Mark Trahant on Lake Como, Bellagio, Italy. He was a resident of the Rockefeller Center.

By Mark Trahant
News From Indian Country

Distance is always a great way to rethink problems. And, after a month at Bellagio, Italy, I can’t imagine a better place to sit back and ponder. Every morning I opened my window and stepped on to a small deck overlooking Lake Como and sipped coffee while engaging in thought.

The conversations I heard in Europe were not all that different from those going on in America: What’s the best way to solve or manage national debt, lower unemployment, and, perhaps, more important, how do we recapture the sense of a better future for our children?

Across the ocean, the bitterness of American politics faded. I didn’t miss the shouting on cable that substitutes for discourse because from that distance it’s clear that the problems we face in America can be solved, they are manageable. In Europe, on the other hand, the scale of the issues seems nearly intractable.

But the root issues are exactly the same: There is an unprecedented, global demographic imbalance. In the Western world, we are older and we require more governmental resources at the very moment when governments are stretched beyond their ability to deliver services. This imbalance is so great that it stirs a threat of a new kind of civil war, not one based on borders or ideology, but a war for resources based on our age.

The increasing number of older people represents a challenge to any society, but it’s not just that there are more of us, it’s that there are more of us living longer. In the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Canada, Japan, the trend of living longer is increasing.  Today one in ten people, globally, are over 60 years old. Forty years from now that number will double to one in five. By then people over 60 will outnumber children.

Think about this in the context of work. Or poverty. Or how governments aggressively insist on austerity measures that pit one generation against another.

The thing about demographics is that these trends are already cast in a concrete that’s quickly drying. There’s nothing we can do at this point to break the mold; our smartest option is to figure out how to live in that world of imbalance, a world requiring a new kind of austerity, a world of less.

But while we in Europe and America are growing older there’s another demographic counter-trend,  a rapid population increase. But practically all of that growth is occuring in cities in poor countries. For the first time in history more people now live in cities than do in rural communities, some 3.5 billion people. In poor countries that urban population is expected to double over the next forty years, going from 2.6 billion to 5.2 billion. That trend is most pronounced in Sub-Saharan Africa. United Nations demographers project by 2050 that region will reach between 1.5 and 2 billion people making to the most densely populated corner of the planet. Two out of three Africans are under the age of 25 (roughly twice that of the Europe). Most Africans still live in rural areas, but that too is changing. In 1960 there was only one city over a million people in Africa -- Johannesberg -- and now there are forty megacities. By 2030 the UN estimates most Africans will live in cities.

That same kind of demographic imbalance is also present in the United States with distinct populations. American Indians are an example of a microtrend. The median age in the United States is 43, that is half the population is older and half is younger. But that number is rising every year. Indian Country, on the other hand, has a median age of 30. And, about 30 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives were younger than 18, while only 8 percent were 65 and older.

So back to the original questions. How best solve or manage national debt, lower unemployment and recapture the sense of a better future for our children? We need distance. Rethink our debt and consider the why of our spending issues. Sure, we need to cut spending in some areas, but it’s far more important for us to focus on our human investments and find solutions that match our demographic imbalance. These trends -- as different as they are -- represent an opportunity (if we act). The populations that are growing could be a new economic foundation. Young people could, in effect, work and therefore support older populations.

But the only way to take advantage of that opportunity is to bridge an economic and education gap as we have never done before. We need to make sure that all education programs, from schools, to colleges, to training programs, have the recources necessary for success. We need to be creative and recognize that young people everywhere are more essential than ever.

Our American political debate, at least as I saw from afar, seems to ignore this demographic reality. Instead of investing in government or education that benefit young people, we are cutting and diverting that money to programs that benefit older people. This make no sense. If we are to have any hope of sustaining the programs that both Republicans and Democrats promise will not change for seniors, then there must be a renewed emphisis on the young.

Lucky me. I am just at the ideal age, the tail end of the Baby Boom. I am in my mid-50s. I am too young for the current programs and at the cut-off point for most of the proposed changes. So I write this with self-interest: If we don’t as a society invest in young people, there really will be nothing left for my generation.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant was a resident at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center where he was working on a book about austerity.