If you don't know where you're going, educator/writer Laurence J. Peter said tongue-in-cheekishly, you probably will end up somewhere else.

From time immemorial, we humans have tried to divine the future. Predictions that succeeded often were as much lucky guesses as analytical brilliance. But computers now enable prognosticators to analyze massive amounts of data and apply the results to the future. Perhaps no field has benefited more from this technology than demographics, the study of population trends and how those trends relate to everything from how many schools will be needed in a given neighborhood to the graying of American farmers to how much ice cream will be purchased in a particular city in a particular month.

However dull the study of demographics may seem, population changes that are under way will have a tremendous impact on the United States and the world, says Andrew Zolli, a futurist for Z+ Partners.

“Many of the world's populations are about to shift in a very dramatic way,” he said at a recent St. Petersburg, Fla., conference for editors of Primedia Business Magazines and Media (which include the Farm Presses).

For centuries, he notes, populations have been pyramid-shaped, with a large base of children (future workers), tapering upward through a sizable young/middle-aged segment (present workers), and coming to a point with a smaller elderly (minimally-productive) group.

“With a stable pyramid like that, a population can achieve great productivity and, through taxation, invest in education and social services that benefit everyone.”

But says Zolli, population pyramids are becoming distorted. “The baby boomer generation is altering the shape of the U.S. pyramid. With this rapidly-growing elderly group, we're moving toward an hourglass-shaped population, which is not nearly as economically sustainable. We're headed over the next 25 years toward a society that will see a fundamental realignment of life in this country — an older population (which tends to be more conservative) will affect politics, workplace issues, and other issues that can result in a chafing between generations.”

The population movement to Sunbelt states will continue, Zolli says, with a 43 percent growth rate forecast for Western states, Georgia, and Florida, and only 6 percent growth for the rest of the country. “By mid-century, 1 in 4 people in the United States will be Hispanic. Spanish will be mandatory as a second language, closely followed by Asian languages.”

Population pyramids are also changing elsewhere, he notes. “Russia's pyramid is becoming inverted, with more old people than young. It's a potentially very dangerous sociological problem.” Other countries, such as Germany and Italy have such low birth rates they are nearing deficit population growth.

Countries that have been fostering and exporting terrorism, Zolli says, have had “gigantic explosions in the numbers of young people, which has resulted in high unemployment and no opportunity for advancing in society. Most of what we view as a war with terrorism is really a demographic problem.”

A significant challenge in the years ahead, he says, will be how societies relate to each other. Europe, for example, is facing “a huge migration” of people from other countries, which it isn't prepared to handle, and that can cause problems.