With the 7 billionth baby joining the planet, many of us are rightly concerned about the challenges posed by a growing population and its impact on health care, climate change, food security, jobs, and poverty.
Here at the World Bank, we’ve been talking recently about the critical link between population change and economic growth. In some countries, where falling fertility rates have led to expanding working-adult populations and a smaller proportion of dependent children, the economic and social impact has been transformative.
For example, Thailand’s Minister of Finance said at a Bank panel  last month that after his country introduced a national family planning policy in the 1960s, more women had the time and opportunity to access education, and take jobs in manufacturing and services. This shift was matched by greater government investment in health, education, gender equality, and skills training for women and the growing young population, together with reforms improving the country investment climate, all resulting in a generation of healthier, more educated and more productive citizens.
As a result, people’s opportunities and quality of life improved. This way, Thailand put in place long-term policies to ensure economic benefit from its demographic transition—it harnessed the “demographic dividend.”
But Thailand isn’t alone. Other countries, such as Indonesia and South Korea, have followed similar paths.
Governments have found that, the more rapid the pace of fertility decline, the more favorable the ratio of young dependents to productive workers to potentially realize the dividend. But there is a short window of opportunity during which fertility and dependency ratios fall to invest in education and health care, and to create job opportunities to benefit from the demographic transition.
Failure to address high fertility with large and growing population cohorts results in unsustainable health care and schooling costs and lags in economic growth, and may increase the risk of social and political unrest. But, addressing high fertility is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to harness the demographic dividend.
To do so, countries also need to invest in new generations and create an environment conducive to good jobs.
Greater investment and policy efforts to reduce the barriers to family planning and reproductive health services (including availability of contraceptives and services, as well as empowering women to access them) is essential if the demographic dividend is to materialize at all. This is a priority for the Bank in our Reproductive Health Action Plan .
So let’s treat this milestone as an opportunity. In a world of 7 billion, if we empower women to plan for their families, if we invest wisely in women’s and children’s health and education, if we create the conditions for good jobs, the demographic dividend is there for the taking.