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Elderly folks now outnumber children younger than 5 for first time ever

What does this mean for economies?

  • For the first time in recorded history, there are more over-65s than under-5s.
  • Aging populations worry economists that certain countries will undergo profound financial stress.
  • Yet the current distribution of resources does not allow for further population explosion.

In 1979, the Chinese government decided to implement its infamous one-child policy, which was actually a revision of the nation's two-child policy. Beginning in the '50s, China installed safeguards to protect against an unsustainable and booming population. Most Americans — especially those who believe bearing children is a duty mandated by God — frowned upon any state that would negatively impact fertility rates; their agenda is to legislate in the opposite direction. The Chinese government, however, believed it to be an economic imperative.

Today, the population of China is approaching 1.4 billion. While some scholars believe the country's one-child policy resulted in 400 million fewer births, others claim that it was useless. Regardless, in 2013 officials noticed a worrying trend: the increasing aging populace was not being replaced fast enough. In 2018, they relaxed the policy. Ironically, China recorded 15.2 million births that year, the lowest level in over 60 years.

China isn't the only nation experiencing a replacement problem. According to the United Nations, as of late 2018 there are, for the first time in recorded history, more over-65s on the planet that under-5s — 705 million seniors to 680 million infants.

As the chart above details, all nations are not experiencing declines at the same rate. For global population rates to sustain and grow, each woman needs to produce 2.1 children over the course of her lifetime. In 1960, women worldwide averaged 5 births; 50 years later that number dropped to 2.4.

The country with the highest fertility rate: Niger, with 7.2 births per woman. At the other extreme sits Japan. With an average life expectancy rate of 84 years and boasting 27 percent of the population over 65, the country leads the world in both measures. To combat the upcoming economic stress, the Japanese government recently announced a five-year increase to the retirement age, which is now 70 (also the highest in the world).

The reasons for this decline in birth rates — and the Japanese are not alone in this — often point to millennial dissatisfaction with sex and smartphone addiction, which are both factors. Yet they're not the only ones. Widespread availability of pornography has been cited for helping move social skills from public spaces to virtual and augmented realities; hook-up culture fostered by dating apps; and more women in the workforce are all important factors.

Economic insecurity also plays a major role. There is no shortage of CEOs willing to exploit this fact. The Japanese have a word for it — karoshi — which means "death by overwork." Employers manipulate their workforce by offering fewer benefits and no overtime, ensuring the fear of losing their job always lurks. In China, Jack Ma, co-founder and executive chairman of the Alibaba Group, recently endorsed a 12 hours a day, six days a week schedule. He thinks his countrymen should take pride in their overworked and undersexed positions. Ma's net worth is $39.9 billion.

Most humans will never have such financial luxury. A billionaire "paying tribute" to a 72-hour work week shouldn't surprise us — it's the ultimate dangling carrot and part of the reason one acquires such wealth in the first place. Yet such a mentality does not bode well if you're rooting for population increase. It's hard to imagine raising a family when you have the stress of potential unemployment hanging over you every day.

While the economic perils of an aging population are often discussed when reading over such data, less questioned is a parallel issue: How do we deal with a world with too many humans?

We've been evolving for millions of years. As a convenient starting point, in year 1 of the common era there were 200 million humans on the planet. It took an entire millennia to add 75 million more. We don't actually achieve 1 billion until 1804; a century later, 1.6 billion. This was in important century, with the first medically implemented use of vaccines and the introduction of germ theory into hospitals changing our understanding of medicine. Something was shifting.

In 1950, we're at 2.8 billion. By now, the Industrial Revolution is turning into the Technological Revolution. Medicine, though not without its problems, has vastly improved. Let's jump ahead to Prince's year, 1999, as we've doubled the human population over the last half-century, to 6 billion. Within a quarter century more we'll hit eight billion.

This hockey stick graph of population increase has a correlate in medicine: cancer. What we treat as the biological victory of the species is the leading factor in our unraveling. Nobody likes to treat humans as data points on distribution graphs, but that does not change the fact that we're overtaxing the planet's resources at unsustainable rates. The economic consequences of an aging planet pale in comparison to a planet that cannot provide for our voracious appetites.

This doesn't have to be a doomsday story, though if we continue to exploit finite resources in the current manner, there's no other choice. Humans are terribly reactive and never quite proactive enough; a serious population decline might be required for course correction.

Unfortunately for the under-5s, they're going to have to brunt this fallout, a reality that has led some to speculate on whether having children in an era of climate crisis is even worthwhile. The gut reaction is "yes," but sadly emotions are in part what got us here to begin with: we simply feel we're above it all. In the future, stronger minds must prevail.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

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  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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