From a global demographic standpoint, our generation and those of our parents and grand-parents, experienced the most profound shifts in human history ever. Assuming your grandparents were born around 100 years ago, the world they came into consisted of less than 2 billion people. When I was in primary school, that figure had doubled to 4; I remember apocalyptic projections and calls to stop such uncontrolled population growth. Today, the world is home to almost 7.2 billion people and demographic doomsday scenarios have not materialized.
Although human suffering remains tragically widespread, the world is undoubtedly a much better place today than it was 100 years ago. An average person is healthier, better educated and wealthier than his or her grandparents. Strong growth in poor and emerging nations has fostered the emergence of a global middle class, even in Africa. In most parts of the world, the Millennium Development Goals will also be reached. There are few places left on earth where universal primary enrollment and vaccination have not been achieved, with the associated spectacular drops in child mortality.
These remarkable achievements are neatly captured in one single indicator of human welfare, which matters to us all: life expectancy. When they were born, our grandparents could expect to live about 50 years. Today the global average is about 70 years (and 80 years in the advanced economies). The most spectacular improvements happened in East Asia, which was the poorest region of the world until the 1980s. Today, life expectancy in East Asia is 74 years, excluding Japan the place in the world where people live longest.
What will happen over the next decades? Will rapid population growth continue forever? Will we eventually reach a tipping point when the world will no longer be able to accommodate all of us and will development gains of the past be reversed?
Rapid population growth will continue certainly for another 50 years and most likely until 2100. However the pattern and drivers of this growth will change significantly. The average number of children per family is actually shrinking worldwide and even in almost all of Africa. As a result, the number of young people (below 15 years) is basically stagnating. There are almost 2 billion youth on the globe, a number which will remain broadly constant until 2050. Adults below 65 years are therefore driving current and future population growth. This age group has been rising rapidly from 3 billion (mid 1980s) to more than 4.5 billion today and 5 billion by 2020 (see figure). With a rising work-force and shrinking number of (un-productive) dependents, the world can reap a major global demographic dividend.
Figure – The global demographic dividend
Source: Projections by Emi Suzuki, based on UN World Population Prospects 2012 revision
Some regions of the world have already ‘cashed in’ on their demographic dividend and are now facing the opposite challenge. Many European countries are actually shrinking continuously, a first ever in human history. My home country Germany is the largest “shrinker” and can expect to lose 15 percent of its population and almost 30 percent of its workforce until 2050 if no compensating measures are taken.
These opposing demographic trajectories across regions of the world are resulting in massive shifts in the global distribution of populations. Until 2050, Africa and Asia will contribute 90 percent of total global population growth. By that time Europe will have ‘shrunk’ to a meager 8 percent of global headcount (vs. 13 percent today). The contrast is the most extreme with Sub-Saharan Africa: in 1965, there were two Europeans for every African; since the late 1990s Africans have outnumbered Europeans and by 2030, the initial ratio will have been reversed.
Over the summer I moved from Africa to Europe, from a booming continent to a declining one. The challenges here and there (and possible solutions) could not be more different. The North is facing a challenge with the elderly, the South with the youth. In the former, people must be kept at work, even beyond the traditional retirement age. In the latter, it’s all about bringing youths into the workforce.
While world population kept growing the world has become a much smaller place in so many respects. Urbanization and communication have connected us in unprecedented and unimaginable ways opening up opportunities to engage in global dialogues. Theoretically, it is now possible to reach the most remote person on the planet with knowledge that can change his or her life. Future development cannot be imposed by a few elites at the top. Instead it will come from more knowledge exchanges with people connecting, engaging, challenging and innovating. Because of the global demographic dividend and almost ubiquitous connectivity there are now many more global citizens that can participate in such development debates. This blog’s ambition is to be such a platform.