The pace of population growth around the world is slowing, to such an extent that the 21st century may be the last where the digital presence of our species increases year on year.
This is one of the highlights of the most recent revision of the World Population Prospects, released earlier this week by the United Nations.
Using what they call the “middle variant,” or the midpoint of the most likely forecast, he predicts that the world’s human population will never exceed 11 billion. That’s a pretty intimidating upper bound, of course, but way lower than most people thought it would be just two or three decades ago.
The world’s population increases over time when women on average have more than two children, have them earlier in life, and these children live longer than previous generations. Of these three factors, only the last is currently contributing to an acceleration in population growth.
In contrast, the number of children per woman has risen from a world average of 5.0 in 1960 to 2.5 today. And women have their first child much later in life. Although starting at different levels, these changes are taking place all over the world, in rich and poor countries alike.
Most of the decline in the number of newborns is linked to the new role of women in society and the economy, and their increasing access to education, which leads them to postpone and have their first child. overall less.
Economic development, migration to cities, secularization, cultural change and changing social expectations are also key factors.
The fertility rate has already fallen below 1.5 children per woman in some countries in Europe and East Asia, while it hovers around 1.8 in the United States. Demographers assume that 2.1 children per woman are needed for generational replacement since some women have no children.
Even India, at 2.2 is approaching that threshold. And if you think the end of China’s one-child policy may change the trend in the world’s most populous country, consider fertility to be around 1.1 in South Korea and Taiwan, where such a policy never existed.
Most experts predict that the rate of 1.7 in China will continue to decline as more people move to cities and women continue to seek education and employment opportunities.
Meanwhile, the average fertility rate in Africa is 4.4, although it fell from almost 7 in the 1960s. In addition, life expectancy is growing faster than elsewhere. of the world. Thus, Africa will one day compete with Asia for the title of the most populous continent in the world, reaching 2 billion in 2039 and 3 billion in 2063.
As with any rapid, large-scale transformation, the demographic downturn brings both challenges and opportunities. In Europe, East Asia and the United States, the stakes will be twofold:
Domestically, the aging economy is sure to lead to political friction and even social strife if health care and pension promises are not kept.
On the foreign side, those parts of the world will have to come to terms with the geopolitical, and possibly military, implications of their digital decline. Increased immigration would partly deflect both challenges.
Africa will face the most formidable test. Feeding and educating hundreds of millions of young people will require great doses of ingenuity and planning. The future of the region looks bleak unless its agricultural and educational sectors become more innovative and productive.
With the rapid adoption of mobile telecommunications and payments over the past decade, optimism is in order. Africa continues to amaze with its rapid, technology-driven transformation. And let’s not forget that six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world last year were in sub-Saharan Africa.
The demographic slowdown offers enormous opportunities. The first may well be that the social and economic progress of women translates into a more equal, balanced and vibrant world.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of all is that it will buy us time to deal with the problem of global warming. In fact, last October, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in a report that decisive action must be taken over the next two decades to avoid catastrophic consequences.
All in all, the demographic slowdown will help ensure a liveable planet for future generations. Demography is not a fate, but it sure matters.
Mauro F. Guillén, a sociologist by training, is Anthony L. Davis Director of the Joseph H. Lauder Institute of Management and International Studies and Dr. Felix Zandman Professor of International Management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.