America's first teenager, James Dean, on the set of Rebel Without A Cause (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

June 9, 2023   4 mins

Ever since the phrase “the generation gap” was minted — by a headline writer at Look during the youth rebellion of the Sixties — trouble has been brewing. Today, there are two generational conflicts in play around the world: one within the depopulating wealthy countries, and another within the more fecund, but far poorer, countries of the developing world.

Both conflicts are being shaped by new economic realities, principally a largely sluggish world economy that is, particularly in Western democracies, further hamstrung by a growing push for “Net Zero”. The adoption of green “de-growth” philosophy impacts both on the youth of the West, who face a consciously scaled-down quality of life, as well as a new generation in developing countries desperate for growth.

In high-income countries, the youngest generations already face fewer opportunities than their parents and grandparents. Slow growth and lack of opportunity mean they can look forward to a future characterised by a greater economic insecurity, poorer living conditions, less chance of owning a home or car, or even eating well. Such attitudes are exacerbated by the relentless hysteria poured out by the green movement and its media minions. Indeed, according to one recent survey, a majority of young people around the world see the planet as essentially doomed by climate change.

Perhaps as a result, when it comes to politics, many new voters seem comfortable rallying around polarising and extreme figures. In the 2016 primaries, Bernie Sanders amassed more votes from people under 30 than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined. In France, meanwhile, Le Monde described this “political de-socialisation” as having fuelled support for the likes of both the Trotskyite Jean-Luc Mélenchon and far-Rightist Marine Le Pen.

But alienation, rather than radicalisation, is a more fitting description of the emerging Western generation. The biggest problem lies not in lack of jobs or even skills, but a population that is increasingly “unengaged”.

Nor is this merely confined to the West. Evidence of a “great resignation” is also emerging in East Asia. In Japan, young adults, according to David Pilling, are “pioneering a new sort of high-quality, low-energy, low-growth existence”. In China, meanwhile, the children of largely upwardly mobile parents face an increasingly fraught economic future. Xi Jinping may hope for a generation that will follow the path of devoted Stalinist Stakhonovites or Maoist Red Guards, but confronts a generation more concerned with 20% unemployment and limited options than ideological fervour. As in Japan and the West, China now sees a generation — including an increasingly underemployed surplus of educated people — who eschew their parents’ work ethic, embracing instead a desire to “lay flat” as they essentially avoid the congestion and stresses of urban life. 

Combined with rapid demographic decline in East Asia, Europe and the United States, the mass disengagement of the young will make building a stronger world economy an even greater challenge. The remarkable economic boom of the past century sparked a population explosion — 75% of the world’s population growth was born in the last century. Yet, birth rates are now dropping, especially in more developed nations. Globally, last year’s population growth was the smallest in a half-century, and by 2050, some 61 countries are expected to see declines.

And as workforces shrink, growth will suffer, as has been the case throughout modern history. In the United States, workforce growth has slowed to around a third of the level in 1970, and seems destined to fall even more. Nearly 70% of US counties have seen declines in their under-25 populations, a trend particularly marked in big coastal metropolitan regions.

China faces a similar dilemma, with its senior population expected to have more than tripled by 2050, one of the most rapid demographic shifts in history. The transition will be made particularly tough by a welfare state that is underdeveloped, and whose ranks of retirees are soaring: the Chinese retirement age is 60 for men, and just 50 for women.

All this sets up what may be the biggest generational conflict of all — between the still-youthful developing world and the ageing high-income countries. Demographic decline and slow growth in high-income economies threaten to undermine the future of developing countries, notably in Africa. By 2050, UN projections suggest that nearly 55% of world population growth will occur in sub-Saharan Africa, where fertility rates remain relatively high. However, during the following 50 years, that share is projected to account for all growth as populations plummet elsewhere. With workforces shrinking in China, East Asia, Europe, Australia and the United States, the population of sub-Saharan Africa is expected to increase by upwards of 700 million. And with this “youth bulge” across the developing world not expected to peak until later this decade, Africa could well be, as the Brookings Institution suggests, “our last hope” in the West to forestall demographic and economic decline.

Essentially, high-income countries face a choice. They will feel enormous pressure to restrain imports from places such as sub-Saharan Africa to keep their own economies running and the pension system solvent. In the US, more than 40% of boomers have no significant retirement savings and the successor generations appear even more bereft. Without an East Asia-style boom, the only option for the developing world’s youth will be more migration to the West, both legal and illegal, which is expected to average 2.2 million annually through 2050.

This would represent such a surge that Europe, in particular, would be ill-equipped to prevent, let alone assimilate. Indeed, often despite promises to the contrary, immigration, legal and illegal, is at record levels in Britain and Germany, and remains at historically high levels in France. In response, despite crushing labour shortages, many countries — including the Netherlands, France, Denmark, Norway, and Germany itself — have tightened their immigration controls. The resulting migrant populations of unemployed and underemployed people have created social unrest in Europe’s cities, much as we have seen in America.

Some, such as Fred Pearce, author of The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet’s Surprising Future, consider such demographic shifts to be “no bad thing”: “We need a breather. A stable, sagacious society that has lost its adolescent restlessness and settled into middle age sounds appealing.” Yet this view ignores the ramifications of a generational conflict that seems certain to intensify as both young people in high-income countries as well as those in the developing world face a potentially frustrating future. Like the generational conflicts both within societies and between them, the global demographic crisis is just beginning. And in the meantime, the West’s adolescent restlessness can’t simply be wished away.

Joel Kotkin is the Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and author, most recently, of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (Encounter)