More People, in More Cities, Living Longer

Question: What will the world’s population look like in 2050?

Joel Cohen:
So demographers agree on four big trends.  First of all, a bigger population by somewhere between 1 and 3 or 4 billion.  The middle number that people guess is 9 billion around 2050.  Right now we're almost at 7 billion, okay?  We're at 6.8, 6.9.  So next year or the year after, we're going to be at 7 billion, 9 billion.  Where are those folks going to be?  All the 2 billion people that we're going to add are going to be in poor countries in cities.  So the rural population of the world is going to level off and begin to decline, but the urban population is going to double.  So bigger population in poor countries and cities.

Secondly, the rate of growth of new young people is going to continue to fall and in some scenarios, the world will actually level off and begin to decline by 2050.  But right now we're increasing by about 75 to 80 million people a year.  By 2050, the increase will be about 33 million a year.  The rich countries, United States and Europe, will be declining by 1 to 2 million people a year, and the poorer countries will be adding 33 or 34 million people a year.  So the net will be about 32, 33, something like that.  So the rate of increase will be half as fast as now.

The third thing is: more cities.  As I said, all of the increase will be in cities.  A couple of years ago, for the first time in human history, half of humanity lived in cities.  From here on out, we're going to be more urban than rural and all of the increase will be in cities, mostly middle-sized cities.

And the fourth and last change is we're going to get older.  If you pump in fewer young people, the fraction of the population in the older age categories will increase.  Globally, the number of people aged 80-plus will quadruple.  The number of people age 60-plus will triple, and much faster than the rate of growth of the whole population, because we're only going to go up by, you know, less than 50%.  But the number of elderly people is going to go up and they're going to be in cities.  So cities are going to have a lot of old people and we haven't thought through that in the design of cities.  For example, in front of Rockefeller University, where I work every day, there's a bus stop at 63rd Street and there's a bus stop at 66th Street.  The bus stop at 63rd Street has a bench.  If you are an old person and you're going shopping, you can put your bag down there.  That's elderly friendly.  The other one doesn't have a bench and it's not elderly friendly.  We have to redesign cities to be friendly to the elderly that will be there.

So the world will have more people, it will be more slowly growing, it will be more urban, and it will be older.  Now what about the things we don't know?  We don't know how big international migration will be.  We don't know whether there're going to be millions and millions of people moving around every year, or it will be reduced because people will put up walls.  That is a choice.  My suspicion is that there will be increasing flows of people, just as there is within the European union.  They open their borders and huge amounts of flow.  I expect more.

A second thing we don't know too much about is what will families be like.  It used to be people were born, got married, and then they were dead in 20 years.  And then whoever survived married somebody else.  Now we have a huge amount of divorce and family structures are incredibly complex—meanwhile average household size in the world is decreasing.  The number of people who live together is going down and our housing stock doesn't reflect that.  So there are all kinds of questions about the future of the family, the future of households.  Will people live in communes, will elderly people live in shared facilities?  How's it going to be? We don't know the answer to that.  But those are important questions even for climate change.  You might not think of the family and climate change, but if every family has a refrigerator, then the number of people per refrigerator affects our energy consumption.

Question: What are the economic consequences of having an older population?

Joel Cohen:  It's a qood question.  And my answer is, it depends.  We know that people who are educated in their youth have better health in their old age.  And if you look in the United States over the last 25 years, age-specific disability rates have declined.  What is an age-specific disability rate?  Let's say the age-specific disability rate for 60-year-olds is the fraction of people who cannot do the normal activities of daily living, which means get out of bed, wash yourself, get dressed, and feed yourself breakfast.  If you can do that, you're fine.  Okay?  And if not, you have a disability, okay?  So the 60-year-old disability rate is the fraction of 60-year-olds who cannot do those things.  That fraction has been falling at 1-1/2% per year for the last 25 years.  People are healthier at older ages than they used to be.  I saw a t-shirt a guy was wearing that says, "50 is the new 30."  It's true!  And 60 is the new 40, okay?  If we continue, and the people among whom this improvement is the most dramatic, are the people who are educated well in youth.  That gives us a choice.  If we educate people well in youth, we can cut down the old age health care costs and disability and we have a more productive labor force, okay?  So which future do we want?  We're going to get the elderly whether we want them or not.  So are we going to have educated elderly who can fend for themselves and are in good health?  If we make that choice, a guy who's in his 60's, you might not believe this at your age, but a guy who's in his 60's has a lot of experience.  He's made a lot of mistakes, he has learned something, okay?  And from that, he can actually do things, he's got skills in his fingers.  Or a woman, I mean, you know, she's put up with her children, she's put up with her husband; she knows a lot about managing people or has technical skills, whatever, a lawyer, okay?  So you could have a very productive time.

Let me tell you my secret hope for this time.  We're going to have so few young people that we're not going to squander them on wars.  Instead of spending our best young men to go kill each other, we're going to treat them like treasures and invest in their education.  And we're going to invest in our young women and we're going to let old people wait on tables while young people go out and study.  Okay?  So that's my, this is my secret dream.

Recorded on March 5, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Seidler

In 2050 there will be about 9 billion people in the world. The vast majority of them will live in urban areas, and will have a significantly higher average age than people today.

Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.


Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.

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