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It’s not the end of the world, but is it a gadget-pocalypse?

Those silly Mayans: what do they know? December 21 was not the end (of the world). But could it be the beginning of the end (of cheap gadgets)? As the world continues to turn, and worries about the euro zone and the "fiscal cliff" dominate, it is time to take notice of something else: people, and their statistical characteristics. Demographics are important in both the medium and the long term.

Japan's aging population is well known: by 2030 the average age there will be 51. That trend is happening elsewhere, too. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one American in five will be over 65 by 2060, up from one in seven today, the result of both a continued fall in the fertility rate and net immigration. This is great news for health care stocks, which have produced the biggest returns after oil and gas over the past four decades, according to Datastream. That trend is now being seen in Asia, where sales growth is starting to drive share price returns for health care companies. Shares in Mindray, a medical devices maker, have climbed 90 per cent in the past four years. Shares in Topchoice, a Chinese dental chain, have trebled.

The Japanese and U.S. populations are not the only ones that are aging. China's workforce will start to shrink in just five years. This could have big implications for manufacturing and outsourcing. When China's labour force starts to shrink, only countries such as Afghanistan, India and Indonesia will have fast-growing numbers of workers. But they suffer from political instability, a poor investment climate, under-developed infrastructure and restrictive labour laws.

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China's cheap labour is one reason why technological advances can be mass-produced. More costly labour will cut profit margins and ultimately raise the prices of products. Demographic trends could yet spell the end of cheap gadgets.

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