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The National Security Implications of Global Demographic Change


John L. Helgerson

Chairman, National Intelligence Council to the

Denver World Affairs Council

 and the

Better World Campaign Denver, Colorado

April 30, 2002


I am pleased to be with you in Denver this evening to discuss the implications of global demographic change for US national security interests.  You have chosen a topic of great salience.  Trends such as aging populations, youth bulges, and migration are reshaping the world in profound and diverse ways. 

In commenting on these developments, I'll draw from a report published by the National Intelligence Council, which I chair, entitled Global Trends 2015, as well as a CIA report entitled, Long-Term Global Demographic Trends


Overall Population Trends

First, the big picture.  In the last 15 years, the rate of global population growth has fallen by more than 40 percent.[1]  Nevertheless, because of the built-in momentum of growing populations, the world in 2015 will be populated by some 7.2 billion people, up 18 percent from 6.1 billion in the year 2000. 

More than 95 percent of this increase will be found in developing countries, mostly in urban areas.



By 2015, for the first time in human history, more than half of the world’s population will be urban dwellers.  The number of people living in mega-cities—those containing more than 10 million inhabitants—will double to more than 400 million.  These mega-cities will include Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Lagos, Cairo, Karachi, Calcutta, Jakarta, Beijing, and Tokyo: all but the last in the developing world.

Historically, the rise of cities has been associated with rising national power.  But the dynamics are likely to become more complex over the next several years.  In those countries marked by good governance, access to capital markets, and attractiveness to foreign investment, urbanization will continue to boost national power.  But it will be a major challenge for many other countries.

India and China—both undergoing large-scale urbanization—will be interesting to watch.  Both nations have experienced rapid economic growth in recent years and aspire to play greater roles on the world stage.  The capacities of their governments to provide basic services to their citizens will be tested as more and more people move to cities, both large and small. 


The Aging World

Meanwhile, as you know, the world is getting older at an unprecedented rate.  In 2000, about 420 million people, or about 7 percent of the world's population, were age 65 or older.  By 2050, that number will be nearly 1.5 billion people, or about 16 percent of the world's population. 

The industrialized world will face the most immediate impact of the aging transition, with Europe and Japan experiencing larger disruptions than the United States.

As populations age and assuming that fertility rates continue to decline, our major allies can expect considerably tighter labor markets.  The size of working-age populations—defined as those people age 15 to 64—will contract: 

The ratio of taxpaying workers to nonworking citizens in the developed world will decrease.  Today, that ratio is about four to one in most industrialized nations and dropping, already straining the budgets of some countries. 

In Europe, people are living longer while average retirement ages have been dropping by about a year per decade.  Accustomed to a generous social safety net, Europeans are reluctant to change their generous pension systems and health-care benefits, which have grown dramatically. 

In the absence of major policy shifts, within two decades much of the industrialized world could find itself with increased debt or higher taxes, which could lead to slower economic growth worldwide.

Some advanced developing countries, such as South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, and other emerging market countries, also will experience significant upward shifts in the ages of their populations.  For a time, this shift will increase the size of their work forces.  If economic and political reforms are implemented concurrently, substantial economic growth is likely.  Such countries are about 30 years away from facing the demographic/budgetary pressures  that developed countries are currently facing, but they are likely to be even less financially prepared to deal with them. 

China is a particularly striking example.  In the coming years, China's working-age population will be shrinking in proportion to retirees.  In 2001 China had 88million people age 65 or older.  By 2025, China's population will include over 200 million people in this age group. 

To alleviate the fiscal pressure associated with the aging challenge, countries might employ various policy options, such as raising retirement ages or trimming benefits, encouraging greater participation of women in the workforce, increasing immigration, promoting offshore investment, and implementing pro-natalist policies. 

But no single policy initiative is likely to be sufficient to alleviate the pressures caused by aging populations, and improvements are likely to be uneven among countries.

The Youth Bulge

A number of developing countries are facing a different challenge:  a "youth bulge," or a disproportionate concentration of population in the 15-to-29 year-old age group. 


Over the next 20 years, with the exception of Sub-Saharan Africa, the size of youth bulges will decrease in all regions of the world.  But the number of youth in many developing countries will remain large.

The inability of states to adequately integrate youth populations is likely to perpetuate the cycle of political instability, ethnic wars, revolutions, and anti-government activities that already affects many countries.  And a large proportion of youth will be living in cities, where opportunities will be limited. 



Global Migration

Global migration, which is very likely to increase over the next 10 to 20 years, could provide a partial solution to problems associated with both aging and large youth populations.  An estimated 140 million people now live outside their countries of birth.  Migration of younger workers would offset the retirement of older workers in countries with aging populations and provide jobs for unemployed youth from developing countries.


Migration also could reduce strains on social systems in both aging and youth bulge countries.


Despite its benefits, global migration will present serious challenges to both sending and receiving countries. 

Emigration will drain many developing countries of their already small pools of highly educated elites, making it more difficult to generate higher growth.  Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa will be among the hardest hit.  The region already has lost some 20,000 professionals annually over the last decade, including a total of some 30,000 Ph.D.s, according to a United Nations report. 


Implications of Demographic Trends for the United States

Let me offer a quick summary of the national security implications of these trends: 

First, the governments of many European countries and Japan--struggling to support increasingly elderly populations--will face serious budget challenges. 



Second, failure by Europe and Japan to manage their demographic challenges will negatively affect the world economy. 


Third, in poor—particularly Muslim—countries, large populations of youth with few educational and employment opportunities will provide fertile ground for radical political movements, internal instability, and international terrorism.  There are no quick solutions for significantly improving the economic and social conditions of these young people, and this threat to Western security will persist for some years. 

Fourth, should China and India succeed in meeting the twin challenges of increasing economic growth and urbanization, they are likely to emerge as increasingly important players on the world stage as early as 2015.   


Fifth, increased migration, travel, and trade are likely to accelerate the transfer of infectious diseases to the United States, at a time when the number of infections resistant to drugs is rising. 



Finally, let me emphasize that the demographic trends I have highlighted today are by no means inevitable.  Nor need they be entirely negative. 

The concrete impacts of the trends we have been discussing will depend in large part on the quality of governance in individual countries and regions.  Policies matter, and some governments will be far more nimble and far-sighted in dealing with these demographic shifts than others.

Advances in technology are likely in general to benefit both public health and national economies.  Technology can help to solve problems of unemployment and disease.  But good government will be needed to take advantage of such advances.

The many uncertainties and variables involved provide solid grounds for humility among those of us trying to analyze demographic trends.  But they also provide good reasons for civic organizations such as yours to deliberate on these issues and to affect change in our very complex world.

Thank you very much.

[1] The rate of global population growth has dropped from more than 2 percent per year in the mid-1980s to 1.2 percent currently.