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5 Undeniable Long-Term Trends Shaping Society’s Future

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5 long-term forces changing society

We’re living in a world of rapid change, where disruption is the norm and innovation is the only way to stay relevant.

The dynamic nature of society makes it difficult to decipher. However, despite the world’s complexity, there are some long-term trends that have emerged among the chaos. These help us make sense of the world today, and can give us an idea of what to expect in years ahead.

Here’s a look at five long-term trends that are set to transform society as we know it.

The following article uses charts and data from our new book Signals (hardcover, ebook) which covers the 27 macro trends transforming the global economy and markets. In some cases, where appropriate, we’ve added in the most recent projections and data.

#1: Aging World

With every successive year, our global population is skewing older.

Since 1970, our worldwide median age has grown by almost a decade. By 2100, it’s projected to increase by another 10 years.

global median age chart in the signals book

Of course, not all countries are aging at the same rate.

Using data from the UN, the graph below covers the old-age dependency ratios (OADR) of different regions, showing the proportion of working-age citizens versus the percentage of older people, who are less likely to remain in the workforce.

old age dependency ratios chart from the signals book

What’s the economic impact of an aging population? Some potential risks include rising healthcare costs, a shrinking workforce, and even economic slowdowns.

To mitigate some of these risks, it’s crucial that countries build solid pension systems to support their aging citizens. Other potential solutions include increasing the age of retirement, enforcing mandatory retirement plans, and limiting early access to benefits.

Aging populations are also influencing the make-up of households in many countries. In the U.S., the share of multigenerational family households has been rising steadily since the 1970s.

multigenerational households in the us

At a societal level, people in the oldest age groups often play a different role in society than working age people. Many seniors engage in volunteerism and play a pivotal role in childcare for their families–activities that fall outside traditional measures of economic activity.

#2: Urban Evolution

Another macro trend that’s set to transform many regions of the world is rapid urbanization.

Currently, more than half of the global population lives in urban areas, and this influx of city-dwellers is expected to grow even more in the years ahead.

urban vs rural global population

While urbanization may seem like an long-established phenomenon, it’s actually a relatively new trend, historically speaking.

Throughout human history, populations have typically lived in small villages. All the way up to the early 1800s, close to 90% of the global population still lived in rural areas. Urbanization didn’t take off on a widespread scale until the 20th century.

But once urban migration started, it snowballed, and since then it’s shown no signs of slowing down. By 2050, over two-thirds of the global population is expected to live in urban settings.

The Rise of Megacities

Even in developing countries, urban life is becoming the norm – a shift that is causing a boom in megacity growth.

urban growth in developing countries

The median population size of the world’s top 100 cities has been growing steadily too – from eight million in 2000 to a projected 12 million in 2035.

Why is this happening? People tend to migrate to urban areas for socioeconomic reasons, and these economic pull-factors are particular strong in the developing world. Over time, this migration and increase in the standard of living is lifting millions of people out of poverty. This brings us to our third trend.

If you like this post, find hundreds of charts
like this in our new book “Signals”:


Signals: Book

#3: Rising Middle Class

While poverty is far from eradicated, the global middle class is growing, and fewer people are living in extreme poverty than ever before.

rising global middle class

As the above graph shows, there was an overall increase in daily income from 1971 to 1995. By 2019, income levels had increased even further.

According to Brookings, an average of five people are entering the global middle class per second, and by 2030, the worldwide middle class population is expected to reach 5.3 billion.

global population by wealth category

As the global middle class grows, so does the market for products and services around the world. And as the middle class has more disposable income to spend, these developing markets can create new opportunities for companies and investors alike.

In fact, according to MSCI, although global equity markets are dominated by North American companies (61.5%) in terms of market capitalization, the vast majority of revenues (70.1%) come from outside North America. As the rest of the developing world gets richer, this trend is likely to accelerate.

#4: Rising Wealth inequality

People in lower-income economies aren’t the only people generating more wealth—the richer are also increasing their net worth. By a lot.

Over the last few decades, the wealth of America’s top 10% has increased by billions of dollars, while the middle and bottom wealth groups have stayed relatively stagnant.

share of total wealth by wealth group

What’s driving this wealth inequality? One key factor is the different types of assets each wealth group owns. While the top 10% invest heavily in the stock market, other wealth groups rely on real estate as their main form of investment.

assets vs historical performance

Historically, equities have had higher returns than real estate—making the rich richer and leaving the bottom 90% behind.

#5: Environmental Pressures

So far, we’ve touched on four demographic shifts that are transforming society as we know it. But these changes in our global population size, wealth, and consumption habits have had far-reaching consequences. This last trend touches on one of those consequences—increased environmental pressure.

Since the year 1850, the global average temperature of land areas has risen twice as fast as the global average.

global surface temperatures

Various factors have contributed to increasing temperatures, but one major source stems from human-produced greenhouse gas emissions.

What human activities contribute to global emissions the most? The biggest culprit is industrial activity—32% of total emissions, while energy use in buildings comes in second at 17%.

Our Warmer World

Why is this significant? Rising temperatures pose a risk to our ecosystems and livelihood by changing weather patterns and putting the global food supply at risk.

climate change and extreme weather events

The past half-decade is likely to become the warmest five-year stretch in recorded history, underscoring the rapid pace of climate change. On a global scale, even a small increase in temperature can have a big impact on climate and our ecosystems.

For example, air can hold approximately 7% more moisture for every 1ºC increase, leading to an uptick in extreme rainfall events. These events can trigger landslides, increase the rate of soil erosion, and damage crops – just one example of how climate change can cause a chain reaction.

For the billions of people who live in “drylands”, climate change is serving up a completely different scenario of increased intensity and duration of drought. This is particularly worrisome as 90% of people in these arid or semiarid regions live in developing economies that are still very reliant on agriculture.

As a society, we will need to take a hard look at the way we consume in order to begin mitigating these risks. Will we rise to the challenge?

If you like this post, find hundreds of charts
like this in our new book “Signals”:


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Which Asian Economies Have the Most Sustainable Trade Policies?

The Sustainable Trade Index ranks 19 Asian economies and the U.S. across three categories of trade sustainability.

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Which Asian Economies Have the Most Sustainable Trade Policies?

To say that Asia has benefited from international trade is an understatement. By opening its economies to the rest of the world, the region has become a leading exporter in many of today’s most important industries.

Trade has also improved Asia’s quality of life, lifting over one billion people out of poverty since 1990. Without the proper controls, however, such rapid growth could have harmful effects on Asia’s environment and society.

In this infographic from The Hinrich Foundation, we break down the results of their 2020 Sustainable Trade Index (STI). Since 2016, this index has ranked 19 Asian economies and the U.S. across three categories of trade sustainability: economic, social, and environmental.

What Exactly is Sustainable Trade?

International trade is an important source of economic growth, enabling domestic businesses to expand, reach new customers, and gain exposure to foreign markets.

At the same time, countries that focus too heavily on exports put themselves at greater long-term risk. For example, an aggressive expansion into manufacturing is likely to impair the quality of a country’s air, while overdependence on a single product or sector can create an economy that is susceptible to demand shocks.

“The primary principle which underpins sustainable trade is balance. Trade cannot be pursued solely for economic gains, without considering environmental and social outcomes.”
– Merle A. Hinrich

Thus, sustainable trade supports not only economic growth, but also environmental protection and strengthened social capital. It involves finding a balance between short-term incentives and long-term resilience.

Measuring Sustainable Trade

The Sustainable Trade Index (STI) is based on three underlying pillars of trade sustainability. Every economy in the STI receives a score between 0 and 100 for each pillar.

PillarNumber of IndicatorsExamples of Indicators
Economic pillar21
  • Use of trade tariffs
  • Logistics performance
  • Growth in labor force
Social pillar12
  • Level of economic inequality
  • Presence of child labor
  • Educational attainment
Environmental pillar14
  • Level of air pollution
  • Reliance on natural resources
  • Environmental standards

The economic pillar measures a country’s ability to to grow its economy through trade, while the social pillar measures a population’s tolerance for trade expansion, given the costs and benefits of economic growth.

Last but not least, the environmental pillar measures a country’s proficiency at managing climate-related risks. Individual pillar scores are then aggregated to arrive at an overall ranking, which also has a maximum possible score of 100.

The Sustainable Trade Index 2020: Overall Rankings

For the first time in the STI’s history, Japan and South Korea have tied for first place. Both countries have placed in the top five previously, but 2020 marks the first time for either to take the top spot.

RankEconomyOverall Score
1 (tied)🇯🇵 Japan75.1
1 (tied)🇰🇷 South Korea75.1
3🇸🇬 Singapore70.2
4🇭🇰 Hong Kong68.3
5🇹🇼 Taiwan67.0
6🇺🇸 U.S.66.2
7🇨🇳 China56.5
8🇵🇭 Philippines55.9
🌏 Average55.1
9🇹🇭 Thailand50.5
10🇱🇰 Sri Lanka50.4
11🇲🇾 Malaysia49.5
12🇧🇩 Bangladesh49.4
13🇧🇳 Brunei48.5
14🇰🇭 Cambodia47.8
15 (tied)🇮🇳 India46.9
15 (tied)🇻🇳 Vietnam46.9
17🇮🇩 Indonesia46.3
18🇱🇦 Laos46.1
19🇵🇰 Pakistan43.9
20🇲🇲 Myanmar40.3

Advanced economies like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan were also strong performers, each scoring in the high 60s. At the other end of the spectrum, developing countries such as India and Vietnam were tightly packed within the 40 to 50 range.

To learn more, here’s how each country performed in the three underlying pillars.

1. Economic Pillar Rankings

Hong Kong topped the economic pillar for the first time thanks to its low trade costs and well-developed financial sector. Financial services have increased their contribution to Hong Kong’s GDP from 13% in 2004 to 20% in 2018.

The region’s recently initiated national security law—which has resulted in greater political instability—may have a negative effect on future rankings.

RankEconomyEconomic Score
1🇭🇰 Hong Kong69.6
2🇸🇬 Singapore68.7
3🇨🇳 China64.9
4🇰🇷 South Korea63.3
5 (tied)🇲🇾 Malaysia61.2
5 (tied)🇺🇸 U.S.61.2
7🇹🇼 Taiwan60.3
8🇧🇳 Brunei59.3
9 (tied)🇯🇵 Japan58.6
9 (tied)🇵🇭 Philippines58.6
🌏 Average56.9
11🇧🇩 Bangladesh56.3
12🇰🇭 Cambodia56
13🇱🇰 Sri Lanka54.7
14🇻🇳 Vietnam53.9
15🇮🇩 Indonesia52.1
16🇮🇳 India51.4
17🇲🇲 Myanmar49.5
18🇹🇭 Thailand47.4
19🇵🇰 Pakistan46.9
20🇱🇦 Laos44.0 

China was also a strong performer, climbing to third for the first time. Asia’s largest economy benefits from a well-diversified group of trading partners, meaning it doesn’t rely too heavily on a single market.

The bottom five countries—India (16th), Myanmar (17th), Thailand (18th), Pakistan (19th) and Laos (20th)—suffered from issues such as payment risk, which is measured as the difficulty of getting money in and out of a country. This risk is especially damaging to trade because it discourages foreign direct investment.

2. Social Pillar Rankings

The social pillar features the highest average score, but also the largest gap from top to bottom. This gap has expanded over recent years, growing from 43.9 points in 2018 to 52.3 in 2020.

RankEconomySocial Score
1🇹🇼 Taiwan88
2🇯🇵 Japan87.3
3🇰🇷 South Korea86.9
4🇺🇸 U.S.83.1
5🇸🇬 Singapore63.1
6🇵🇭 Philippines62.4
7🇹🇭 Thailand60.9
🌏 Average59.1
8🇭🇰 Hong Kong57.8
9🇧🇩 Bangladesh55.8
10🇲🇾 Malaysia53.6
11🇱🇦 Laos53.0
12🇮🇳 India52.5
13🇮🇩 Indonesia52.4
14🇧🇳 Brunei51.6
15🇻🇳 Vietnam50.4
16🇨🇳 China50.2
17🇰🇭 Cambodia46.2
18🇱🇰 Sri Lanka46.1
19🇵🇰 Pakistan45.6
20🇲🇲 Myanmar35.7

Taiwan claimed the top spot for the second time, solidifying its reputation as Asia’s leader in human capital development. It performed well in the educational attainment indicator, with 93.6% of its population receiving a tertiary education.

China, despite its success in other pillars, only managed 16th. This was partly due to the effects of its now defunct one-child policy, which has been responsible for creating gender imbalances and a shrinking population.

3. Environmental Pillar Rankings

The environmental pillar has the lowest average score of the three. Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea were the only countries to score above 75.

RankEconomyEnvironmental Score
1🇯🇵 Japan80.0
2🇸🇬 Singapore78.7
3🇭🇰 Hong Kong77.4
4🇰🇷 South Korea75.2
5🇨🇳 China54.5
6🇺🇸 U.S.54.3
7🇹🇼 Taiwan52.8
8🇱🇰 Sri Lanka50.4
🌏 Average49.1
9🇵🇭 Philippines46.6
10🇹🇭 Thailand43.2
11🇰🇭 Cambodia41.2
12🇱🇦 Laos41.1
13🇵🇰 Pakistan39.3
14🇮🇳 India36.7
15🇻🇳 Vietnam36.3
16🇧🇩 Bangladesh36.0
17🇲🇲 Myanmar35.6
18🇧🇳 Brunei34.6
19🇮🇩 Indonesia34.3
20🇲🇾 Malaysia33.8

The top four performed well in areas such as air quality and water pollution, and with the exception of Hong Kong, have all introduced carbon pricing schemes in the past decade. This doesn’t mean these countries are without their flaws, however.

Land-constrained Singapore, for instance, ranked 16th in the deforestation indicator. The city-state is one of the densest population centers in the world, and has cut down forests to clear space for further settlement and urbanization.

Building Back Better From COVID-19

Despite the damage that COVID-19 has caused, there are some silver linings. This includes the environmental benefits experienced by China, where lockdowns reduced carbon emissions by 200 million tonnes in a single month. It’s been estimated that after two months, China’s reduced pollution levels saved the lives of 77,000 people.

These temporary improvements are an explicit reminder of the environmental and social costs associated with economic growth. In response, governments in Asia are taking steps to ensure the long-term sustainability of their nations. Japan and South Korea both announced their commitments to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, while China set a similar goal for 2060.

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Mapping the World’s Key Maritime Choke Points

Ocean shipping is the primary mode of international trade. This map identifies maritime choke points that pose a risk to this complex logistic network.

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maritime choke points

Mapping the World’s Key Maritime Choke Points

Maritime transport is an essential part of international trade—approximately 80% of global merchandise is shipped via sea.

Because of its importance, commercial shipping relies on strategic trade routes to move goods efficiently. These waterways are used by thousands of vessels a year—but it’s not always smooth sailing. In fact, there are certain points along these routes that pose a risk to the whole system.

Here’s a look at the world’s most vulnerable maritime bottlenecks—also known as choke points—as identified by GIS.

What’s a Choke Point?

Choke points are strategic, narrow passages that connect two larger areas to one another. When it comes to maritime trade, these are typically straits or canals that see high volumes of traffic because of their optimal location.

Despite their convenience, these vital points pose several risks:

  • Structural risks: As demonstrated in the recent Suez Canal blockage, ships can crash along the shore of a canal if the passage is too narrow, causing traffic jams that can last for days.
  • Geopolitical risks: Because of their high traffic, choke points are particularly vulnerable to blockades or deliberate disruptions during times of political unrest.

The type and degree of risk varies, depending on location. Here’s a look at some of the biggest threats, at eight of the world’s major choke points.

maritime choke point risks

Because of their high risk, alternatives for some of these key routes have been proposed in the past—for instance, in 2013 Nicaraguan Congress approved a $40 billion dollar project proposal to build a canal that was meant to rival the Panama Canal.

As of today, it has yet to materialize.

A Closer Look: Key Maritime Choke Points

Despite their vulnerabilities, these choke points remain critical waterways that facilitate international trade. Below, we dive into a few of the key areas to provide some context on just how important they are to global trade.

The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is a lock-type canal that provides a shortcut for ships traveling between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Ships sailing between the east and west coasts of the U.S. save over 8,000 nautical miles by using the canal—which roughly shortens their trip by 21 days.

In 2019, 252 million long tons of goods were transported through the Panama Canal, which generated over $2.6 billion in tolls.

The Suez Canal

The Suez Canal is an Egyptian waterway that connects Europe to Asia. Without this route, ships would need to sail around Africa, which would add approximately seven days to their trips. In 2019, nearly 19,000 vessels, and 1 billion tons of cargo, traveled through the Suez Canal.

In an effort to mitigate risk, the Egyptian government embarked on a major expansion project for the canal back in 2015. But, given the recent blockage caused by a Taiwanese container ship, it’s clear that the waterway is still vulnerable to obstruction.

The Strait of Malacca

At its smallest point, the Strait of Malacca is approximately 1.5 nautical miles, making it one of the world’s narrowest choke points. Despite its size, it’s one of Asia’s most critical waterways, since it provides a critical connection between China, India, and Southeast Asia. This choke point creates a risky situation for the 130,000 or so ships that visit the Port of Singapore each year.

The area is also known to have problems with piracy—in 2019, there were 30 piracy incidents, according to private information group ReCAAP ISC.

The Strait of Hormuz

Controlled by Iran, the Strait of Hormuz links the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, ultimately draining into the Arabian Sea. It’s a primary vein for the world’s oil supply, transporting approximately 21 million barrels per day.

Historically, it’s also been a site of regional conflict. For instance, tankers and commercial ships were attacked in that area during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is another primary waterway for the world’s oil and natural gas. Nestled between Africa and the Middle East, the critical route connects the Mediterranean Sea (via the Suez Canal) to the Indian Ocean.

Like the Strait of Malacca, it’s well known as a high-risk area for pirate attacks. In May 2020, a UK chemical tanker was attacked off the coast of Yemen–the ninth pirate attack in the area that year.

Due to the strategic nature of the region, there is a strong military presence in nearby Djibouti, including China’s first ever foreign military base.

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