From population bomb to development opportunity: New perspectives on demographic change


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A generation ago, the World Development Report 1984 focused on development challenges posed by demographic change, reflecting the world’s concerns about run-away population growth. Global population growth rates had peaked at more than two percent a year in the late 1960s and the incredibly high average fertility rates of that decade – almost six births per woman – provided the momentum to keep population growth rates elevated for several decades (Fig 1). Indeed, the population and development zeitgeist spawned works such as Ehrlich’s 1968 book “Population Bomb,” which painted apocalyptic images of a world struggling to sustain itself under the sheer weight of its people. The policy discussion of the WDR 1984 reflected these concerns, focusing on how to feed the growing populations in the poorest and highest fertility countries, while also presenting a case for policies that would reduce fertility.

Needless to say, the global population did not continue to grow at its breakneck pace and fertility rates ended up declining precipitously, due to a range of reasons, that includes but is not restricted to improvements in living standards, access to education and female empowerment. At the same time, some of the most populous countries grew themselves out of poverty – as in the case of South Korea and China – while advances in biotechnology helped countries feed themselves, as in the case of India’s Green Revolution. The population bomb does not seem to have detonated.

Now, more than 30 years later, the forthcoming Global Monitoring Report 2015/2016: Development Goals in an Era of Demographic Change (GMR) argues that, while the world may no longer have to fear explosive population growth, demographic change is still one of the most pressing development issues of the day. The report uses the latest UN population projections to show that global demographic trends and patterns are at a turning point, with the proportion of people aged between 15 and 64 – people most likely to be in the labor force – having reached a peak in 2012, at 65.8 percent (Fig 2). In coming decades, this share will decline, while the share of elderly – people aged 65 and up – will rise. By 2050, the elderly could account for 16 percent of the global population up from 5 percent in the 1960s.
The GMR also shows that these global trends and patterns vary dramatically across countries and levels of development. Today 87 percent of the world’s poor live in countries that will still experience burgeoning working-age population shares, and are expected to have rapid population growth. If these countries are able to accelerate their job creation to keep pace with their growing working-age population they have the potential to boost their growth and poverty reduction in coming years.  In contrast, a population decline is expected for many of the engines of global growth – the economies that account for three-fourths of recent global growth. These include almost all high-income countries and several upper-middle-income countries. The shares of people over 65 years will be rising in these countries, but by making investments to boost productivity, extending the years of work, and adopting fiscally sustainable old-age support systems, they can maintain and continue to improve their incomes.
As the GMR argues, the demographic changes within countries and differences across countries present real opportunities to boost growth and poverty reduction. In particular, freer capital flows, migration and trade can help respond to growing demographic imbalances globally. With demography-informed policies, countries – old and young, developing and developed – have the chance to turn the past fears of the population bomb into development opportunities for the future.


S. Amer Ahmed

Economist, Development Prospects Group, World Bank

Christian Eigen-Zucchi

Senior Economist, Development Prospects Group, World Bank

Bryce Quillin

Senior Economist, Development Prospects Group, World Bank

Philip Schellekens

Lead Economist, Development Prospects Group, World Bank

Join the Conversation

Surinder Aggarwal
October 16, 2015

Appreciate the positive views on demographic change happening globally. We need to look at other side of the coin as well to understand real dividend.Steep decline in fertility in many countries of Asia and in a limited way in Africa led to dramatic decline in child mortality rates and consequently swelling in working age group( 15-64)cohorts. in many developing countries like India, this demographic dividend is becoming a health penalty and poverty syndrome. Crumbling public healthcare systems,low allocation of GDP to health sector and rising healthcare costs ( OoPE)creating a new threat similar to high infant and child mortality rates in earlier decades of 1950-1980s. Same is true for the rising elderly population in such countries. Real question is who is benefitted by this demographic dividend and in what way and where? paradoxically we need to address and examine the equity issues linked with demographic dividend.

Jeroen Spijker
October 19, 2015

In fact, we could be even more positive as this article still refers to "elderly" as anyone over 65 years of age even though we cannot compare 65 year old's or 80 year old's for that matter over time given that their life expectancy has doubled over the last 100 years. Instead, it may be better to define them according to a particular number of years of life left (e.g. a remaining life expectancy of 15) and the age at which that falls (e.g. 72 for women). Similarly, labour force participation of women has vastly improved over the last half a century, meaning that the "working age population" as an indicator of the people who sustain them is also not accurate. The actual "old age dependency ratio" is therefore actually higher, but with better prospects. See also