Home-Baked Chart #1: Elevation and Landlockedness, Selected Cities

Elevation above sea level and proximity to the sea coast are two important factors that influence a city’s climate and economy. Here I’ve tried to plot many of the world’s cities according to these factors, to provide a comparative perspective that will hopefully be of interest.

This being my first home-baked chart, I made a few rookie mistakes: the chart may be a bit blurry (if so, you can download the following document to see a clear version), and I put elevation on the horizontal axis, though it would have been more intuitive to have it on the vertical…

There is a lot happening in this chart, so let’s walk through it together:

  1. See that blue box in the bottom-left corner: that’s where about 35-40 percent of people in the world live, close to sea level and close to the sea.

  2. The Swiss Mis-conception: Switzerland is sometimes used as a way to downplay the economic significance of geography. If the Swiss are so rich, after all, what excuse do other poorer mountain countries have? Well, you can see part of the flaw with this line of thinking here: Swiss cities are neither high above, nor far from, the sea. Zurich and Geneva (and all the other Swiss cities too, though they are not shown on this chart) are at the very bottom-left, less than 500 metres above sea level and less than 500 kilometres from the nearest coast.

  3. European(/Mediterranean) exceptionalism: As with Zurich and Geneva, even the highest-elevation or furthest inland European cities are in the bottom-left of the chart, near sea level and near the sea coast. Specifically, you can see Madrid just over 500 metres above sea level, and Moscow just over 500 km from the sea coast. Similarly, in the Mediterranean regions outside of Europe, you can see Damascus about as high up as Madrid, and Khartoum a similar distance from the sea as Moscow. (Even though Khartoum is 1600+ km upriver on the Nile, it is only about 600 km across the desert to the Red Sea). Cities like Ankara (Turkey), Amman (Jordan), and Yerevan (Armenia) are near this corner of the chart too, though a few hundred metres higher above sea level than Damascus and Madrid. Most other European or Mediterranean cities would be too cramped to show: nearly all of them would be inside that little blue box. Even the highest small towns in Europe, such as Davos in Switzerland, are only around 1500 metres above sea level. That’s 100 metres lower than Denver, Colorado.

  4. The Extreme Edge: starting in the bottom-right, the big standout is El Alto-La Paz (population ~1.8 million) in Bolivia, which sits about 4000 metres above sea level. Other Andean cities, in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, are in this corner of the chart as well. Further inland, most of the cities on the outer edge of the chart are in China, on the Tibetan plateau (notably, Lhasa and Xining), or in Yunnan province in southwestern China (notably Lijiang and Kunming, but also smaller, higher ones like Shangri-La), or in northwestern China in Gansu (Gansu’s capital, Lanzhou, is next to Denver here) and especially in Xinjiang (Hotan, Kashgar, and in the top-left corner, the trio of Bole, Yining, and even a city of ~3.5 million people: Uruqmi.) Also in this area of the chart are cities in Xinjiang’s fellow stans, such as Kabul (Afghanistan), Almaty (Kazakhstan), Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Skardu (Pakistan), Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), and Osh (Tajikistan). Finally, furthest inland of all is Novosibirsk, which with a population of about 1.6 million is actually the third largest city in Russia (though still much smaller than Moscow or St Petersburg). It is followed by Oskemen in Kazakhstan (pop. ~300,000), a city near where the borders of Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China’s Xinjiang region meet. Just behind them are a number of other cities in Russian Siberia.

  5. Siberian cities like Novosibirsk raise the question of whether or not the Arctic Sea should count for the purposes of this chart. I’ve included Novosibirsk, Oskemen, Krasnoyarsk (Russia), and Surgut (Russia) twice, once not counting the Arctic Sea – “ex-Arctic” – and once counting the Arctic Sea. As you can see, “Novosibirsk (ex-Arctic)” is over 3000 kilometres inland, whereas Novosibirsk’s distance to the Arctic Sea is only around 1600 km, putting it closer to cities like Minneapolis and Winnipeg (not counting Hudson’s Bay) on the chart. Oskemen, in contrast, is still close to 2500 km from the sea even when you do include the Arctic. That is still about 700-1000 km further than the “poles of inaccessibility” – the furthest spots inland – of Africa or the Americas. You can see some of the furthest inland cities in those continents on the chart, such as Kisangani (DR Congo), Bismarck (US), or Cuiaba (Brazil), all around 1500 km from the coast.

  6. I’ve bolded the names of certain cities, either because they are very large or because they are medium-sized cities that are very high up and/or very far from the sea. In a few cases, most notably Mexico City (followed perhaps by Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and Bogota in Colombia), a city is very large and very high up. In contrast, there are no very large cities further inland than about 1000 km, around where cities like Lahore, Chengdu, Chicago (if you don’t count Great Lakes), Kigali (if you don’t count other Great Lakes) and Kabul are situated.

  7. For the most part, I have limited “city” to places with populations of at least 100,000. This leaves out even more remote settlements; the highest of which, La Rinconada in Peru (pop. ~17,000), is another 1000 m or so higher than El Alto. There are a few exceptions, however, where I have included smaller cities, mostly around the outer edge of the chart. These include, for example, Cheyenne (pop ~64,000) the capital of Wyoming, Santa Fe (pop ~84,000) the capital of New Mexico, Timbuktu (pop ~55,000, in 2009) in Mali, or Tamanrasset (pop ~93,000, in 2008) in the Algerian Sahara. (In a future home-baked chart we’ll look at the elevation and landlockedness of extreme towns and settlements, sea cliffs, and mountain peaks).

  8. Many of the cities ranged along the y-axis are in the Americas or the former Soviet Union.
    Many are upstream on major rivers, such as Manaus (the Amazon), Minneapolis and St Louis (Mississippi), Delhi (Ganges), Lahore (Indus), Chengdu (Yangtze), Xian (Huang he, aka Yellow), Juba (White Nile), Ascuncion (the Paraguay River, upstream fron the Parana), Kisangani (Congo), Perm and Moscow (eastern and western tributaries of the Volga, respectively) and various Russian cities located on major Siberian rivers that flow north to the Arctic. Several are also next to or near great lakes, like Chicago (Lake Michigan), N’Djamena (on the formerly great Lake Chad), Winnipeg (Lake Winnipeg and its neighbours), or Irkutsk not far from the very great Lake Baikal.

  9. Most the cities ranged along the x-axis are Latin American or in regions near the Indian Ocean (the Middle East, eastern Africa, southern Asia, etc.). You can see, for example, a city like Caracas (Venezuela’s capital), roughly 900 metres high yet only about 10-20 km from the sea. Or, close to it, Sao Paolo (Brazil’s megacity), over 750 metres high yet only about 50 km from the sea. Near Sao Paolo on the chart another big city is Bangalore, in southern India. Nearly all these cities are in the Tropics; several, like Nairobi in Kenya and Quito in Ecuador, are next to the Equator. A number of the other capital cities around the Horn of Africa region are even higher than Nairobi is: Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Asmara in Eritrea, and Sanaa in Yemen.

  10. Finally, there is that busy middle cluster of the chart, between about 1000-1500 metres above sea level and 500-1000 kilometres inland. This is, roughly speaking, the Persianate section of the chart, centred on Tehran but ranging widely to include cities like Isfahan, Tabriz, and Shiraz (which are higher but closer to the sea) on one side and Mashhad, Herat, and Dushanbe (which are lower but further from the sea) on the other. Along with Tehran, several other capital cities are here: Brasilia (Brazil), Kathmandu (Nepal), Lusaka (Zambia), Lilongwe (Malawi) and Kampala (Uganda). And for North America, there is Calgary and Salt Lake City.

What We’re Reading

Well, the “We’re” will have to be aspirational for now. But here’s a What I’ve Been Reading list:

January 2021
The Corner That Held Them, by Sylvia Townsend Warner

February
The Iron Road: The Illustrated History of Railways, by Christian Wolmar

March
Hitler, My Neighbour, by Edgar Feuchtwanger

April
Of Smiling Peace, by Stefan Heym

May
Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education, by Sybille Bedford

June
Hav, by Jan Morris

July
The Late Mattia Pascal, by Luigi Pirandello
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
War of Shadows, by Gershom Gorenberg

August
Men at Arms, by Evelyn Waugh
Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirlees
The Lanchaster Tradition, by GF Bradby




Too Much Heaven: A Brief Look Back at 1979

With the new year starting, it is now forty years since 1979. Forty is a biblical number, which is fitting because 1979 was a year in which religious belief became decisively political. Some of these events are still well remembered: Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the Christmas Eve invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, the Camp David Accords between Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin. Other key events however are often forgotten, so that 1979 does not usually get the acknowledgment it deserves as being a year of unmatched religious and political action.

The year began with the resumption of diplomatic relations between the US and China, on New Year’s Day, ending three decades of formal estrangement between the two countries. This was followed by Deng Xiaoping visiting the White House at the end of the month, the first time a Communist leader of China had ever made such a trip. The new relationship had an immediate political impact when, on January 7th, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia fell to the invading Communist Vietnamese. Five weeks after that, China invaded Vietnam, launching a short but brutal war against  Vietnamese forces that had been fighting the US military only six years earlier.

According to Wikipedia: “On January 1, 1979, Chinese Vice-premier Deng Xiaoping visited the United States for the first time and told American president Jimmy Carter: “The little child [Vietnam] is getting naughty, it’s time he got spanked”. On February 15, the first day that China could have officially announced the termination of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance, Deng Xiaoping declared that China planned to conduct a limited attack on Vietnam. The reason cited for the attack was to support China’s ally, the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, in addition to the mistreatment of Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese minority and the Vietnamese occupation of the Spratly Islands which were claimed by China. To prevent Soviet intervention on Vietnam’s behalf, Deng warned Moscow the next day that China was prepared for a full-scale war against the Soviet Union; in preparation for this conflict, China put all of its troops along the Sino-Soviet border on an emergency war alert, set up a new military command in Xinjiang, and even evacuated an estimated 300,000 civilians from the Sino-Soviet border. In addition, the bulk of China’s active forces (as many as one-and-a-half million troops) were stationed along China’s border with the Soviet Union.

While the political importance of China and America re-establishing a relationship is obvious, its religious significance tends to be overlooked. It has, however, helped lead to one of the largest increases in any religion in modern history: the adoption of Christianity by many tens of millions of Chinese since the 1970s. In 1979 China’s Three-Self Patriotic Movement church was legalized by the Chinese government. It and many other much smaller churches have been so successful in the decades since that today China and America have probably the two largest Protestant populations in the world. China’s overall Christian population is difficult to estimate, but 100 million is a common guess.

Of course, it was in the Middle East where the biggest religious and political upheaval in 1979 took place. In Iran, the Ayatollah came to power on February 11th, the Shah having fled to Egypt three weeks earlier. In a foreshadowing of events that would come at the end of the year, on February 14ththe US ambassador was kidnapped and killed in Kabul, Afghanistan, while on the same day Iranian militants temporarily took control of the US embassy in Tehran, kidnapping a Marine there.

On March 26, the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty was signed. This was an event of great significance, considering that the two countries had fought four wars against one another in the preceding three decades, yet have not fought a single war against one another in the four decades since. Israel returned the Sinai Desert to Egypt as part of the deal, while Egypt became the first Arab state to recognize Israel. The three men involved in the peace deal, Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin, were at the time the three most religiously committed political leaders of their respective countries, generations, and faiths.

The month ended on a less peaceful note in a different arena of religious and political conflict: Britain. On March 30 Airey Neave, the Tory party’s Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was assassinated outside of the British Parliament by a car bomb planted by Irish militants. The assassination took place just two days after a no-confidence vote had brought down a Labour government. Margaret Thatcher was elected Britain’s first female PM a month later.

This assassination would be followed by an even larger attack later in the year. On August 27[1], the Provisional Irish Republican Army killed eighteen British soldiers with two roadside bombs in Northern Ireland, while on the same day killing Lord Mountbatten (an uncle of Prince Phillip, who had formerly been head of the Royal Navy, head of the Armed Forces, and Viceroy of India), his grandson, and two others by planting a bomb on his boat[2].

A month later, Ireland would host its own biggest religious event in decades, when the Pope visited the island. The Pope was welcomed by a crowd estimated to include 2.7 million people, nearly the entire population of the Republic of Ireland[3].

This however was not the Pope’s most important trip abroad in 1979, nor the one to attract the largest crowds. John Paul II, who had only become Pope at the end of 1978 (a rare “year of three popes”), was the first non-Italian Pope in 450 years. He was, even more importantly, Polish, at a time when Poland was the largest country in the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. The Pope’s visit to Poland in June of 1979, often referred to as the nine days that changed the world, was the first trip by a Pope to a Communist country. It played a meaningful role in the rise of the Polish Solidarity movement, and so in turn arguably helped end the Cold War.

The Pope’s influence also attracted enemies. When, at the end of 1979, the Pope was visiting Turkey, a man named Mehmet Ali Agca, who was then beginning a life sentence in prison for killing the editor of a Turkish newspaper earlier that year, escaped from jail and fled to Bulgaria. Two years later, Agca would shoot the Pope in St. Peter’s Square. Given Bulgaria’s position in the Warsaw Pact, many people speculate that the Soviet Union was behind this attack in some way[4].

Acga would later claim that a reason for the shooting was that the Pope had orchestrated the siege of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, a siege which was taking place when Acga made his jail break in November of 1979. This siege, which lasted for two weeks at the holiest site in Islam, involved tens of thousands of hostages[5], several hundred gunmen, and one false messiah. It took place on the first day of the new millennium of the Islamic calendar (1400 A.H.), during the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Saudi forces finally ended the siege after a number of failed attempts and hundreds of deaths, by secretly enlisting the help of France, which sent three of its Special Forces soldiers to Mecca. They quickly converted to Islam in order to enter the holy city, then used gas to sedate the gunmen, who by then had taken refuge in the catacombs beneath the Mosque.

The siege arguably had a major impact on Saudi culture and foreign policy, and a direct legacy in future events such as the emergence of Al Qaeda. It is a sad, fascinating story worth reading about, one that is often forgotten due to the Iranian hostage crisis, which had begun several weeks earlier and was consuming much of America’s attention instead. The siege remains an overlooked subject within the Muslim world as well, mainly because the Saudis have been successful at hushing it up.

At the time, the siege had a number of immediate consequences, owing partly to confusion as to who had orchestrated it. As we have already seen, Acga claimed the Pope was involved. Many others believed the US was behind the siege. This resulted in the destruction of US embassies by mobs in Libya and Pakistan on December 3. Others believed Shia revolutionaries in Iran were behind the siege. This led to an uprising in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where the country’s Shia minority population lives and most Saudi oil is located. People there had been attempting to celebrate Ashura on November 25, a major Shia holiday prohibited in Saudi Arabia.

Shia-Sunni political relationships were also deteriorating elsewhere in the Middle East in 1979, part of a process that helped lead to the most deadly war in the recent history of the region, the Iran-Iraq War, the following year. At the start of the year Iraq and Syria had been discussing the possibility of unifying their armed forces and merging into a single state[6], to counter Egypt’s new relationship with the US and Israel. The Shia Islamic revolution in Iran however created the possibility of a closer relationship between Iran and Syria. Syria’s government, led by Hafez al- Assad and the country’s minority Allawite (a branch of Shia Islam, sort of) elite, was at the time fighting Sunni groups such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Syria also had interests in the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), a religious sectarian war in which Shia forces – a few years later emerging as the Party of God, Hezzbolah – were being energized by the Iranian revolution as well as by Israel’s invasion and subsequent withdrawal from Shia-inhabited South Lebanon in 1978.

In Iraq the reverse situation existed. The Iranian revolution frightened Iraq’s Sunni elite, in part because a majority of Iraq’s population were disenfranchised Shia. This may have led Saddam Hussein, then vice president of Iraq, to overthrow his elder cousin Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, the president, on July 16, 1979. A week later Saddam carried out a public purge of Iraqi politicians, claiming they had been plotting with Syria to overthrow the government of Iraq. The following April, he ordered the execution of Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al Sadr (whose son-in-law, the cleric Muqtada al Sadr, is today arguably the most influential politician in Iraq), along with al Sadr’s sister Amina, before beginning an eight-year war against the ayatollahs in Iran in the fall.

The year ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve[7]. This was followed two days later by the Soviets killing their former ally, Communist Afghan President Hafizulla Amin[8]. US president Jimmy Carter then signed the order for the CIA to provide lethal aid to the Afghan mujahedeen. Most of this aid was facilitated by the Pakistani regime of Zia ul Haq, who came to power in a coup at the end of 1977, oversaw the execution of Pakistan’s previous leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in April 1979, and would, more than any other figure, be responsible for transforming the Pakistani state from secular to theocratic. The decade-long resistance of the mujahedeen against the Soviets and their allies would result in the deaths of perhaps a million people.

Thus it can be seen that 1979 was also a turning point in the extremely violent Cold War. From a time of “national malaise” in the US (to reference the famous speech by Carter that year[9]), which was dealing with an energy crisis, a hostage crisis, and recent memories of Vietnam[10], 1979 would set in motion forces that would lead to a US victory in the Cold War ten years later. But then, it would also lead the US to its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at the start of another new millennium.

1979 was significant because of its mix of religion and politics, but that mix was obviously was not new at the time, and has not gone away since. What may be more relevant is that the events of 1979 helped to shape the views of a generation of people who, today having reached their fifties, sixties, and seventies, can now shape events themselves[11]. Perhaps this has contributed to the fact that American relationships with Iran and Russia remain hostile just like they were in 1979, while American relationships with countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt remain cooperative just like they were in 1979. True, there are signs that some of these relationships may be beginning to change. But for today at least, 1979 remains a guide worth remembering.

Notes:

[1]This attack took place just as a public debate over whether or not it was appropriate to satirize religion was taking place in Britain, as ten days earlier the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian was released. The movie was banned in the Republic of Ireland until 1987.

[2]Another prominent figure assassinated in 1979 was Park Chung-hee, who had been the president of South Korea since 1963, first coming to power in a military coup in 1961. He was shot by his own close friend, the head of Korea’s intelligence service. This in turn led to a series of coups in South Korea in 1979 and 1980. Park’s daughter was recently president from 2013 to 2017, but was then impeached.

[3]Two weeks before the Pope’s visit, Ireland passed the Health Act, which legalized the selling of contraception for the purposes of family planning. China then said I’ll raise you one better, launching, in effect, mandatory contraception: 1979 was the year the one-child policy was born.

[4]Actually, Agca himself later claimed the KGB was involved. But he has a track record of making untrue, self-aggrandizing statements, so this does not prove anything decisively.

[5]Most of whom were released at the beginning of the siege. There were an estimated 50,000 pilgrims in the Mosque to begin with, but only a relatively small percentage of them were kept hostage during the siege’s two-week duration.

[6]Like Syria and Egypt had done from 1958 to 1961.

[7]Though not in Orthodox countries like Russia, where Christmas is on January 7.

[8]He was not the only Amin to be ousted from power in 1979. Uganda’s Idi Amin (no relation) was removed too, by an invading Tanzanian army.

[9]Though Carter never actually used the word malaise in the “malaise speech”.

[10]At the 1979 Academy Awards, The Deer Hunter won Best Picture while Jon Voight and Jane Fonda won Best Actor and Best Actress for Coming Home. Both were films about Vietnam. Apocalypse Now then similarly went on to win the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979 (but was snubbed in favour of Kramer vs Kramer at the Oscars in 1980).

[11]In 1979, Donald Trump started building Trump Tower. Bill Clinton was elected governor of Arkansas at the age of 31. An 18-year-old Barack Obama moved to the US mainland to attend a liberal arts college in Los Angeles. Xi Jinping finished his degree in chemical engineering, as a “Worker-Peasant-Soldier student” in Beijing. Angela Merkel too was becoming a chemist in a Communist state, having finished her physics degree at the end of 1978 in Berlin. Shinzo Abe finished his degree at the University of Southern California. Narendra Modi graduated from the University of Delhi in 1978 and began working for the Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization, the RSS, in 1979. Jeremy Corbyn entered politics as a local councillor in 1979; Boris Johnson, who recently beat Corbyn with the biggest vote share in any UK election since 1979, was (no surprises here) at Eton.

Additional notes:

  • In 1979, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
  • China has not really fought in a war since Vietnam in 1979.
  • The other major area of political conflict, Cold War rivalry, and religious activity was Central America, where wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua were taking place around this time. A key event in the El Salvador civil war (1979-1992) was the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, which took place while he was at mass in March 1980, a day after he had publicly asked Salvadoran soldiers not to carry out orders to kill civilians. In Nicaragua, meanwhile, where the Sandinistras overthrew the Somoza government in 1979, they did so with the support of the country’s Catholic clergy, an unusual – and short-lived – alliance between a left-wing revolutionary movement and the Church.
  • The 1970s was also the key decade for one of the major religious trends that has been taking place in the world in recent generations, namely the emergence of evangelicalism – and the relative decline in Catholicism – in Latin America, especially in Central America and Brazil
  • In December 1978, Argentinian military forces attempted to land on three remote, disputed islands Argentina shares with Chile at the southern tip of South America, but had to call off the landing because of bad weather. The Pope was then brought in to resolve the dispute, which was only successfully accomplished after Argentina’s military government lost power following its Falklands War with Britain in 1982 (which was fought over similarly southerly islands). As a result of this dispute, Chile supported Britain in the Falklands War
  • All of the longest lasting presidencies in the world today began in 1979, in  Africa: Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos (who finally left office in 2017), Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea (still in power), and Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo (although with a brief stint out of office from 1993-1997)
  • In Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani became the head of the Kurdish Democratic Party in 1979, and survived an assassination attempt in Vienna that year. Among other things, he would later be a central figure in the Iraqi Kurdish secession referendum in 2017.
  • In the US, Baptist minister Jerry Fallwell Sr. founded the Moral Majority in 1979, a “key step in the formation of the New Christian Right” (according to Wikipedia).
  • The “Satanic Panic” also began in the United States in 1979, following a series of three murders that took place in Fall River, Massachusetts
  • In the Mormon church, the Revelation on Priesthood, announced in October 1978,
    “reversed a long-standing policy excluding men of black African descent from the priesthood”
  • Cult activity in the United States also reached one of its high points in the late 1970s.
    Examples of this include the prominent Nation of Yahweh, founded by Hulon Mitchell Jr., aka Yahweh ben Yahweh, in Florida in 1979 (“The mayor of Miami, Xavier Suárez, declared ‘Yahweh ben Yahweh Day’ on October 7, 1990, a month before Yahweh’s indictment for alleged crimes”), and, more tragically, the infamous events of the “Jonestown massacre” in Guyana in November 1978, involving Jim Jones’ People’s Temple. The Nation of Islam also experienced a revival of sorts at the end of the 1970s, under Louis Farrakhan’s newfound leadership. There was pushback against cult activity in these years too, notably the 1978-1979 lawsuit United States v. Mary Sue Hubbard et al., which ended in convictions of high-ranking members of the Church of Scientology, and the 1978-1979 Congressional investigation of The Unification Church of the United States

The Age Dependency Ratio – A Demographic Overview of the World

2008 was as significant a year from a demographic perspective as it was from a financial one. In 2008 the world’s age dependency ratio —  the number of people who are either younger than 15 or older than 65, relative to the number of people aged 15-65 — reached its lowest ever point. From a peak of approximately .77 in 1967, the world’s age dependency ratio fell to a floor of .54 in 2008, a level it has remained at every year in the decade since. (Or, to put it another way, which may be more intuitive, the percentage of the world’s population that is 15-65 years old reached its highest point in 2008 – 65 percent – and remains there today). This record low is not likely to be broken any time soon. The United Nations predicts that the dependency ratio will rise again during the generation ahead, albeit gradually, as more Baby Boomers become seniors and as birth rates continue to fall worldwide.

Picture3

The age dependency ratio is a useful, though obviously imperfect, measure of economic potential. The higher a country’s dependency ratio, the heavier the economic burden (to put it crudely) its working-age population may need to bear. The country with the highest dependency ratio in the world, Niger, with a ratio of 1.12, has 1.12 children or senior citizens for every 15-65-year-old adult. The country with the lowest dependency ratio, South Korea, with a ratio of .38, has nearly three adults for every one child or senior citizen. The Gulf Arab kingdoms have even lower ratios than that (the United Arab Emirates’ is just .18!), but only because they have so many temporary foreign workers (mostly, men) living within their borders.

Picture4
Middle-income countries have had their age dependency ratios fall quickly during the past generation

It is not surprising that a lower dependency ratio tends to correlate with economic success. Not only is a country with fewer dependents more able to invest its time and money in increasing its productivity, but productive countries also tend to have low birth rates, which keep dependency levels low in the short-term (though not, of course, in the long term). As such, a low dependency ratio can be both a cause and an effect of economic growth. Even the oldest country in the world, Japan, only has a dependency ratio of .66, far lower than those of the young countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Picture5

In recent history, the correlation between economic growth and age dependency can be seen most clearly in East Asia. China’s rapid economic growth has tracked its dependency ratio’s steep fall, while Japan’s stalled economic growth has tracked its own dependency ratio’s rise. China’s dependency ratio, which is today the lowest in the world apart from South Korea (not counting city-states or the Gulf Arab monarchies), was almost twice as high a generation ago, and only fell below the US’s in 1990.

That same year, Japan’s age dependency ratio fell below that of a newly reunified Germany to become the lowest in the world, apart from Singapore or Hong Kong. An aging population has since made Japan’s dependency ratio become by far the highest in the developed world, however. Japan’s ratio has also risen higher than those of many developing nations in recent years, even than some of the world’s poorest nations outside of Sub-Saharan Africa, such as Haiti:

Picture6

Outside Japan, East Asia now has the lowest dependency ratios of any region, by far. Not only China and South Korea but also Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia, and even North Korea all have ratios between .38-.44, the lowest in the world anywhere outside of the Persian Gulf. Indonesia’s too, at .48, is now lower than those of most countries in the world. And the Philippines, the major outlier in the region with a dependency ratio of .57, no longer has a high ratio by global standards either.

This trend, however, is finally beginning to change. China’s ratio has begun to rise since 2010, prompting many to worry that the country “will become old before it becomes rich”. The dependency ratios of Vietnam, Thailand, and South Korea have also begun rising during the past several years. And Japan’s already high ratio will continue to rise quickly unless it finally decides to raise its extremely low immigration rate.

Picture7

The years 2008-2010, in addition to being when the global dependency ratio and the Chinese dependency ratio both reached their lowest levels, was also when the EU’s dependency ratio rose higher than that of the US, for the first time since 1984. The EU’s dependency burden has continued to rise relative to the US in the decade since, a fact that has perhaps contributed, at least to a minor extent, to the US’s stronger economic performance during this period.

Indeed, at the risk of attributing far more significance to the age dependency ratio than is justified, I will also point out the fact that countries in Central Europe have enjoyed a much lower ratio and a much stronger economic performance than has the EU as a whole. Similarly, Canada has had the lowest dependency ratio and, especially before oil prices fell in 2015, one of the strongest economies among rich Western nations during the past two decades. Dependency burdens in Canada and Central Europe were particularly low during the financial crisis:

Picture8

Another intriguing case is Italy, which has a ratio that has been rising at fast pace since 2010, at the same time as its economy has become perhaps the primary point of concern in European politics. A similar trend has existed throughout Southern Europe, with the ratios of Greece, Spain, and France reaching high levels in the years after 2010. Although it is actually France which has the highest dependency ratio of these countries, a result of its having a relatively large population of children, it is Italy which has their highest old age dependency ratio (population older than 65, relative to population 15-65):

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Above is an Old Age Dependency Ratio chart. Italy has the highest Old Age Dependency Ratio in western Europe, but several countries in eastern Europe (which are not shown on this chart) are just as high — and Japan is highest of all, by a significant margin. In Japan, there are now only two 15-65-year-old adults for every one senior citizen, whereas even in Italy the ratio of 15-65-year-old adults to seniors is still roughly 2.75-to-1. In contrast, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Germany, Portugal, and several other European countries are more or less tied for having the lowest “Young Age Dependency Ratioin the world (as usual, with the exception of Gulf Arab mini-monarchies, Hong Kong, and Singapore, which have even lower ratios). They each have only about one-fifth the number of kids below 15 years old as adults between the ages of 15-65. On the opposite extreme, Niger is now the only country in the world to have more 0-15 year olds than 15-65 year olds. 

If we look at Europe as a whole, including countries in its surrounding region, we can see there is a divergence occurring between northern and southern countries. Northern countries such as Germany, Russia, and Poland, which have had some of the lowest dependency burdens in the world in recent decades, will see sharp increases in the years ahead because their largest population cohorts are approaching 65 years old and they have few teenagers approaching 15 years old. (An exception to this is Ireland, where the largest age cohort is 35-40 years old. Irish birth rates were relatively high until the 1990s).

Mediterranean countries, in contrast, will have their dependency ratios rise more slowly, either because they have more children or because (particularly in Spain) their largest age cohorts are now only in their forties rather than their fifties. Within the EU this is especially true of France, which has had high birth rates by European standards. It is, however, even more true of non-EU Mediterranean countries such as Turkey and Tunisia. These countries used to have far higher ratios than the EU or Russia, but no longer do today:
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This fall in dependency in places like Turkey and North Africa is part of a greater trend, in which countries in the “global south”, particularly those outside of Sub-Saharan Africa, have recently seen their ratios fall much more quickly than countries in Europe, North America, or Northeast Asia. India’s dependency ratio, for example, fell below both the US’s and Germany’s in 2016. So did Bangladesh’s. (Pakistan’s ratio is falling too, but still remains high, around the level of Japan’s). Latin America’s is even lower; it recently became the lowest of any region other than East Asia.

The major country that has had the most significant fall in dependency, however, is Iran:

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Of course, age dependency ratios are simplistic. They treat all people above the age of 65 and below the age of 15 as if they were the same, and all people between 15 and 65 years old as if they were the same. Yet if (for example) we were to change the upper limit of working age from 65 to 70, Japan’s dependency ratio would fall substantially as a result, because Japan’s largest age cohort today is 65-70 years old. (Many of these Japanese senior citizens are still in the workforce). If, on the other hand, we were to change the lower limit of working age from 15 to 20, many middle-income countries’ ratios would rise substantially.

A primary lesson that can be learned from the analysis of age dependency ratios is that the common “young population good, old population bad” view of countries’ economic prospects is a misleading one. In reality countries with young populations tend to remain poor, in part because the youngest countries in the world (in Sub-Saharan Africa) are much younger than the oldest countries in the world are old. It will still be a number of decades before aging populations lead Europe or North America to have a higher age dependency ratio than Sub-Saharan Africa. And even that assumes that no unexpected shifts in migration or fertility will occur.

What age dependency ratios do show is two big trends, both of which have to do with middle-income economies. The first trend is the emergence of what we might call a goldilocks belt, located between the aging populations of North America, Europe, and Northeast Asia and the youthful populations of Sub-Saharan Africa. Places in South Asia, North Africa, and Latin America all appear to be in the process of supplanting high-income countries in terms of having the demographic trends that are arguably most conducive to (or at least, indicative of) economic growth.

The second trend is that Northeast Asia’s dependency ratio, which has been the lowest in the world for a generation and probably played a significant role in helping the region emerge from a low-income to middle-income level, bottomed out almost a decade ago and will soon be rising quickly. Japan, in particular, where today the two biggest age cohorts are 65-70 years old and 45-50 years old, might become, 15-20 years from now,  the first developed economy to have a higher dependency burden than Sub-Saharan Africa.