by Kevin Schofield
Reading this weekend is a new report from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs that predicts global population growth for the rest of this century.
The total population of our planet is expected to reach 8 billion next November. Since 1974, when we reached 5 billion, we have consistently added another billion every 11 to 13 years. Along with this came warnings of the disastrous consequences of unchecked population growth: a world that would not be able to house all of its inhabitants, let alone feed, clothe and shelter them.
All of this is changing. The latest prediction from the UN is that we won’t reach 9 billion people until around 2040 – 18 years from now – and we will hit the 10 billion mark around 2060, 20 years later. Shortly thereafter, the world’s population will peak at around 10.4 billion and then begin to decline.
Now, it’s fair to point out that these are model predictions, and there’s a decent amount of variability in them: the population could continue to grow to 12 billion by 2100, or decrease to less than 9 billion. But the patterns aren’t that complicated, and in fact there are only a small handful of variables that control them.
One of them, of course, is life expectancy. In 2019 (pre-COVID), global life expectancy reached 72.8 years, a dramatic increase of about nine years from 1990. It is expected to continue increasing to about 77 years. by 2050, as living conditions improve for low-income people. income countries.
Another key variable is the fertility rate: how many children does a person capable of procreation have, on average, during their lifetime? In 1950, it was five births; last year it had fallen to 2.3 and by 2050 it is expected to be around 2.1. This is strongly influenced by income and education levels, but also more generally by healthcare standards and the control people have over their own reproductive decisions.
But there’s another factor that doesn’t require guesswork; it only requires mathematical modelling: how many people of childbearing age are there in the world. Due to historically low life expectancies in some of the world’s most populous countries, overall the UN rates the world’s population as quite young. But with increasing life expectancy, over time the population as a whole will age and the percentage of people who can have children will decrease. The UN predicts that by 2050, the number of people over 65 will be more than double the number of children under 5 and roughly equal to the number under 12. Combine that with the fact that life expectancy won’t continue to increase indefinitely – people will live longer, but eventually die – and the rate of population growth of the past few decades simply cannot be sustained.
Now, although this is the situation globally, there are huge differences when we look country by country, and this is likely to have significant geopolitical impacts in the years to come. For example: China has for many years been the most populous country in the world, closely followed by India. But the effects of China’s recently abandoned “one-child” policy are now clear, and next year India is set to overtake China as the largest country.
In fact, the UN report predicts that more than half of the increase in the world’s population over the next 30 years will be concentrated in eight countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, l India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and the United Republic of Tanzania. At the same time, most high-income countries have significantly lower fertility rates – many below “replacement level” – and will reach their population peak much earlier.
Some of these changes have already taken place. According to the UN report, for high-income countries between 2000 and 2020, population growth was driven more by net migration from other countries (about 80.5 million people) than by a surplus of births over deaths (about 66.2 million). In low-income countries, population growth refers to births and deaths; in high-income countries, they are people from other countries. The UN does not expect this to change in the coming years. Although in the short term, recent events may mask the magnitude of this effect: the war in Syria has resulted in a substantial amount of net migration to the Middle East and Europe, but on the other hand, blockages linked to the COVID-19 have severely restricted many migrations. patterns.
For those who revere the feet of sustained economic growth, there will be dramatic changes in the years to come. In most parts of the world, economic growth is still driven by human labour; when the working population begins to shrink – as is already the case in Japan, for example – the economy is likely to follow.
The UN report is 50 pages of fascinating charts and discussions of both the “big picture” of global population growth and close-up views of how things will vary across countries and regions. regions. Conventional wisdom about world population is quickly being proven wrong, and as we enter the middle of this century, it will undoubtedly shake up the global geopolitical order.
World Population Prospects 2022: Summary of Findings
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and the founder of Seattle City Council Overview, a website providing independent information and analysis about the Seattle City Council and City Hall. He also co-hosts the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast with Brian Callanan, and appears occasionally on Converge Media and KUOW’s Week in Review.
📸 Featured image by Arthimedes/Shutterstock.com.
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