ITF [Institute for the Future], where she helps lead the Equitable Enterprise Initiative, addressing issues such as economic inequality, corporate responsibility, higher education, philanthropy and inequities of race and gender. Before joining Institute for the future, Rebecca was associate director of research at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. She has a Ph.D. in education from the University of Minnesota and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and Italian from the University of Southern California.
Thank you all so much for joining us today. We’re just delighted to have you all here. So first, you know, I’m just going to open this question up to everyone to respond to as you would like to jump in. Jen’s TED Talk concludes with a call for a reimagined and resilient world in light of a slower growing and aging population. What’s your vision of a resilient world?
Speaker, Rebecca Shamash: I’m happy to jump in and thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here. And was they found your talk so thought provoking, Jen. So happy to get to discuss it. But you know, at ITF we do a lot of scenario planning and thinking boldly and provocatively about the future. And when I was listening to you in my head, I was thinking, there are just so many opportunities to make a more equitable and prosperous future, given the changes that we’re seeing, even if they can be construed as largely negative or challenging.
First, I think about how we could reimagine economic systems, maybe around values like cooperation instead of competition. Like, what if we could get rid of these fierce narratives of competition, even around things like immigration, for example? Um, you know, there’s been a lot of talk that neoliberalism as a paradigm is kind of on the way out. So what might replace that? That would give us a better chance at widespread prosperity from an economic perspective.
And Jen, you mentioned that production and consumption are going to need to change. And so if we could really rethink those in a context where we have half as many mouths to feed and bodies to clothe and houses to build, um, how could we support a greener future in that way? I feel like there are opportunities there to really support, you know, the green movement and to address a lot of the environmental issues that we’re facing together. Um, I think that my version of a resilient world would also include a lot more public assets and shared resources. And I’m thinking also about the technological boom that we’re witnessing right now and artificial intelligence.
And of course, we don’t know how that’s going to play out or what it might do, but there is really a chance that this leads to massive productivity gains. And if that was something that we could harness to really set ourselves up for this future world, if we could start really thinking about the types of work that we’re going to need to be doing, the types of resources that we’re going to collectively need, how could we use this technology to get us there a little bit faster, and to help us create more comfortable lives in the future? And I think having some of those assets be public or communal is going to be really important to that.
And then I’ll throw in one more thing: But I think if we have, you know, fewer babies being born, it’s going to mean that we’re having fewer start smaller families and different types of family structures and kin networks and care networks. And so I think a resilient world is going to have to offer us better ways of taking care of each other and really more mutualistic relationships with each other. And so I think there are opportunities for inequality there, but also, really, opportunities for us to rethink how we care for one another and how we care for families. Um, yeah, I’ll stop there.
Speaker, Bintu Zahara Sakor: First of all, thank you so much, Jen, for the presentation. I really enjoyed the TED Talk, and I learned a lot ,actually, from it. And I’ll also just to jump in, I think in regards to like the aging society, I think you really touch upon very key factors which include, for example, nations putting aside a nationalistic tendency in order to embrace migration and what migration can do for us. I think this is very important and also the aspect of technological advancement and how this can really enhance our productivity.
In regards to the resilient world that you ask, Diana, I think I would like to focus more on the younger society, which again, Jen, you really touch upon. And I think for me, when I think of a resilient world in the context of a younger society, particularly in the context of the Global South, more precisely sub-Saharan Africa, what I’m envisioning is a world where intergenerational cohesion is fostered together with transfer of knowledge.
So what do I mean with that? I mean that we leverage on the youth demography in order to achieve economic development, but also innovations through investment in rightful human capital development and skill development. At the same time, we also foster an environment, an environment where the elderly population feel somehow a part of the community. You know, that they appreciated that they, ah, the contribution is still seen regardless of the age. And in that process, I also think that, um, another part of that in the context of the younger society is reducing economic vulnerabilities. So providing jobs so that most of these youth population actually have a sense of belonging. And there’s a source income or stability in terms of income. And I think this does not only reduce recruitment into armed groups, but it also mitigate potential for conflict in this society.
And last but not least, in context of, I think, Jen, you mentioned something about this, but in the context of what’s happening in the world now, for me, a resilient world is a world of really foster peacebuilding and also conflict resolution as a world of really emphasis on not just. I don’t know, ah, mitigating conflict, but also putting in place where we have preventions, you know, taking places and that in post-conflict society we provide infrastructure that makes it so that the peace is sustainable and it’s a positive and that conflict does not reoccur. So for me, it’s really about a world that we appreciate and value and nurture each stage of the life, you know? So, I think that would be my argument in regards to.
Speaker, Jennifer Sciubba: Those are such great points. I think, you know, what a what a shame to think that with dwindling resources and stress, that how conflict just makes all of that so much worse and gives no good outcome because you just end up in these cycles. I think for me, a resilient world, and that’s what my, my research and next book project, of course, grows out of this. And a lot of it has to do with things that Rebecca mentioned. So how do we have this paradigmatic shift?
So if we can get people to buy into the fact that for most of the world, the trends have changed, then what? And so how do we reimagine that? And so, I think about how do we scale down? And that’s really the phrase that I have latched onto, that it’s something between infinite growth and collapse. I think there’s a lot in the middle there. And that is this intentional scaling down. And so many of the things that that Rebecca mentioned would be part of that.
But as Zahara mentioned as well, there are going to be people who really resist a paradigmatic shift. And that’s where we could end up with a lot of this intergenerational conflict, because it is the younger folks who will have to do most of the changing. And that’s, that’s where we have the real policy challenges to overcome.
Speaker, Rebecca Shamash: I’m just going to throw in. I loved the point about offering opportunities to young people and my work is us focused. So pardon me for not having a better global perspective, but in the U.S., we’ve seen such huge wealth transfers from young to old over the last several decades.
And so how can we use this as an opportunity to offer kind of dignity and belonging to older people who are often kind of cast out from social spaces in society, but also to offer more opportunity and perhaps even wealth building opportunities to younger people, particularly as they’re starting families?
Speaker, Diana Elliott: This is all great. I think one of the themes that we touched upon each, you know, as you each spoke, was this question about inequality, whether that’s wealth transfers, whether that’s between countries, whether that’s young and old. Um, you know, I think one of the things that Jen raises a little bit in this conversation, but I’ll pull out here, is that there are places in the world where population growth is still rapid.
So how do we address the needs of youthful, growing countries amidst wealthy and powerful countries confronting different challenges, moving in the different in a different direction? And I don’t know if you all want to chime in on sort of the, the global inequalities here.
Speaker, Bintu Zahara Sakor: I think I can jump in here. This is one of my [inaudible]. Um, I think for me, um, in regards to the aging part generally, Jen, I think that there’s no need to cover that because she talks about investment in health care, elderly infrastructure so that the, the aging population feels supported. Right. So again, because my research focuses on the youthful society, so I think I will bring more into aspect about that.
So for me, I think in order to ensure this transition, the smooth transition, so when we talk about transition we’re talking about policy. So what policy do we need to put in place in order to ensure that, you know, the gap is reduced? So I think in the context of many sub-Saharan African youthful society, which are predominantly in the Global South, I think there’s a need to really think about a holistic approach, not only in terms of access, um, accelerating the potential realization of social, political, economic, but also the gender dividend.
So what I mean with this, is if you look at the social, I mean, the economic aspect, we will be really focusing on investing really in human capital, the rightful human capital, you know, so that they can achieve this kind of dividends, right? And think again, like I said, it has something to do with education, because in many part of this, in this society, youthful society, many of the education is actually outdated. So there’s a gap between the education system and what the labor market’s needs are. So which, you know, many of the youth are left, youth population are left in between this thing where they don’t know what to do with this themselves. And this creates a kind of like frustration and grievances and the feeling of being neglected, you know, by the state. And I think in order to change that, we also have to think about inclusive economic growth, right?
So what this means is that half of the world population is women. And they really are not considered in some part of the world, right? So I think involving them in economic development, both in improving the access to reproductive health, but also education, but most importantly, involving them in labor market is very, very important. Like recently the, the Nobel Peace Prize in regards to the economy went to Claudia [Goldin], right? So this really touched upon the importance of really providing infrastructure that really cares and take into account the need of the marginalized population in the society.
And last but not least, just briefly, I think it has something to do with political inclusion. So if you look at part of the world where there is a youthful society and the aging society, you also see a gap in terms of political direction they taken. So many parts of the world in terms of the aging society, usually consolidated democracy, and in some part of the world with the youthful population, mainly youth population, you see a backsliding of democracy, right?
So how do we ensure that the transition towards, uh, democracy and liberal values are taking place? So, in order to achieve this, there has to be some kind of economic development achieved at the same time as there’s a sense that they have education. You cannot participate in voting if you don’t know what you’re voting for. So I think like this, all these things are very interlinked in some way. So, Jennifer, you could jump in, yeah.
Speaker, Jennifer Sciubba: Yes, I think I would, I would love to be able to give a positive view to this, to say, oh, here are the things that we can do to fix this. But I do think this is one of our biggest challenges. And, you know, I could only fit one phrase in the talk because of time constraints. But I have a big worry that divergent demographic experiences around the world will translate to divergent priorities. And that’s how I actually framed my book that came out last year, which is to look at this demographic divide.
I think that it’s really problematic because, you know, there’s a sense that we’re so zoomed out that we just say, well, our main problem of now, in the future, is aging in this set of countries. And the main problem and, you can’t see my air quotes, but I’m doing air quotes here because, you know, it’s what you do with your demography that matters not, not a problematic in and of itself. The main problem for the lower-income countries is youthful populations. But it’s the case that in every youthful population there are lots of older people, and in older societies there are lots of young people as well. So I think perhaps being able to zoom in a little bit more once we check the box on zooming out and saying, okay, we’re buying that there’s big overall issues here, but understanding that all of these people exist within a society and within every society globally can make a difference.
And there are some great organizations out there, I think the social movements realm would be one. So, you know, let’s go nongovernmental here and think about what nonprofits, international NGOs, can do in order to show commonality of interest, like HelpAge [International], for example, is an organization that operates worldwide and looks at the commonality of experiences of seniors across the globe. I mean, those types of things I think can, can make a difference, but I think really it is one of our biggest challenges to try to overcome this, particularly as countries perhaps turn more inward and don’t think about cooperation on the global scale. So I think we have a real mountain to climb with this one.
Speaker, Diana Elliott: Rebecca?
Speaker, Rebecca Shamash: Yeah, I’m sure I can hop into, you know, one of the topics that we’re thinking of or we’re working on a lot at ITF, is the future of belonging and how people identify how they, other people, how people draw boundaries around their social groups. And, you know, Zahara is talking about the policy needs around this topic. And I’m thinking that there also is cultural change that’s going to need to take place or hopefully will take place. And of course, this is the million-dollar question, because how do you get people to write, like bring more people into their collective?
We, and I don’t have an answer for that, but I think that if this is going to happen successfully, like we collectively might need to reconceptualize how we think about who we are and who counts as our kind of in groups. And hopefully that’s a very big group at some point. Um, I think again, potentially, if this new technology wave and artificial intelligence really, really grows, that might offer us an opportunity to think about human progress really broadly in a way that maybe would offer opportunities for breaking down barriers or could do the opposite.
And I also wonder, you know, as families, again, get smaller and communities start shrinking, what does that mean for certain types of nationalism or ethnic identities, and how will that shape us? And so, um, yeah, I guess I would, I would be hopeful for some new type of, of identifying and of, of thinking about what groups we belong to. But I think that would also be a place where we’d see a lot of conflict.
Speaker, Diana Elliott: Yeah, I think you’re each touching upon a piece that I’d like to draw out a little bit more. And, Zahara, you pull this out specifically, but gender equality is one of those big questions. I think that is a little bit unanswered about what this resilient world looks like.
You know, one of the things that I am always surprised by when I look at the data is that women’s labor force participation, no matter what country you’re in, is never on par with men’s labor force participation. It feels like there’s a lot of untapped potential. Some of that is because of how we think about caregiving. Some of that is how we think about roles. And these roles are sort of across many, many countries. I wonder if you could each respond to the promises and risks of a greater, smaller world for gender equity specifically?
Speaker, Jennifer Sciubba: Yeah. I can go first this time. It’s, I think, one of the biggest risks is when we continue to frame population as something that women are responsible for. And, you know, it has to do with, partly with how we measure our data, if we’re looking at fertility rates. Well, it’s the average number of children expected to be born to a woman in her lifetime. So, it is not a far step to then say women are having too few babies. They’re having too many babies. I’ve described this before as Goldilocks and her porridge. It’s never the right number of children, you know. And so I, in many audiences it comes down to why aren’t women doing what they’re supposed to do in order to have whatever that person sees as a sustainable population, which could be all over the place?
And so I think it’s really important to shift the narrative away from that, because really, in every society we know that, let’s say, in a low fertility society, men’s preferences for marriage and childbearing have changed just alongside women’s preferences there. But I think women’s experiences really are valuable. So at the same time, we don’t want to put blame on women for too many or too few, women’s experiences do, in fact, drive our demographic patterns, and they are a key to our resilient future.
So, the same as we might think about a very high-fertility society is one where typically women do not have the opportunities for education and work outside the home that women in lower-fertility societies have. I think we can also use super-low fertility as an indicator that, perhaps, women do not have a full set of choices available to them. I think that that’s where we’re going to see some of our research going, and some of the people on this call today are doing research in this area, and I would really like to see more on the super-low fertility side—not trying to raise super low fertility, but to think about what those experiences are like for women in terms of caregiving and the workforce that have had the indicator show up as super-low fertility, because I think particularly on that caregiving and workforce part, those are things that, you know, making—
It’s only going to become more intense as the workforce numbers shrink and as the care burden for older people gets greater. So we have to understand that better now in order to make the experiences of women richer, more fulfilling, and more prosperous.
And then in the end, the byproduct could be higher fertility. But that would not be the point. The point would be for better lives. And I really think there’s a lot that can be done in research and policy in that area.
Speaker, Bintu Zahara Sakor: Rebecca, you want to go? Okay.
Speaker, Rebecca Shamash: Yeah, sure, I’m happy to. I mean, I’m still stuck on this care piece, I think. And, and, you know, if we, if we imagine that care, the care crisis is just going to get worse. And many of the people working in that field are going to be women, I think it’s going to be really imperative that we redesign work, you know, in a particular way and ideally find a way to value and remunerate care, work much better, create positions that are more dignified, pay. That’s better. Maybe that’s through government subsidies. Something else, taking out middlemen, for example, in health care structures to get more money to workers.
But I think we’re going to have to figure out a way to increase the assets and dignity of the less wealthy people working in these care sectors. Um, and then, you know, I also think about the ways that work is kind of unevenly distributed in the United States, for example, even if we have relatively low labor force participation rates for women, women of color work at much higher rates because they have to work outside of the house, because they aren’t living in situations where they can rely on, you know, a single income.
And so, I also think it’s important, as we think about how this is going to impact women, to think about who, you know, has to be working and in what types of roles, and that’s going to look really different depending on people’s race and economic status.
Speaker, Bintu Zahara Sakor: I think I would just briefly mention, because Jen, you talked about blame, right? So when we talk about the aspect of blame, sometimes a lot of blame are put on women in the developing countries, right? Because of lack of education, they produce more babies. This is the reason, which is a narrative that is very raw. Right? First of all, that’s my opinion. But I think in regards to what you mentioned, in terms of how around the world we are seeing this, regardless of which country it is, we’re seeing that women’s participation in the workforce is still it’s still not at supposed to be right. And I think the main issue still, even in the developed country, what we’re seeing is the gender gap, right?
So the pay gap and all these things are factors that are still not being addressed regardless, right? And then in the, most of the developing countries, what you we need to think in terms of the sectors. So many women are actually contributing in many African societies, women are like the backbone of families and they are the most contributors, right? But they’re mainly contributing in the informal sector, right. And sometimes this is not often translated as because when we think economic development, we’re thinking about the formal sector, not the informal sector, right, where women are merely contributing.
So I think it’s about how do we bridge this gap? Because women are contributing, but they don’t contribute as what people expect them or where they expect them to contribute. So how do we bridge this gap? And I think this is a question that many countries are still struggling, because gender relations and how we define femininity and masculinity, still define people. And in this world, we really are facing with issues of, it’s not an issue, it’s actually something we should embrace more. It’s intersectionality.
Many women are not just a woman. We more than a woman. We, you know, our ethnic background can matter. The race, you know, our religion, everything. So how do we find a world or create a resilient world? I can mention that we embrace this and this inclusiveness of what women bring on table, both in the forms of labor market, but also in other aspects of the society, you know. So, yeah.
Speaker, Diana Elliott: Thank you. I’m delighted to say we have some really great questions coming in from the audience. One, you know, this is a theme that seems to be running through a couple of the questions is that, you know, there’s an assumption that people will happily work beyond the age of 65, let’s say, or that that, for example, I mean, we know for a fact that discrimination exists for older workers, that disabilities become more prevalent as older as workers age.
So there’s, there’s factors that also put a limit on people’s ability to work beyond age 65, whether that’s, you know, workplace discrimination policies or, you know, health issues, for example. So, you know, in response to the audience questions about this, you know, one of them is, is, for example, I notice the panelists are making statements that assume what the population 65 and older wants. Have you any of you conducted a study to ask this demographic group ages 65 and older, what they want? And let’s frame this in terms of work.
And another question is, what are some global best practices or recommendations that support working beyond age 65? I’ll let you kind of take this topic in the direction you would like to, and I’ll open it up to you about sort of this question about working beyond the age of 65.
Speaker, Jennifer Sciubba: I have tons to say on this. So, Rebecca, if you do, you want to jump in, go ahead.
Speaker, Rebecca Shamash: Why don’t you jump in?
Speaker, Jennifer Sciubba: I think there is, there’s so much that can be done. And so let me simply say that. It’s a narrow way of us to think. It’s narrow thinking to say, okay, everyone after 65 has to work. The same as it’s narrow thinking to say every country has to open their borders completely to immigration. I think those are the same types of thoughts.
Instead, I tend to think about it as this menu—I need to come up with a better, you know, analogy here—but there’s a menu of choices that aging countries have to make themselves more resilient. But then within, one of the, on the menu can be immigration, on the menu can be extending working lives. But within extending working lives is a menu itself. There are so many policy levers there.
And so yes, we do know that in many contexts people want to work longer than 65, and in fact, in many places they do. We think about the average age of exit from the workforce, what we call the effective retirement age, is about 71 years in South Korea. And in Japan it is higher than official retirement age. Whereas in some, you know, maybe Southern European context, it is lower than official retirement age. And so that differs around the world. And, of course, it differs by individual as well.
So let’s take those folks who do want to work longer. And then let’s take the, what are the policy levers we have there. Diana, you mentioned age discrimination. There are so many legal things that can be done to change age discrimination. So that would be one policy lever, allow the people who want to work longer to work longer.
But these do not all have to be government-based policies. I think a lot where, in fact, that’s the place where we’re going to see the most innovation is in the private sector. Over the coming decades, where companies are realizing that people who are ending, coming closer to their working lives, would like to stay involved somehow. Because there’s lots of research to show that it’s great for you cognitively and physically in terms of health, to stay active and working, but they don’t necessarily want to work at the same pace or in the same role as in the past. So companies are making more flexible pathways for those older workers to stay on as consultants or part time in different kinds of roles with the company so that they can continue to be a resource, but in a way that’s mutually that benefits the individuals as well.
So there is a lot that can be done. I can kind of go on and on with this, but there are also many things that need to happen in terms of re-skilling, education, retraining. There’s a report that came out from the OECD on Monday that I’ll put in my newsletter for next week that talks a lot about what older workers need to do and what companies need to do to make sure that older people can be a continued economic resource for themselves and for the company. We don’t have to just be instrumental here.
But, you know, there’s also an element of, of choice here because, you know, I don’t get full Social Security, Social Security benefits at 65. I have to work into my 70s. So it’s already shifted. And I’m not sure a lot of older people realize that the bar moved for younger people as well. And I don’t even know if you, depends on how old you are, if you consider me younger or not, but those folks even younger than me, the bar shifted even more for them, at least for my generation. I’m still Gen X. We were able to, to build some household wealth. We were able to purchase homes, etcetera, whereas for younger Millennials that has not been the case.
Speaker, Rebecca Shamash: And I might hop in here too. And Jen, you mentioned in your talk briefly, and I don’t think you had a lot of time for it, that work was going to look different in the future, and I’d love to also hear how you’re thinking that it would look different.
But, you know, over the last couple of years since COVID started, work for many people, office workers in particular, has changed dramatically in ways that we could not have really imagined a couple of years prior. And so I think if we’re looking on a time horizon of 10 to 20 years, there’s also, like, there’s a very good chance that work is going to be something very different than work is today. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re working 40, 50, 60 hours, you know, just trying to stay alive in jobs for, you know, 60 years or something like that. We hopefully will have, you know, technologies that allow us to be more productive in certain ways.
I also read a paper recently that I thought was super interesting, that said that we were distributing work across the life course, problematically, and that people, when they’re, like, in the stage of having children, for example, or have young families, shouldn’t actually be working full time. They should be doing more care work for their children and out of the labor force, and then maybe working more when they’re older. So I think there’s also opportunities to rethink how we work throughout the life course, potentially, in addition to just focusing on longer work at the end.
Speaker, Jennifer Sciubba: They think to bring the gender part into there as well. You know, for for many women that may want to pull back from the labor force when children are younger and then can’t get back into it when they’re older because of entrenched discrimination. So there’s and other issues.
Speaker, Bintu Zahara Sakor: I think that there’s no need for me to add extensively about this, because I think Jen really covered that, but I just wanted to highlight that also, what we define as work depend on the cultural context, right? So in some context that means like going to work 9 to 5 or it means to, you know, it means different thing for people.
So I think for many societies, like I would just give an example of my own upbringing in, in Africa, in many African society, the elderly in terms of the wisdom is really tapped into because they don’t only have like, um, I guess, expertise in certain areas or knowledge and experience, but they also guide, you know? And I think this is something that in some culture has really, this has been missed. We think that the work, you know, elderly has to go to work like they did, they did before. But I think that they can contribute to the society in different ways through culture, through norm settings.
I think these are factors that really we should also think about or not, and not just in terms of, like, the physical aspect of the work, you know, but other factors related to that. So, I think, yeah.
Speaker, Diana Elliott: That’s great. One of the things that you touched upon earlier, Zahara, is sort of this intergenerational exchange of information. And there’s really fantastic examples, like, I’m thinking of, for example, in the apprenticeship space of how older workers train younger workers, and it provides this really great exchange of knowledge and how if we had more of those processes formalized, we could sort of have important roles across the gender or, the age divide, I should say.
One of the questions I really want to get to, I think we have two more important areas, but I’m going to tackle this one. First, it’s really about policies. We got a great question from the audience saying, how can governmental policies for older persons of color in first world and developing countries help promote intergenerational cooperation, values, and not competition? Um, and you can think about policies generally sort of across, I would say, maybe not restricted necessarily to government policies. Jen, as you suggested earlier. Sometimes these are going to be from the private sector as well, some of these policy shifts.
So I don’t know if you want to speak to this question of policies and creating more, for example, equity, in in how we promote cooperation and not competition.
Speaker, Jennifer Sciubba: That is a really tough one because and, to that question, that it’s, I think, somewhat of a companion of this one that said, do older people even want to work longer? You know, not everyone does. So I’ll actually, I was optimistic on that last answer. But let’s talk about that segment that maybe does not necessarily want to work longer. And what I mean here is that, you know, for some groups they may have they may not have the skills to be employed at older ages, and that is something that they might have lacked because of systemic discrimination. You know, they were maybe set up in their 20s to already be behind the curve here.
We know that health issues, again, because of systemic discrimination or being excluded from health infrastructure, can make a difference. There’s work out of AARP that looks at older persons of color in the United States, and how the health outcomes, life expectancy, health span are far lower, I mean by a decade in some cases than they are for other communities. And so, it is, we have to be careful when we say—it depends on how much time you have—to say, hey, everyone needs to work longer. But then when you have more time and more nuance to put in there, you can, you have to open up to say, not everyone can work longer because of health or because of skilling and experiences. And so I think there is a danger that blanket policies that force everyone into the same outcome can actually exacerbate discrimination for some groups. And so there has to be nuance in our policymaking.
And I know there’s a question from Geoff Dabelko. It’s the hardest question, Geoff, which is it’s not even fair that he asks in this chat, which is how do you overcome the silos? Our policymaking is often not nuanced, and it’s in part because of the way our—I’m a political scientist. I know it’s, it’s how our institutions are set up. But making sure that voices are continued to be represented in politics, that point out that not everyone’s experience is the same at older ages, is incredibly important.
And I think that continuing to involve NGOs and policymaking is one important part of that. And that includes representatives from older groups, representatives from younger groups, representatives from different, depending on what country we’re in, different ethnic groups or religious groups. But more inclusive voices at the table will hopefully help us get more inclusive policies, but it is a real challenge.
Speaker, Diana Elliott: I want to interject actually here at this moment, because a really great question came in about how do we improve demographic literacy among policymakers and others. And I don’t know if you all have, like, uh, running down the time really quickly. I knew this would be a wonderful conversation. Too short. Um, I wonder if you can respond in sort of a lightning round way about what’s, what’s one quick way we could improve demographic literacy among policymakers?
Speaker, Bintu Zahara Sakor: I think I will jump in here. I think, first of all, we need to really think about how our education systems in general are, right? So I think policymakers come from education systems. So, I think creating a system that really, not only in terms of the aging population, which is in general population, and the multi complexity of different populations are really incorporated in various education systems. Right.
So, speaking of our policymakers, I think one of the things is like demography is often represented as a very negative thing, you know, and I think that the emphasis is often on in terms of demography, the migration aspect, right. So migration is bad, it leads to terrorism and all these things. So I think it’s really to, to, to help not only in terms of the research we scholars can do in terms of putting it out there, but also what the NGOs does in various settings to really highlight that demography, like our future, depends on our capability of adapting and also being more inclusive. Right? So whether that’s in terms of policy development or in regards to population or maybe in terms of labor market, right?
So I think that really we need to also think about what we as a scholar and also as a civil society can do to really help many of these policymakers. Because a lot of times they come from specific background that is very narrow, you know, and they don’t think outside the box that, you know, they’ve been educated in. So, like, uh, really change in the education system, but also various aspects that we ourselves can do in order to help them.
Speaker, Diana Elliott: Any other quick takes because have one more question I really want to ask that will also be will say.
Speaker, Jennifer Sciubba: What we can do for demographic literacy is people should pay attention to PPB, that’s for sure, because they you know, while why do I love and have been involved for years, it’s a non-alarmist group that focuses on data and evidence. And I think, you know, amplifying more of these voices that are, do not have a political agenda and are not alarmist is the way to go. And then, you know, in addition to that could by 8 Billion and Counting, my book. But go to PRB!
Speaker, Diana Elliott: Well done, Jen. Final again. Lightning-round question with two minutes left. Does anyone want to talk about—this is too big for two minutes—the intersection of climate and climate change and longevity. This person asks, would you see similarities between the characteristics of aging societies and societies that have had to adapt for climate change? How do we unpack how progressive aging policy would support climate change mitigation as well as adaptation?
Too big a question for one minute left now, but if anyone has like a quick answer, that would be terrific. Rebecca, I know that you had talked a little bit about this earlier.
Speaker, Rebecca Shamash: A little bit, I mean, yeah. Oh, gosh. In relation to aging specifically, I don’t know. I hope this isn’t the wrong direction. But one thing we think a lot about is migration in relation to climate and what that’s going to look like. And so, if there are also concerns about needing young people in the workforce or needing more people in the workforce, and that might change the conversation really significantly on immigration. And then, just like Jen said, consumption is going to need to change in some ways. But how that relates specifically to aging, I don’t know that I can speak to.
Speaker, Jennifer Sciubba: Yeah, I think that number one, we can borrow the language from climate change and think about adaptation and resilience. And that’s one of the things that I keep trying to do. But absolutely, we can think through how the scaled down world might actually have mutual benefit for our increasingly aged society, but for the environment as well. Because I think the one danger in thinking, and I’ve seen this a lot in comments on my TED Talk, is that people say, oh, a smaller world. Great, our environmental problems are solved.
But we know, of course, that that is not how it works because of that little factor about consumption there. And so, I think we have to, we actually can’t analytically separate our environmental stresses and our aging world because they go together.
Speaker, Diana Elliott: Zahara, you get the last opportunity. We’re over time.
Speaker, Bintu Zahara Sakor: This is such a big question! I don’t know where to start. Why would you say like, I think, Jen and Rebecca really highlighted the main thing here. This is really not my expertise. But what I will say is, I think in order to even talk about the issues of climate change, there’s a big gap between the Global North and the Global South. Right?
So how do we really just foster a genuine collaboration, but also an equal part, right, in order to just not only address the climate issues and, but also the demographic issues that is connected to the climate change and the consumptions that Jen mentioned. So, yeah, it’s too broad.
Speaker, Jennifer Sciubba: And I’m hoping we can get to some of these great questions, maybe in some products or, you know, blog posts and such. So we will we’ll save these questions. Thank you all for asking them. They’re really thought provoking.
Speaker, Diana Elliott: Yeah, they were terrific questions. And we knew that this would be tight doing this within an hour. But it was really, really wonderful. And we thank everyone so much in the audience for, for staying, for asking really great questions. And we know that you’re all engaged behind the scenes, and we’d like to engage further on these topics. So with that, I want to thank our panel so much for their thoughtful contributions. Again, to you as our audience for joining us today.
We hope you’ve all learned something new or thought maybe a little bit differently about, about these topic areas. And if you’ve enjoyed today’s conversation, consider donating to PRB.org\donate so we can continue to offer high-quality events and content like the one you enjoyed today.
So with that, thank you all and enjoy the rest of your day.
Speaker, Jennifer Sciubba: Thank you.