x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 October 2017

Explaining the psychological challenges of population growth

The world is changing rapidly. In a few short decades, it will be a very different place. Policy-makers should take note

A study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, looked at the correlation between population density and mental health problems. Akintunde Akinleye / Reuters
A study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, looked at the correlation between population density and mental health problems. Akintunde Akinleye / Reuters

On a recent trip back to the UK, I visited a branch of my favourite coffee shop chain. The menu was identical to that of the branches I frequent in the UAE. The chairs were the same, the smells were the same, too. In fact, every aspect of the décor felt familiar. They were even playing the same unobtrusive background music. For a brief moment, I felt like a character in a fictional dystopia, where human experience had been subjected to state-sanctioned homogenisation. Then, one obvious difference hit me. Everyone in this UK coffee shop was either middle-aged or elderly. Where were all the young people?

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My observation of the coffee shop’s demography was a micro-level glimpse of a macro-level reality. The UK, on average, has an older population than the UAE. According to the latest data from the United Nations, the median age in the UK is 40, while in the UAE, it’s 33. Old man Japan has an average of 46.

Thirty-three is a highly symbolic age. According to Christian tradition, 33 was the age at which Jesus was crucified. Within the Islamic tradition, 33 is known as the paradisal age, the age of the inhabitants of paradise: “they will all enter Paradise at the age of strength and youth, thirty-three years old” (Al Tirmidhi, 2545).

Concerning average age, then, the UAE is presently right in the sweet spot. But this won’t last. Globally, the trend is towards ageing populations. Ironically, as we became enamoured with thinness, our societal rates of obesity increased, and as we become more youth obsessed, our societies are getting progressively older. It’s like we are hardwired to most want that which is most elusive.

This phenomenon of an ageing population is sometimes referred to by economists as an inverse population pyramid. This is where young people, once the broad base of the structure, become a minority, and the elderly, once the narrow tip of the pyramid, become the many. The causes for this demographic transition are relatively obvious: people are living longer and choosing to have fewer children. The experts, let's call them futurologists, speculate wildly about the likely consequences of these changes in the coming decades. One suggestion is that nations with particularly elderly populations will become heavily dependent on young immigrant workers.

But what about the psychological consequences of this demographic transition? It might mean increased workloads, on account of there being a lot less youth and lots more retirees. Work is good for psychological health, but overwork isn't. Also, being a member of a minority group is very often associated with poorer mental health status. In some nations, youth have already become a rapidly shrinking demographic minority. Perhaps this transition is playing a part in the rising rates of child and adolescent mental health problems experienced in several nations.

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As well as ageing, at present, many of our populations are also growing larger. More people typically means more problems. For mental health, this is certainly the case. The issue, however, isn’t population size but rather population density – the number of people per square mile.

A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry explored the entire Swedish population (4.4 million people) over a four-year period. The study looked at the relationship between population density and rates of mental health problems. Increasing levels of urbanisation (rising population density) were associated with an increased incidence of depression and other, more severe mental health concerns. Increasing population density doesn’t seem to bode well for mental health.

The UAE’s population has multiplied since the year 2000, roughly tripling to meet the current 9.1 million mark. Despite this rapid growth, however, the UAE's overall population density is still relatively low, at 291 people per square mile. The UK presently endures 701 people per square mile. But this, too, will pass.

We humans are flexible, resilient and typically adapt well to our changing environments. Despite the consistent look and feel to our coffee shops, other aspects of the world are changing rapidly. In a few short decades, it will be a very different place. Many of the new challenges we face will be psychological. Let’s prepare for them now. This, in fact, is the theme of the 2017 International Psychology Conference Dubai: Change is the new norm.