As health standards rise and birth rates decline, the impact is being felt on populations worldwide.
World population growth has begun to slow, but population remains on an upward trajectory. The latest United Nations projections are that the planet will have 7.5 billion people this year, 8 billion in 2024 and 10 billion in 2056.
Population is also growing differently. In much of Europe, it has plateaued, with Russia and Eastern Europe seeing falls. In a wide variety of nations, from China to Australia to Brazil to the US to India, population growth is slowing as people’s health and wealth rise and they have fewer children. (India is still projected to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation by 2022.)
In most of Africa, however, population growth has remained high. By 2050, the UN estimates that Nigeria alone will have nearly 400 million people, making it the planet’s third most populous nation. The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia will also rank among the most populous 10 nations on Earth.
What this will mean for living standards on the world’s poorest and most strife-torn continent, no-one knows for sure. One almost inevitable result: Africa will matter more to the world economy.
“One almost inevitable result: Africa will matter more to the world economy.”
Soaring life expectancy
Another reason for continued global population growth is the astonishing gains in human health. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) reports that the global death rate has fallen from 19.2 deaths per year per thousand people to just 7.8 in the past 60 years.
That corresponds to a 24-year gain in global life expectancy – from 47 in 1950-55 to 71 now. Notes the IMF: “This 24-year increase, an average of nine hours of life expectancy a day for 65 years, is a truly astonishing human achievement – and one that has yet to run its course.”
The teenager shortage
The IMF numbers also suggest that the world is in the early stages of a shortage of 15 to 24-year-olds. These adolescents and young adults now make up 16 per cent of the world’s people. While their numbers sit above 20 per cent in Micronesia and some African nations, they represent 10 per cent or less in nations such as Spain and Japan. And, by 2020, it is expected that this younger demographic will drop in countries as diverse as Armenia, China, Cuba, South Korea, the UK, Vietnam, the US, Russia and Iran.
In the short term, this means less social upheaval, as well as lower spending – or higher quality – for education. It’s part of what demographers call the “demographic dividend”, which helps to speed development in countries with fewer young people.
Harvard demographer and economist David Bloom notes in the IMF journal Finance & Development that Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan all benefited from this dividend after cutting their birth rates in the 1960s and 1970s.
Everyone knows Japan has had 25 years of sluggish economic growth. What most people forget is that Japan’s population peaked in 2008 and has since been falling, and its working-age population has been falling even faster.
When you measure economic growth per person, however, Japan is not that far behind economies such as the US, according to a new report by the US Council of Economic Advisers. What’s more, when comparing growth in output per working-age individual, Japan (1.6 per cent) actually leads the US (1.4 per cent).