Global population growth fell to less than 1 per cent for the first time since the second world war as Europe’s population started declining during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a UN report.
A slower growth rate means the population is now expected to peak in the 2080s at 10.4bn and then begin to fall, the first forecast decline in the UN’s World Population Prospects report. An extremely low fertility rate, the average number of births per woman, in many countries is driving the long-term trend, and the proliferation of ageing societies is predicted to hit global development and economic output.
The report also showed that the global population is poised to reach the milestone of 8bn people this year. UN Secretary-Antonio Guterres generally attributed the rise to “advancements in health have extended lifespans and reduced maternal and child mortality rates”.
India is also projected to surpass China as the most populous country next year, it said.
Combined with a slowdown in other regions, Europe’s declined to global growth falling to less than 1 per cent for both 2020 and 2021. Europe’s population shrank by 744,000 in 2020 and by 1.4mn last year — the largest fall of any continent since records began In the 1950s, reflecting a surge in deaths, falling births and lower net migration linked to the pandemic.
However, the pandemic “is not the main factor”, said John Wilmoth, director of the population division of the UN’s economic and social affairs department. Europe is expected to continue to contract until 2100, with Germany and other countries joining the trend seen in eastern and southern European countries such as Poland and Italy.
The fertility rate “has been quite low in almost all European countries for many decades and that means there aren’t lots of young people”, he said.
With two-thirds of global citizens living in a country where fertility is less than 2.1 births per woman, roughly the level required for zero growth if mortality rates are low, the populations of 61 countries are forecast to decrease by at least 1 per cent between 2022 and 2050.
In countries with a falling population, “unless you get a productivity miracle, overall economic growth will fall,” said Charles Goodhart, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics and co-author of The Great Demographic Reversal.
In Asia, Japan’s population has been shrinking since 2010, South Korea’s fell in 2020, and China’s is forecast to do the same this year. China’s population is projected to decline by 12mn people in 2059, the world’s largest ever drop.
“If you look at a map of the world of countries that are going to decrease in population size, it basically starts in central Europe and goes east all the way to Japan across Russia and China,” said Wilmoth.
Africa overtook Asia in 2020 to become the main source of population growth. The UN reports that more than half of the projected increase up to 2050 will be concentrated in just eight countries, mostly in Africa, with the rapid growth threatening their development goals. By mid-century Nigeria is projected to be as populous as the US, closing the current 121mn gap between the countries.
More production “could and should” move to Africa, said Goodhart, “because of the alternative of mass emigration into other countries where the population is falling is politically not going to be viable.”
“It is primarily the ageing and shrinking of the working-age population that affects a country’s economic development,” said Martina Lizarazo López at Bertelsmann Stiftung, a German-based think-tank.
Increased productivity, automation and longer working lives can help reduce the impact of an ageing population, experts said.
Globally there will be more than 1bn people aged over 65 in 2030 with 210mn aged over 80, about double the numbers in 2010. Older people already account for about a quarter of the population in many countries including Japan, Italy and Germany.
Joshua Wilde, research scientist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, said that if fertility rates dropped to a rate at which the population declined, “it’s actually great because you have a higher population in working age fraction groups.”
But “in the long run”, he added, “All those workers who are providing a boost to income per capita are going to retire and they will need pensions, they will need healthcare.”