The world’s population grew by less than 1% per year for the first time since the aftermath of World War II in 2020 and 2021, with Europe’s total population actually falling during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report by the UN.
The populations of 61 countries are projected to decline by at least 1% between 2022 and 2050, and the associated low fertility rates will also combine with better health care to accelerate the aging of societies.
As the figures were released in the UN’s World Population Prospects report, UN Secretary-General António Guterres focused on health care benefits rather than declining fertility and hailed “advances in health that have extended lifespans and dramatically reduced maternal and child mortality rates”. ”.
However, the growing proportion of older people in many countries is expected to affect economic growth and public finances and is already posing growing policy challenges.
Despite slowing growth, the world’s population is still on course to hit the 8 billion mark this year, while next year India is set to overtake China as the most populous country. . The world’s population is expected to peak in the 2080s at 10.4 billion and will then start to decline – the first decline predicted in the UN’s annual report.
Europe’s population fell by 744,000 in 2020 and by 1.4 million last year – the biggest drop of any continent since records began in 1950, reflecting rising deaths, falling births and falling pandemic-related net migration.
However, the pandemic “is not the main factor”, said John Wilmoth, director of the population division of the UN’s department of economic and social affairs. The fertility rate “has been quite low in almost all European countries for many decades and that means there are not many young people,” he said.
Europe’s population is expected to continue to contract until 2100, with Germany and other countries joining a trend already established in eastern and southern European countries such as Poland and Italy.
Two-thirds of the world’s citizens live in a country where the fertility rate is below 2.1 births per woman, roughly the level required for populations to remain stable if death rates are low.
In countries with shrinking populations, “unless you get a productivity miracle, overall economic growth will plummet,” said Charles Goodhart, professor emeritus at the London School of Economics and co-author of The great demographic shift.
In Asia, Japan’s population has been shrinking since 2010, South Korea’s has fallen in 2020, and China’s is expected to do the same this year. China’s population is projected to decline by about 6 million per year in the mid-2040s and 12 million per year by the end of the 2050s – the largest decline ever recorded in the world.
“If you look at a world map of countries that are going to shrink in population size, it basically starts in central Europe and goes east to Japan through Russia and China,” Wilmoth said.
Africa overtook Asia in 2020 to become the main source of population growth. The UN reports that more than half of the projected increase through 2050 will be concentrated in just eight countries, mostly in Africa, as rapid growth threatens their development goals. By mid-century, Nigeria is expected to be as populous as the United States, closing the current gap of 121 million between countries.
More production “could and should” shift to Africa, Goodhart said, “because the alternative, mass emigration to other countries with declining populations, will not be politically viable.”
“It is primarily the aging and shrinking working-age population that affects a country’s economic development,” said Martina Lizarazo López of Bertelsmann Stiftung, a Germany-based think tank.
Increased productivity, automation and longer working lives can help reduce the impact of an aging population, experts have said.
Globally, more than a billion people will be aged over 65 by 2030, including 210 million over the age of 80, roughly double the number in 2010. Older people already make up around a quarter of population in many countries, including Japan, Italy and Germany.
Joshua Wilde, a researcher at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Population Research, said that if fertility rates are falling at a rate that the population is falling, “that’s actually great because you have a higher fraction of the population in the working age groups”. But “in the long run,” he pointed out, “all those workers who are increasing per capita income are going to retire and they’re going to need pensions, they’re going to need health care.”