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3Qs: The weight of the world

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A new U.N. Population Fund report estimates that, as of Oct. 31, there will be 7 billion people on Earth — double the globe’s population in the 1960s. We asked sociology professor Luis Falcon to examine the greatest challenges this milestone presents for the planet and mankind.

As the world population reaches 7 billion, what are the greatest challenges we can expect for communities and nations worldwide?

This will vary across countries and regions. Meeting educational and employment needs at reasonable standards will continue being a challenge for countries like China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Brazil. For many western countries, including the United States, immigration and increasing racial diversity in the labor force will, perhaps, present the greatest challenge.

Countries like Italy, Germany and now Spain have had declining rates of population growth over the last few decades. Growth if any, has been the result of immigration and the children born of immigrants. While immigration may solve labor shortages — and many have opted for guest labor programs, particularly in agriculture — cultural and social differences have proven extremely difficult to manage.

In countries with large numbers of foreign-born workers, ensuring that resources are invested well to educate the children of immigrants and of racial minorities will help maintain a well-trained labor force and reduce social inequalities.

Is it the world’s population itself that could be the most problematic, or the rate at which it has grown to reach this mark, and continues to grow?

The three basic demographic components — fertility, mortality and migration are very much embedded in cultural, social and economic and political processes that lead to varying changes in rates of population growth or decline across time and space. So, while overall size matters, it is the timing and where population growth takes place that really makes a difference. It is how fast-paced population growth can strain societal resources that really matter — how growth affects educational systems, health systems, social support and the ability of the economy to manage large numbers of new entrants. It is very difficult to “control” population growth, as China’s experience with the one-child policy has shown. At the same time that China was enforcing its one child policy, we had countries in Western Europe (like Italy) implementing financial incentives for families to have more children in order to combat a rapidly aging population.

One of the potential issues raised when we look at population numbers is an age gap, with often too few people to care for a much larger elderly community. What can younger generations in the United States expect as the baby boomers continue to age?

The “Baby Boom” phenomenon has profound implications for social support systems (social security, health care) but also for the political process. For example, when compared to those ages 18 to 30, participation in national elections is almost twice as high among those aged 60 and above. Thus, the “needs” of the old (increasingly a baby boomer population) will continue to drive the political debate and influence decision-making in the United States for some time.

Within the health-care system there has been growing demand for foreign nurses and doctors to meet a labor shortage. This translates into a health system that relies heavily on the foreign born to care for the elderly and others. Managing a diverse workforce and knowing how to handle culturally sensitive issues is, and will continue to be, paramount.