Demography and destiny: blessing or time bomb?

People are seen at a crowded market a day before the Hindu festival of Dussehra amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai, India, October 24, 2020

Demography is destiny. That ominous-sounding pronouncement, credited to French philosopher Auguste Comte, is today taken to mean that a nation's fate depends on the youthfulness of its population. For a poor country to become rich, it needs lots of young people ready to work, to support those too old or too young to work, and to pay taxes. This is called the "demographic dividend."

That's an important part of China's success story. Over the past 40 years, more than one billion people have emerged from poverty in China. Waves of young people surged from the countryside into cities to work in factories. The state invested in education, and wages helped young workers, and then their children, go to school. The state also began a drive to develop the technologies of the future, by any means necessary. In China, once dirt-poor, hundreds of millions have created a middle class.

But the world of work has changed, and that could be bad news for still-emerging countries like India, Indonesia, and Africa's largest economies. Manufacturing, central to China's boom over the past few decades, is now often performed by smart machines. New jobs for people often demand digital-age education and training that relatively few workers in poorer countries have access to.

There is also now less outsourcing of work from wealthier countries because production there depends less than in the past on low-wage workers and more on machines that don't need salaries, lunch breaks, vacation time, safety protections, pensions, and health insurance. Nor do they go on strike or test positive for COVID-19.

In short, the new world of work doesn't create as many opportunities for people with little education and training to escape poverty through hard work alone. And yet, populations of young people in many poor countries are still growing. Where will they work and how will they live?

How will the next wave of poor countries become more prosperous? Their governments and companies need to prepare young people for a new economy by investing more time, money, and energy in education, and in the training and retraining of workers for the 21st century workplace. They also need safety-net protections to help workers make this difficult transition and to protect those who fail. They also need to create many more opportunities for girls and women, because no nation will succeed while sidelining half its population.

Beyond these basics, challenges differ from country to country.

India's government knows it must do more to prepare children for the future. This is a country that produces state-of-the-art engineers and digital entrepreneurs, but India's new National Education Policy is designed to solve the problem that half of rural students in grade 5 can't read at a grade 2 level, and less than one-third can do basic division. India produces more than its share of stars; it needs entire generations of well-educated kids.

In Indonesia, already the world's fourth most populous country, the state is working to ease future demand for jobs and social services by lowering the birth rate. Its government is investing in education and tech development and training, but it's also actively promoting later marriages, family planning and contraception to flatten population growth by 2025. Success will depend not just on smart policy but on the willingness of people to live with fewer children.

The governments of Africa's 54 countries will have varying rates of success in meeting these challenges, but population growth is a shared problem. The United Nations predicts that the rate of global population growth will slow sharply over the rest of this century — but that Africa's population will surge from 1.34 billion to 4.28 billion.

Major security threats in large states like Nigeria and Ethiopia, chronic youth unemployment in South Africa, and political instability in a number of other countries undercut the ability of governments to invest in the future. They are also the kinds of problems that spill across borders into neighboring countries.

And beyond the humanitarian desire to see others succeed, it's this cross-border flow of trouble that makes this everybody's problem. A surge of young people who can't work can create the kind of turmoil that can spill from one country or region to another. Many poorer countries were already burdened with heavy debt before COVID made matters much worse. If the world's wealthier countries expect these governments to invest in the future of their young people — they'd better be prepared to collectively invest in their success.

Ken Burns discusses Muhammad Ali's background and how the journey of boxing's greatest champion is just as relevant today—in sport, culture and beyond.

"He is speaking to us with a kind of force and clarity...that to me is just so enduring." - Ken Burns

No country in the Western Hemisphere is more closely associated with disaster and misery than the Caribbean nation of Haiti. Its latest upheaval centers on news that the country's top prosecutor wants Haiti's prime minister to answer questions about the murder of the president in July. Haiti is again locked in a power struggle among competing factions within its ruling elite.

Why is Haiti still so poor and disaster-prone?

More Show less

For Michael Chertoff, former US secretary of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009, the fact that America has not experienced a single attack by foreign terrorists since 9/11 proves that the US was "successful" in its strategy to prevent terrorism. That "was not [an] accident and there was a deterrent effect to be honest — had we been lax, more would have tried." Although he admits the US government wasn't transparent enough about the intelligence it was collecting, Chertoff credits US intelligence agencies with helping to foil the plot to blow up airplanes mid-air from Heathrow to the US in 2006. The US mission in Iraq, or what came after was not clearly thought out, according to Michael Chertoff, who served as the Secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security under George W. Bush. The Iraq war made it difficult to focus on the US mission in Afghanistan and absorbed resources that could have been used more effectively elsewhere, he said.

Watch the full episode: Is America safer since 9/11?

Listen: In a frank interview on the GZERO World podcast, António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, speaks with Ian Bremmer at the UN ahead of the annual General Assembly week. Guterres discusses COVID, climate, the US-China rift, and the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, and does not mince words when it comes to the dire state of the world. "We are standing at the edge of an abyss," Guterres warns. COVID is "defeating" the global community and a climate catastrophe is all but assured without drastic action. Amidst this unprecedented peril, there remains a startling lack of trust among nations. And yet, there is still hope.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

"Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still." — Harry S. Truman

The former US president's warning feels particularly prescient as world leaders prepare to gather at the 76th United National General Assembly in New York City, the first such in-person event in over 18 months. The importance of apt leadership in determining societies' ability to cope — and survive — has been on full display since COVID-19 enveloped the globe, decimating communities and killing some 4.5 million people.

More Show less

As the 76th UN General Assembly gets underway, dealing with the pandemic is still the top priority for world leaders. But for John Frank, vice president of UN Global Affairs at Microsoft, COVID is not the only major challenge the world faces today.

One of them — included in the UN Secretary-General's new Common Agenda for strong, inclusive pandemic recovery — is a different way to measure economic growth beyond the traditional productivity-led GDP model by taking more into account the cost of pollution, one of the main causes of climate change.

More Show less

For UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the pandemic has made the world even more divided than it was before COVID. That's especially true on climate, in his view, because rich and poor countries simply don't trust each other anymore. If we want COP26 to succeed, Guterres says we must rebuild that trust — or face the consequences of inaction. "If you are on the verge of an abyss, you must be careful about your next step." Watch his interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World.

"Pandemic" was the most used word of 2020. "Delta" looks set to inherit this year's title.

Vaccination rates are ticking up slowly. Governments aren't talking to each other enough. Parts of the world are back to normal, while others are still locked down.

Have we actually made any progress since the COVID-19 outbreak?

Unfinished Business: Is the World Really Building Back Better?

Wednesday, September 22nd, 11am ET/ 8am PT

Our speakers:

Special appearance by António Guterres, UN Secretary-General.

Visit to watch on the day of the event.

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal


Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

UNGA 76: Vaccines, climate, crises


UN Chief: Still time to avert climate “abyss”

GZERO World Clips


Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal