"Age" may mean everything in the modern materialistic world. Beginning with the job we land to the support we will need as a senior citizen, "age" may be exerting a hitherto less-analysed dimension of the rise and decline of countries. Even though any rise-decline explanation intuitively invokes the aging process, somehow relative military power or economic competition invariably steals the headlines. Even though the 20th Century will go down in history as the most welfare-friendly moment, the explosive 21st Century welfare demands clearly outstrip the resources at hand and delivery capacities available. Somehow, since these two narratives have not spoken to each other, the "age" factor might drive them into that conversation sooner rather than later.
Given past patterns, by mid-21st Century, the population age of countries all across this world will be 11-odd years older. In a bulk of them, the least developed countries (LDCs), the population-age will climb from 24.3 years in 2000 to an average of 35 by 2050, while in their better endowed developed counterparts (DCs), the corresponding increase will be from 37.4 years to between 46 and 47. Several obvious implications can be drawn simply from those sparse figures, and especially for Bangladesh whose average population age will approach 40 years in 2050, when the population growth-rate will fall significantly below the replacement level (of 2) to about 1.67, while the population itself will have just crossed the 200 million mark.
For a start, in osmotic fashion, production centres (as in manufacturing) will continue shifting from areas of higher concentration to lower, that is, from DC to LDC locations, in the absence of interventionist policies. Relative LDC poverty will only accelerate this shift owing to the availabilities of lower wages. Interventionist policies will only complicate the population burden, as the story below conveys.
That story begins with the tectonic changes currently underway between these countries. The rise of China and India into the upper echelon, and Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Vietnam, among others, into the middle, was as inevitable as the emergence of a Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and Donald J. Trump in the United States, signalling the accumulating stress upon another country segment within the upper-echelon bracket. Whereas the advent of a neoliberal political economy in the 1990s only intensified this upward LDC shift in spite of major hiccups, like 9/11 and the 2008-10 Great Recession, the sun has hardly dimmed on this upward flow (like it has for the downward movement): the LDC upward movement could peak anytime between now and 2050, given comparative age-breakdown profiles. Bangladesh's US$50-billion RMG (ready-made garment) export target, for example, relies on calculations such as this.
Another consideration is that a welfare crisis would be hard to avoid in both groups, whether upwardly- or downwardly-mobile. In the DC case, an already pressurised welfare system is set to face even greater demands than ever before. Unlike the 1930s, when technological changes catalysed urban migration and began dismantling trade barriers, thus making it feasible for the government to launch a broad array of welfare provisions, today, in addition to similar technological changes altering the socio-economic-political landscape (a) the average country-specific age is far higher than in the 1930s to sustain the same welfare provisions, let alone expand them to the bulging new demands; and (b) since a neoliberal policy-approach is the apogee of the free-trade mindset that began in the 1930s, new trading opportunities today can only be fewer and farther in between to serve as a catalyst since there are many more competitors than in the 1930s, thus exposing why second-best interventionist policies and region-based bandwagon preferences remain popular.
In the LDC case, as was generally true of the DC case during the 1930s, monumental welfare-adopting initiatives will become increasingly overdue since they are themselves so deficient in this regard. Every climb in any country's average population-age hastens the rendezvous with that formidable destiny: since it takes the income of three working people to finance a pensioner, for example, any boom in production sets up the potential welfare springboard that countries utilise only when pushed to, as by economic crises. Because of this welfare-crisis relationship, today's LDC officials might be better-off by diverting accumulating export/investment incomes to some welfare fund to avoid being trapped in the immediate future amid a very unpredictable economic climate. Without at least one foot in that direction by mid-century, it may be too late to do so since the demographic ghost and economic murkiness will lurk more ominously.
Under those circumstances, banking on artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to bail DCs out of this quagmire or LDCs to free-ride upon may be like the proverbial bridge-too-far to reach. AI utility demands brain-power, but even the brain has a deterministic relationship with age. Since we are born with a fixed number of brain-cells, these obviously do not grow with education or other enlightening experiences. They must be cultivated, and the tutoring is most in any child's first three-odd years (by virtue of the virgin imprints made). As we grow older, the nature and extent of our tutoring generates both our knowledge and biases, but the brain-cells constantly face attrition (for example, alcohol consumption kills them). The result is that by the time we are in our mid-age, we get too "set" to change, meaning that, though we can cultivate AI knowledge, getting in the driver's seat will mean a steeper climb, thus postponing/thwarting innovative capacities. The tendency of job-recruiters to seek younger employees further compounds the brewing demographic horrors, particularly for older DC adults now, but also flashing a warning signal to today's consumption-plagued younger LDC adults.
What do all of those mean for Bangladesh? Our average population age today is slightly above the global LDC average by 2-odd years. Indeed, that age has climbed almost 9 years, from 17.7 years in 1970 to 26.3 today. That we are also living longer, in spite of the retiring age climbing to 65 (meaning more money can be put in the pension kitty or welfare fund, if we so desire), we still do not have the basic welfare provisions, like healthcare, social security, and pension outside of governmental jobs. Since about 100 million of our 165 million population are between 15 and 50 currently (that is, the group whose work is vital to building a welfare fund), by 2050, we will be much closer to our welfare crisis if we do not have the appropriate infrastructure built by then: about 60 million out those 100 million are in the 25-40 year age bracket, meaning, that many more senior citizens by mid-century.
We could start by putting the relevant pieces together to keep our RMG (ready-market garments) smile forever. Today we bask in the RMG glow, but it is the other three-letter word, "age," that could become our Sword of Damocles unless we take precautionary measures now.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.