Monday, May 18, 2009

Stella’s world: friends and neighbors

I like change, and in this day and age it’s just as well. I spent an afternoon recently with my granddaughter Stella and her new Grasmere family – Peter Rabbit and friends (I love that Mrs Tiggy-Winkle!). Once again I got to thinking about the world she will live in.

I often have my preconceptions shaken by a new point of view or a set of facts that land on my desk. It has always fascinated me how distant our perceptions can be from what’s actually going on. It is no wonder some businesses get into trouble – they start believing what everyone is saying rather than what is actually happening in front of their eyes and on their balance sheets. There are so many examples. Whereas many people will tell you that they don’t like flying because it isn’t safe, statistically speaking, you’re safer in the air than walking the streets. A very common fear in America is that children will be kidnapped and never seen again. Not so. Very few of them are in fact ever kidnapped (and seldom by strangers) and the recovery rate is very high.

All this occurs to me because I’ve just been handed an article called 'The World’s New Numbers' by Martin Walker. If you’d asked me a few days ago about the world’s projected birth rates over the next 30 or 40 years, I probably would have said that European and North American rates were in decline and we could expect China to have the biggest population. Not so. In fact, European rates are on the rise. America? Yes, American rates are up as well to the point that by 2050 the United Nations are predicting that as many babies will be born in the U.S. as in China! (I don’t like overdone exclamation marks, but I’ve noticed they’re making a comeback thanks to the Web and texting, and in this case it seemed well deserved).

Now the UN is thinking that 2050 will find the world's population to be between 8 and 10.5 billion. Note that the difference in those projections amount to around twice the current population of China, so I assume there’s room for movement on this one. The world population figures are accompanied by many other demographic changes that will probably come as much of a surprise to you as they did to me.

Anyone who lives in the U.K. will tell you that the country has changed forever. Huge increases in immigration have made cities like London richly cosmopolitan, but the frequent perception that Europe is being swamped by immigrants and that it is only a matter of time before all the cathedrals are transformed into mosques does not stack up. The Times once announced that the name Muhammad had replaced Thomas as the second most popular boy’s name in England, but the fact is that Muslim birth rates are actually dropping around the world. Changed expectations, education, and women taking on new roles and responsibilities have all played their part. When you add to the equation recent increases in fertility rates, the picture of Europe in 2050 is likely to surprise us. In Britain for instance, fertility rates have increased by 0.3 in just six years. The same trend is in action in France and beginning in the United States.

Aligning perceptions and reality is critical to the way we think about the world. If we are to put down the foundations for a solid future for kids like Stella, we need to be careful and test every prejudice, question, and “fact” that doesn’t feel right. No one believes in intuition more than me, but even the best gut feeling needs to be backed by accurate information.

1 comment:

Nick Robinson said...

I couldn't agree more. Reality is so often divergent from the 'accepted' version of the truth.

On the subject of UN demographic projections, I used to work in a job that required a degree of forecasting, although nothing to the extent of the 2050 stuff the UN has just completed. However, it did teach me that long-term projections are usually hopelessly wrong and are perhaps best thought of as a starting point for policy discussions, not as predictions.

In case you're not already into it Kevin, the Freakonomics book and blog at the NY Times is a great resource for puncturing false pretensions with real facts.

I reckon there is plenty of scope to combine the intuitive with the factual, all it takes is an open and inquiring mind.