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Using Demographic Predictions, UW Prof Expounds Upon Trends in Tech

Madison, Wis. -- Paul Voss looks at the future in terms of social, not technological, change, but his demographic predictions could reveal upcoming trends in the technology needed by certain segments of the population.

The professor of rural sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison addressed the Madison chapter of the World Future Society Thursday in a presentation titled “America’s Changing Demographic Portrait.” He said the United States’ population includes ever-growing numbers of elderly, who will create an increasing demand for specialized health care and other services.

They will compete with other public services such as education, he said, pointing to the issues raised so far in the race for the 2004 presidential election.

“It’s not focused so much on education as it is on health care and prescription drugs,” he said.

Predictions based on the aging of the population are “rather certain,” Voss said. After all, he added, in one year everyone will be either a year older or dead, and death rates by age are fairly well-known.
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That means a spike in the number of births, such as the Baby Boom, will travel intact, like a wave, through a country’s age distribution. The resulting surge in the older segment of the population will exert a growing influence not only on public policy, but on technology.

“Any equipment that is involved in geriatric care, there’s going to be an explosion,” Voss said.

An aging population will also have to deal with technologies developing at a furious pace. While children brought up with computers, for instance, are often adept at learning their controls, it will take time for this knowledge to become common in the population as a whole.

“You’ve got people who are moving with it and adapting,” Voss said, “and those for whom picking up new technology, short of a game ... is difficult.”

Voss also talked about increasing diversity within the country and the problems the U.S. Census has when it tries to track race and ethnicity. The 2000 census allowed people to choose multiple racial categories to describe themselves, leading to 63 possible combinations and since Hispanic origin is a separate question on the survey, the census allows 126 total ways of describing race and ethnicity.

Even through the confusion the census changes have brought, one thing that remains clear is the stratification of wealth and power.

“One-fifth of our population owns 60 percent of the wealth,” Voss said. “Twenty-five percent of children in this country are below poverty. If you’re a black child, that’s one in three.”

“We are crazy,” he added.

Voss said he does not like to make predictions based on factors government regulations can change -- hence his focus on aging.

Voss called the aging of the population “a bonus for industries who are looking for experienced workers.” Technology workers in particular, however, may fear for their jobs amid increasingly common reports of outsourcing.

“Outsourcing is not new,” Voss said during his presentation, “though it’s been increasing in recent years.”

“Any number of these jobs are going to India,” said Arnold Berg, who called labor trends “too subject to political influence” to be predicted based on demographic data.

“Every time I upgrade my computer, I think about the learning curve,” Robert Bean said after the presentation. “When I think about the medical profession, for instance, how are they going to have time ... to learn the technology they need?”

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