Of demographics and global population shifts

Generally speaking, developed countries tend to have lower fertility rates and ageing populations

By Dr Kristian Alexander

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Published: Sun 26 Mar 2023, 8:48 PM

In 2050, the world will have just under 10 billion people, up from 7.7 billion in the middle of 2019. The most populous country will be India, with more than 1.6 billion people, closely followed by China with 1.4 billion.

Yet many countries have been plagued by a population decline. The phenomenon of population decline is not similar across all countries, and there are noticeable differences between rich and poor countries. Generally speaking, developed countries tend to have lower fertility rates and ageing populations, which tends to lead to population decline. In contrast, underdeveloped countries tend to have higher fertility rates and younger populations, which tend to lead to population growth. One of the primary reasons for these differences is access to healthcare and education. Developed countries tend to have better healthcare systems and higher levels of education, which can lead to better family planning and lower fertility rates.

There is no universally agreed-upon ideal population size for a country, as it can depend on a range of factors, including the country’s available resources, economic development, and environmental sustainability. Some argue that a smaller population is more sustainable, while others argue that a larger population can provide more opportunities for economic growth and innovation.

The fallout from fewer people

Japan has one of the most severe population declines in the world with a current population of about 126 million and a projected decline to around 88 million by 2065. The country’s low birth rate and ageing population are major contributors to this decline. Another factor is the changing social attitudes towards marriage and parenthood. Japanese society traditionally placed a high value on marriage and family, but younger generations are increasingly prioritising their careers and personal interests over starting a family. There is also a growing acceptance of alternative lifestyles, such as remaining single or childless, which were previously stigmatised. There is also a lack of support for working parents in Japan. The country has a culture of long working hours, and many workplaces do not offer flexible schedules or parental leave policies. This can make it difficult for parents, especially mothers, to balance work and family responsibilities.

South Korea, too, is experiencing a declining population due to low fertility rates, an ageing population, and emigration. The current population is approximately 51 million, and it is projected to decline to roughly 39 million by 2067. The population decline in South Korea could have a significant impact on its soft power. Soft power refers to a country’s ability to attract and persuade others based on its cultural and political values rather than coercion or economic power. South Korea’s soft power appeal has been largely driven by its cultural exports, such as K-pop, K-dramas, and Korean cuisine. These exports have gained popularity and helped South Korea to project a positive image and increase its influence around the world. As the country’s population shrinks, there will be fewer young people to drive the demand for cultural exports, and the country may lose some of its creative edge and its cultural exports may become less appealing. The declining population might also lead to a shortage of talent and expertise in key industries, which could impact the country’s economic competitiveness and ability to innovate.

China is witnessing significant population decline due to a combination of factors such as low fertility rates, ageing populations, and a lack of immigration. In China, the one-child policy that was implemented in the late 1970s and continued until 2015 is a major contributor to the decline. This policy limited families to having only one child, resulting in a decrease in the country’s birth rate. The policy was replaced by a two-child policy in 2016, but it has not been able to reverse the declining trend. China’s population decline is compounded by a gender imbalance resulting from the one-child policy, which has resulted in a significantly higher number of males than females. China’s declining population has important implications for the global economy and geopolitics.

Italy’s population has been declining for several years, with a current population of about 60 million and a projected decline to around 53 million by 2050. The country’s low fertility rate and ageing population are major contributors to this decline. Italy has not only experienced large-scale immigration but also emigration. What is particularly evident is the outflow of young Italians to Northern Europe and North America. Between 2008 and 2015, more than half a million young Italians emigrated.

Developed vs developing: Africa and India buck the trends in Asia and the West

Population projections for the world as a whole have three major inputs: birth rates, longevity, and migration. According to the 2019 Revisions of World Population Prospects study published by the United Nations, three main trends have been observed.

1. The entire developed world is ageing along with a decline in the population in some countries.

2. The balance of the world’s population is shifting within Asia, from China to India.

3. Africa’s population is rising. It’s hard to overstate the importance of demography not only to Africa’s future but also to the future of the rest of the world. It is the youngest and poorest continent, with the fastest-growing population.

It is important for policymakers to consider these demographic trends when planning for the future of their own countries as well as those of their allies and competitors.

Dr Kristian Alexander is a Senior Fellow and the Director of International Security & Terrorism Program at TRENDS Research and Advisory, Abu Dhabi, as well as Head of the Strategic Studies Department.


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