Futurist and author Parag Khanna looks hopefully at the shifting global migration trends that are shaping our political scenarios.
If you think the world has gotten unfathomably complicated, you’re not alone. As we careen through the third decade of the 21st century we face political upheaval, revolution, civil war, international conflicts, refugee flows, climate change, economic and technological disruption, a COVID-19 pandemic, rising levels of debt, demographic imbalance between the old and the young, racial conflict, and a tsunami of disinformation.
According to our guest, futurist, Asia expert, and best-selling author Parag Khanna (Move: The Forces Uprooting Us), these forces are not on a parallel track, but are colliding with each other in an ever more complex mix. It is, according to Khanna, historically unprecedented.
And deeply disturbing. Instead of working together to meet these challenges, we have succumbed to alienation, making the world more tribal, more anxious, and more fearful.
Yet Khanna believes that our current malaise may be but a temporary blip. He points to the recent dramatic increase in immigration to the UK, Canada, Germany, and even Japan, as a sign that the early-21st century wave of xenophobia, which triggered populist and nationalistic political upheavals, has crested and is fading
Khanna argues that this renewed global migration, which he sees continuing in spite of both COVID-19 and the attendant supply chain crisis, will shape the future in ways hard to predict but based on an unshakeable fact: In today’s economy, not only can more and more people work from anywhere, but people anywhere in the world can do your job, usually more cheaply.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. At no time in civilization have so many forces been at play in reshaping the world. The complexity of everything is growing. Global geopolitical risks are rising. Technologies are impacting everything and creating new anxiety. Climate change is reshaping our very topography. The economic gap within and between nations is rising, and a younger generation feels alienated from being able to control the levers that will shape their changing future. Arguably, this convergence of forces and events is having precisely the wrong effect in parts of the world.
Instead of huddling together to take on these challenges, our anxiety and alienation has made the world more tribal, more fearful, more nationalistic, and we see the worst of populism on the rise. Rather than seeing the world and all this change as an opportunity, too many want to dig in, shelter in place, and simply be angry. How we move on from this is the work and insight of my guest, visionary futurist Parag Khanna. Parag Khanna is the founder and managing partner of FutureMap, a global strategic advisory firm. He is the international bestselling author of seven books, including The Second World, Connectography, and The Future Is Asian.
He was named one of Esquire’s 75 most influential people of the 21st century and holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. It is my pleasure to welcome Parag Khanna back to this program to talk about his newest work, Move: The Forces Uprooting Us. Parag, thanks so much for joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Parag Khanna: Great to speak with you again, Jeff.
Jeff: Well, it’s great to have you here. Are we, in fact, witnessing a convergence of forces right now that are almost unparalleled from a historical perspective, that there are just so many things that are in play at the same time?
Parag: That is exactly right, and the one-word answer or summary of everything you just said is complexity. All of these forces colliding at the same time produces outcomes that we just can’t predict in advance. It’s literally too complex.
We have the political upheavals of revolutions, civil wars, international conflicts, refugee flows. We have climate change, we have economic disruptions and crises that have been induced by COVID or by our huge mounting debt. We have demographic imbalances between old and young. All of these crises at the same time, and they don’t work in parallel, Jeff.
They literally collide with each other, and they’re pushing us and pulling us in all-new directions all the time. So it is truly historically unprecedented.
Jeff: And the overwhelming reaction that at least it feels like, and I know that you write about and move and talk about a lot of positive things that are happening, but the overwhelming sense that I think people have is that it has created fear, anxiety, and alienation.
Parag: Yes, because that’s true and indeed part one, yet one more of the variables is this psychological sense of fear with COVID only compounding it. Of course, COVID being one of these things that we literally cannot see, and I think that makes things even scarier, but that doesn’t mean that everyone equally around the world or even in America feels the same sense of anxiety. This has been, believe it or not, a liberating time for many people.
Think about all the people who have relocated by choice during the pandemic away from overpriced and crowded cities into suburbs and places with fresh air and lower cost of living and a higher quality of life. There are obviously a fair number of Americans who have actually taken advantage of this moment to this lockdown of the last couple of years. So part of what you’re describing, actually, is, in fact, what we’re saying isn’t contradictory. It just shows that part of this whole process is that many people feel that they’re on their own.
Whether you’re on your own feeling anxious or whether you’re on your own being opportunistic — either way, this is a world where our systems are not really supporting us equitably to cope with this complex new reality.
Jeff: And one of the interesting things about COVID as you talk about it that people can move around, a lot of people can and do their work, but, of course, the other side of that is that if you can work from anywhere, that means people anywhere in the world can do your job.
Parag: That’s exactly right, and that is a quote from a great journalist from the Financial Times, Simon Kuper, and what he’s saying is that sure, it must be liberating to be able to take your work remotely, but your boss, your employer, your company is probably thinking, “If this guy or a woman isn’t even coming to the office, why don’t I just find someone cheaper who’s offshore in Mexico or India to do the job at half the price?”
So now — and companies, Jeff, have been very transparent about saying that — and they’re saying, “You know what? Thanks to COVID and digitization, we’re just going to look for the best person at the best price for us anywhere in the world.” So, now, on top of everything else, each person is in this kind of… I don’t want to say dog eat dog but definitely in very much a ruthless competition with every other person for digital jobs.
Jeff: And the thing that we see in some ways, a response to this is this sense of both nationalism and populism that seems to be awash in the world.
Parag: Well, I don’t like to generalize about this populism and nationalism because, A, we talk about it as being totally universal when it isn’t necessarily, and also it’s not necessarily as long-lasting as we think it is. A lot of people that I talk to around the world still refer or think about American immigration policy as if Donald Trump is still president, but he’s not still president. And we’re changing course pretty dramatically on immigration. Canada is a pillar of Western civilization, and Canada is massively open to migration.
In fact, it is the per capita largest importer of people in the world.
Germany, a country that you wouldn’t expect to be a place that’s becoming a very diverse country and an immigration magnet, really is exactly that. So the truth is that a lot of countries are changing course on immigration despite their populist reputations and they’re actually benefiting from it.
Jeff: The most surprising example that you write about in Move is that even Japan is beginning to open up.
Parag: Even Japan. And that tells you that it’s a sign of the times because there’ve never been 3 million foreigners living in Japan. Now, that may feel like a drop in the bucket when you’re in one of the rural areas where only Japanese people live, but, when you’re in Tokyo, you’re starting to sense it more and more. And Tokyo, let’s remember, is one of the two or three biggest cities in the entire world. But the fact are facts. That 3 million people is a lot of foreigners, and let’s remember Japan is an island. They didn’t get there by accident. Japan let these people come.
So we think of Japan is being such an insular country, but, even there, they’re saying, “We need migrants” because guess what? They do. Their population is shrinking, collapsing. They have the longest life expectancy in the world and aging population but also high mortality and very few children. So to maintain a system of high-quality infrastructure, and welfare and retirement save spending and all of these things — generous entitlements — that requires a lot of taxpayers, and they don’t have a lot of young taxpayers. They do need to import them.
Jeff: Where does China fit in this equation?
Parag: China’s fascinating because it is still the most populous country in the world but just barely. They just recently had a census, and it turns out that China has about 100 million fewer people than we thought it did, but it’s still obviously very big. We also talk about China as if it’s entirely aging, but that’s not true. A country so big as China actually still has 700 million people below the median age. So China has more young people than all of Europe has people. China has twice as many young people as all of America has people.
So China is a place that is still and also at the world’s largest diaspora. There are 50 million Chinese people outside of China. But, given that there are so few children in China, or rather I should say that fertility is declining in China, so the next generation is going to be much smaller. They actually need to import people. So it’s the strangest thing that’s happening. You would not think that the world’s most populous country needs to import people, but it does because there’s not enough young Chinese people who want to be nurses and caregivers for older Chinese people.
So the mismatch in the job market and the labor market, just something that’s happening here too, is a major problem that China has to deal with. And again, what’s the solution? Well, it’s migration.
Jeff: And, as this migration happens and it becomes a global contest for talent as much as anything else, to what degree does that impact greater economic divides?
Parag: Well, that’s a very nuanced, very subtle, very important question that you’re raising. On the one hand, we know that for the last more than 100 years that when people move from poor countries to wealthier countries, they earn higher salaries. They’re able to send back remittances, and those remittances are very important for families to build homes, and put children through school, and so forth. So to deny that migration and the economic benefits that it brings is actually devastating, even though, on the other hand, it leads to some degree of brain drainage.
But Jeff, there’s no question, we have a lot of research on this. This is not some hypothetical question. Overall, it’s better to have that migration than not to have it. Obviously, at the same time, you want to be increasing the integration of those countries into the world economy. You want them to have investment coming in so that they can actually build better infrastructure and modernize as well. So you want to continue to have the globalization of people and the globalization of capital and investment and trade because it literally does bring those overall benefits to some of the poorest countries in the world.
Jeff: To what extent do you think that COVID has put a damper, at least, on this kind of migration in this global openness?
Parag: It really is temporary. Of course, COVID was a major lockdown. I mean it’s literally the most coordinated single action that the human species has ever undertaken, Jeff. To lock ourselves down never happened before at this scale at this speed. And so it goes in the exact opposite direction of what I’m talking about. But let’s remember that those forces that we were discussing at the very top of the discussion around political upheavals and climate change and labor market shortages and economic crises, those things aren’t going away. So COVID is temporary, and those things are pretty much permanent.
So you have to just look into the present or into the near future to see that migration is going to continue on an ever larger scale even more so than before the pandemic when it was already massive. Just to make a brief point, Jeff, if you go back over the centuries, every century, the number of migrants shifts massively. The decimal point keeps moving to the right. We lived in previous centuries, and there are only millions of migrants, then tens of millions, then hundreds of millions in the 20th century. And now we have potentially in this century over a billion people moving and crossing borders.
So this is truly an irreversible process. And remember, if COVID motivates people to want to leave places that had poor health care and didn’t manage the crisis well, and one final point is the technology which is that now that everyone needs a QR code with your vaccine status to travel. There are a lot of other aspects of travel, where, instead of having a floppy passport and ink stamps and lots of bureaucracy, all of those other requirements for travel can be QR codes as well.
And we might after COVID make migration, make crossing borders a lot more seamless and digital than it was before. So that’s the way we need to think about things. The future is never just a simple continuation of the past.
Jeff: It’s as if everybody will be on some blockchain somewhere.
Parag: Well, in a way, that is an important part of the argument because, let’s face it, for better or worse, a lot of your personal data, your travel history, your criminal records, your financial statements — all of those things are somewhere online. If you had them on a secure blockchain, you could provide access to that information to whatever government it is to whom you’re applying for a visa. And you could be granted a digital visa. And you simply show that visa on your phone, on an app, when you’re traveling there. Who needs that floppy passport, right? I mean, that can be faked. But your iris scan can’t be faked.
So I think that we actually should be putting a lot of this information on secure blockchains and deciding when it’s shared and whom it’s shared with to have an exchange for more seamless access to the places that we need to go to and want to go to.
Jeff: It seems, though, that, in terms of the migration, there are potentially conflicting forces, but the idea that supply and demand and talent will dictate immigration policy is true. But there’s also climate change and the degree to which that has its own plan for immigration.
Parag: Well, climate change definitely is dividing the world into livable and unlivable places. I certainly believe that people who find themselves involuntarily through no fault of their own in unlivable places because of the accumulated effects of climate change should be given a chance to migrate. We should encourage that, we should promote it, we should actively relocate people from unlivable places. And I think that’s not only the right thing to do from a humanitarian perspective. It’s actually economically sensible because, remember, it’s our countries in the northern hemisphere that have the labor shortages.
We literally need the people, and the people are in the places that are unlivable. It doesn’t make sense, Jeff, economically or from a moral standpoint. And we have it within our power to do this gradually. I’m not talking about billions of people storming the borders. We actually should make this into a political and international diplomatic priority, and do this in an orderly fashion, and it can absolutely be done. It doesn’t even require a great deal of imagination. It just requires a bit of focus and willpower.
Jeff: How strong, though, are the internal nationalistic forces in so many countries today? And to what extent are they hindering, in some cases, this kind of global sweep that we’re talking about?
Parag: Well, again, those nationalist, xenophobic, populist forces are a lot weaker than we think. Let me give you another example: Brexit, the UK. It’s easier to move to England right now, Jeff, as an Asian, citizen of an Asian country, a poor Asian country than it was before Brexit because they’ve actually learned the hard way how self-destructive it is to have these labor shortages and to be losing talent. During the pandemic, they had a shortage of 50,000 nurses. Right now, as we speak, they have a shortage of 100,000 truck drivers.
There’s talk about there not being hot food for Christmas in England because they’re short of labor, and the supply chains have been disrupted. And a lot of this is a result of incredibly stupid immigration policy that resulted from Brexit. So they’re actually turning a corner. They’ve learned their lesson, taking their lumps, and they’ve woken up and said, “You know what? We can’t do this. We need people.” So those same countries that we portray as being xenophobic and populist and racist, and so forth, even they’re learning that it’s better to have more people.
And the people that you need when you need them tend to have shortages of people. And let’s also remember, Jeff, do we admire the politics of Hungary or of Poland or of Italy or Greece? These aren’t countries we look up to. We’re not supposed to look up to racist, populist countries. Let them learn the lessons the hard way by making mistakes and driving away people. These same countries, Jeff, are the ones that are losing people because their people hate their government. There’s nothing to look up to in that. We should be doing the opposite of what those countries are doing.
Jeff: Because people and politicians, in particular, in these countries tend to be so reactive in the short run, and often lose the long-run vision. There’s lots of talk about the current supply chain crisis and the degree to which that’s going to impact globalization and international trade in the long run, that it’s going to create fear and restriction as time goes on. Talk about that.
Parag: Well, I mean yes and no. The supply chain crisis is largely a temporary issue that has to do, obviously, with COVID and the difficulty in workers being as efficient as they used to be, and so forth. But at the same time, there’s a number of trends that point to, let’s say, a brighter future. First of all, we’re investing a lot in our own capacity from North America, Europe, Asia. We’ll start making a lot more things ourselves: medical equipment, face masks, semiconductors, automobile parts. We’ll be 3D printing these things. Every country is using industrial policy to nearshore and automate these kinds of things. So that’s one factor in this.
And so I think also we’re going back towards… Unemployment is coming down. And when unemployment is low, again, countries realize that they would actually have much higher growth if they had larger populations as well. And they don’t fear that immigrants are coming and taking away local jobs, and so forth. So I think we’re going to learn the lessons from the pandemic, and the lesson is not that shutting down and being xenophobic is good for us. The lesson is that we actually need to have more solidarity in our society.
And that only if we have inclusive economic growth, if we vaccinate everyone, and if we have international cooperation are we going to get through situations like this faster than we did this time around.
Jeff: What do you see with respect to who the winners and losers might be as this transformation unfolds?
Parag: Well, the biggest transformation is the climate one. And here, climate science, climate models give us a pretty clear sense of which geographies are going to be more livable versus less livable. And there are not a lot of surprises in there, quite frankly. The Great Lakes region, Canada, Northern Europe. What I do in the book is that I basically put chapters about each of these places and talk about how they’re winners, why they’re winners, what are they doing right politically, how are they retrofitting their infrastructure, what are their immigration policies, how are they creating jobs for people.
I profiled places to which people, young people in particular, are moving, especially Canada and places like Germany, and I mentioned Japan earlier, and even some of the places that you wouldn’t necessarily expect.
Jeff: How does the US fit into that right now?
Parag: Well, America is a huge country, and even though we don’t fret and worry about all the natural disasters afflicting us, and there are many, and we should be very concerned about floods and droughts and rising sea levels and heatwaves. The fact is that, again, if Americans consciously relocate to the places that are more climate-resilient, then they’re going to be more productive. We don’t want to be a survival society where people are rebuilding homes all the time in places where forest fires come through every single season. That’s not productive, that’s not healthy. That’s dangerous.
We need to encourage people to move to climate-resilient areas, and that’s going to be good for the country, good for our economy, good for our health.
Jeff: Has there been a trend of people being less willing to move?
Parag: Well, there had been that trend. And that’s called being “stuck in place.” And for the last generation, Americans just became more sedentary than we were during the Great Society era and when the interstate highway system was built, and the great westward expansion took place, but we settled down a bit too much, I would say. And now Americans are moving again, not enough, quite frankly. Again, those that could afford to, those that could upgrade, those that could move to suburbs into… They could move to Boise, Idaho, or whatever the case may be.
A lot of that happened, but remember we’ve got 330, 340 million people, and still a lot of the poorest people are stuck in place, and we need to help those people. We need to help them also move to places where there are jobs and, ideally, places that are climate-resilient. I make the case that if you look at Louisiana, its population is actually declining now, and that’s not, again, by choice. Louisiana gets hit by natural disasters very, very frequently, and people are losing hope.
And they should move rather than spending all the money on rebuilding their power lines, and their power lines are just going to get knocked out again next year. We should be helping them move to places where they can lead a better life, and that’s something I strongly advocate for. It’s something that, again, as Americans within our own large country should be very, very doable.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about geopolitics, global geopolitics right now, and the threats that that poses.
Parag: Well, there’s the geopolitics, traditional geopolitics, and the huge we don’t factor in climate change as much. We worry about the US-China confrontation over Taiwan, tensions in the South Sea, countries like Iran and North Korea and these kinds of situations and, of course, Russia’s meddling in the Ukraine. All of these are live geopolitical tensions that are very, very sharp and intense at the moment, and any one of them could potentially escalate into a larger conflict. And then you bring in climate change, where you have to worry that you’re going to have water wars, resource/land grabs, so confrontations over river systems, over agriculture.
And I think that is going to play out locally in quite a few parts of the world. So the reality of geopolitics today is much more complicated than simply America wants to be number one, China wants to be number one. The world is way, way fuzzier and more complex than that. The geopolitical future is much more futures in which every region or continent looks quite different, depending on who the leading power is there and what the climate situation is and what’s happening in their industries and those kinds of much more technical questions.
Jeff: And how important will leadership be as this world changes?
Parag: Oh, when is leadership not important? It’s extremely important, and part of what is most important is to think long-term, to see what the inevitable realities are and to adapt accordingly, not to pretend that you can just recreate the past. And I think that that is really lacking these days: long-term thinking. I see it to some degree with the infrastructure bill, even though it should be much, much more financially. It’s obviously saying like, it’s time to focus on retrofitting our physical infrastructure against climate change, and that’s the right sentiment.
So things like that give me some hope for long-term thinking and leadership, but, at the international level, it’s definitely lacking, and that’s really problematic. And that’s what we saw at COP26, Jeff. COP26 was a pretty much a flop, a failure. Nothing on the scale of what’s really going to be needed to reduce emissions was agreed there. It almost felt like it’s too little, too late.
Jeff: What gives you the least hope? What worries you the most?
Parag: Probably, I would say our minimal spending on climate adaptation. So we are talking about Manhattan projects for reducing climate change, for decarbonizing industries, for greening supply chains. But we only give about five percent of that total climate investment to adaptation, to building sea walls and coastal barriers, to relocating populations, to doing better heating and cooling systems at our buildings, to doing more wastewater treatment and water desalination. We’re not spending nearly enough on all those things that actually can improve or stabilize our daily lives in a climate-change world. So I would say climate adaptation, or the lack of climate adaptation is what worries me the most.
Jeff: Parag Khanna, the book is Move: The Forces Uprooting Us. Parag, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast today.
Parag: Such a pleasure. Thank you, Jeff.
Jeff: Thank you, and thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.