Global Demographics

In the previous discussion, the idea of demographics was introduced and described in terms of historical developments of the global population and its use of resources. However, this outline was a fairly simplistic summary of the true complexity of the demographics now at work in the 21st century.

Therefore, the goal of this discussion is to provide further insights into the complex demographic interactions that may influence our perception of the issues surrounding the global population and over-consumption of resources. So, to begin:

Are there too many people in the world?

In September 1963, a US publication posed the question above, which at the time was not a major issue for many of its readers; for in many ways, this was still a world recovering from a history of high mortality rates caused by wars, famines and disease. Later, in 1968, Paul Ehrlich published the ‘Population Bomb as the world started to wake up to the potential problems of over-population, although it was not necessarily seen as an immediate pending crisis as the world moved into the 1970’s. 

So how did global demographics change this situation?

Over time, and with much research, it became apparent that a number of unprecedented demographic events were starting to be observed around the world. For example, while it had been known that fertility had been declining in Europe for some time, many were surprised by the low levels being recorded.

So was/is the population growing or declining?

It seem that the answer to this question also depends on global demographics, i.e. where you live in the world. The question is also complicated by the range, and differences, between the birth and death rates across all countries. For it would seem that most poor countries have relatively high birth rates, but relatively low life expectancy. In contrast, most wealthy countries have low birth rates, leading to population decline, but an increasingly large aging population. Such varying demographics can also affect the economic, social, and political developments in each countries, which may then support or undermine future prosperity.

So how does the actual global population affect this demographic model?

In 1900, the global population was approximate 1.6 billion, but had risen to 6.1 billion by 2000. As such, this reflected a four-fold increase in population in just 100 years, which previously had only been subject to relatively small long-term growth. With hindsight, this profound increase in the global population has been attributed to a steep decline in mortality rates, typically in less developed countries, as illustrated in the following chart:

By 1998, it was estimated that ~60% of women of reproductive age in developing countries were adopting some form of family planning, although it appeared that many women were still having more children than they wanted. However, it should be noted that many efforts to lower fertility were often seen at odds with traditional and religious values, which could also be complicated by ideological and human rights issues. As such, most countries have now moved away from introducing overt attempts to impose a reduction in their birth rates, preferring to adopt a more ‘subliminal’ approach using family planning education within broader health programs. However, whether this change in approach is actually responsible for the results below might be questioned.

So while it might be said that the overall global population growth rate has slowed, more detailed demographic data suggests that growth rates have still remained high in many countries, while falling in others. Further analysis also suggests that a ‘demographic divide’ now exists between countries with rapidly growing populations and those with stagnant or declining populations. While this issues is primarily being linked to fertility rates in a given country, immigration can also be a key factor, which may reverse either trend. The following breakdown highlights how various levels of population growth or declined might be interpreted:

  1. The first group comprises of less than 15% of the world’s population and comprises of countries projected to lose population between 2005-2050. As such, these countries account for fewer than 1 billion people and given the overall growth in the global population, they will account for less than 10% of the total by 2050. However, in terms of global economics, there is now concern because some of the countries experiencing decline are among the wealthiest and therefore influential, e.g. Japan, Germany, Italy, and Russia.

  2. The second group of countries are only said to be growing at a relatively slow rate, e.g. 25% between 2005 and 2050. Whether the implied concern in this statement is primarily economical rather  ecological might be questioned, especially as China’s 1.3 billion population is identified to be part of this demographic group. Apparently, after decades of government controls, fertility has now fallen so low that deaths will likely outnumber births by 2030 and thereby causing the population to decline. This said, China is projected to add another 110 million people to the global population by 2050.

  3. The third group is projected to grow at a more modest rate, but may add the most to the global population in terms of absolute numbers. Countries like Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Indonesia and Iran are all in this group, which have seen both increases in fertility rates and significant mortality declines. However, it may surprise some that the US is also in this group with its population projected to grow by 42% between 2005-2050. However, it appears that the US population increase is being supported by immigration, rather than any significant change in its fertility or mortality rates.

  4. The countries on the highest-growth side of the ‘demographic divide’ account for just 8% of world population in 2005. However, these countries are projected to double, and in some cases, triple in size, such that they may eventually account for nearly 20% of the global population by 2050. As a group, the population in the high-growth countries may increase from 0.7 billion to 1.9 billion between 2005 and 2050, even though there may be a general decline in the overall fertility rate.

It is possibly worth highlighting that barring a few exceptions, nearly all the high population-growth countries are also included in the United Nation’s list of least developed countries. The countries on this list have the lowest per capita income and literacy levels, and their economies tend to rely heavily on agriculture rather than industry or manufacturing. Therefore, we might clarify what is meant by the ‘demographic divide’ in terms of the gulf in birth and death rates among the world's countries. On one side, we have mostly poor countries with relatively high birth rates and low life expectancies; while on the other, we have mostly wealthy countries with birth rates so low that population decline is almost inevitable. However, even after making this clarification, we might still need to table the following question:

What caused, and maintains, the ‘demographic divide?

There is statistical evidence that fertility decline during the 20th century was primarily due to a range of changing social factors, mainly in the developed countries, e.g. income inequality, cost of living, competition for jobs, need for both parents to work, housing shortages etc. However, sociologists have also noted that when income and living standards rise, the aspirations of parents for their children also rises. As a consequence, a significant percentage of parents opt to have fewer children so that they may invest more in each child with the hope that they might have a better future. In this context, the ‘demographic divide’ is also caused and maintained by the relative wealth within each strata of society within a given country at some point in time. Of course, within this mix of demographic factors, the issue of population growth cannot be ignored as problems often arise when population growth outpaces economic growth and there is insufficient social infrastructure to accommodate the additional population load on services, such as education, health, housing and transportation. Statistics also suggest that most high-growth countries are dominated by rural economies, where over two-thirds of the population live in rural communities in comparison to one-quarter in more developed countries. However, it is estimated that nearly all the population growth within the next 50 years will occur, and be subsequently housed, in urban concentrations rather than as extensions to the existing rural model. Estimates suggest that between 2000-2030,  the percentage of these populations living in rural areas will fall from 75% to 57%.

So is this a good or bad thing?

Urban growth can often be an essential prerequisites for economic growth, while the urban concentration can also help provide better health and educational facilities. However, dense urban overcrowding can also lead to the rapid spread of disease plus concentrate and thereby exacerbate many of the social problems associated with poverty.

Note: By way of an example,  in 1994, inadequate public health services were implicated in an outbreak of 693 bubonic plague cases in Surat, India, which resulted in 52 deaths.

For obvious reasons, air and water pollution are often worse in urban areas, which result in elevated incidences of respiratory diseases and other health problems. In addition, drugs, violence, and sexually transmitted diseases have also become major problems in many urban cities in the developing world. It also has to be recognised that while many people are essentially forced to move from rural to urban areas to earn money to support their families, this migration often weakens the family and social networks, which traditionally provided care and support for the young, old or infirm in the absence of any wide-spread availability of social services being provided by the state.

So how are population growth and poverty linked?

In some respect, the evidence suggests a two-way process where population growth can cause more poverty, while poverty can lead to increase population growth. However, the statistical evidence suggests that reducing both can improve the overall health of a society, i.e. social and economic. For there appears to be a clear link between the high fertility that drives rapid growth and per capita income, where the average ‘per capita income’ in high-fertility countries can be less than 1/12th of that in low-fertility countries. While the demographic evidence suggests that the percentage of people in poverty has declined in all regions, just over one-half of the global population  survives on less than $2 per day, albeit down from 2/3rd in the early 1980s. However, in reality the progress towards reducing national poverty has been minimal, while in general the income inequalities, i.e. the gap between rich and poor, has widened in almost all countries.

What is meant by the ‘demographic dividend’?

As a country transitions from high to low fertility and mortality, the country’s age demographics changes in a way that can yield economic benefits, i.e. it provides a ‘demographic dividend’. This dividend accrues because the working population increases relative to the dependent population defined by the young and old. In this respect, the young and old tend to consume more resources, inclusive services, than they produce, such that they can place an additional burden on the national economy, which in-turn may restrict growth causing more poverty. While this ‘dividend’ may be relatively short-lived as the age distribution comes back into ‘normal’ balance, it is possible for developing countries to invest this dividend back into its population, such that the demographic dynamics are permanently changed.

So what are the consequences of a population decline?

Basically one of the primary concerns, at least, for governments fixated on economic growth is that a smaller population will lead to less production and consume less goods and services, such that the economy may begin to shrink in terms of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) measurements. However, the effect of population decline on labour markets may be less obvious, because the demands on the labour market can contract or expand in response to many factors, including levels of immigration and the vagaries of economic ‘boom & bust’ cycles.  So, almost in contradiction, some countries with declining populations have also experienced high unemployment rates in recent years. In 2004, foreigners made up about 9% of the German labour market and 5% of the French labour market. However, as suggested earlier, foreign born workers accounted for half of the net growth in the US labour market between 1996-2000. This said, there are problems associated with population decline that are more difficult to overcome, when linked to lower mortality in its aging population. In this respect, the entire age distribution of the labour market can be shifted, which may lead to a slow-down in economic growth and even trigger changes in marriage and childbearing patterns. One recent study showed that many young people are facing increasing difficulties in established any sort of meaningful career, as older people defer retirement as future pension income may now come with few guarantees. This shift in the age demographics can then lead to younger people delaying having children, which only leads to further declines in the fertility rates.

So what is demographic analysis predicting for the future?

Well, from a cynical perspective, if demographics is based on statistical data and analysis, it may be capable of telling you anything you want to hear. This said, demographic analysis has proved to be very useful, and important, when it comes to understanding the full complexity of over-population versus over-consumption, although it is unclear that it actually offers up any specific solution. While we know that the total global population will probably continue to rise in the 21st century, it unclear that this population can be reduced by any ethical or moral means currently at our disposal. Equally, while we may now understand the lop-sided distribution of over-consumption, there is no obvious solution as to how the global ecological footprint of humanity might be reconciled with the bio-capacity of planet Earth. However, such issues will be considered further in subsequent discussions.