Population is a key variable that will shape the economies and societies of the future. The importance of population is evident not only in the demographically advanced societies of the developed world but also in less-developed societies that are still in transition. Because of important changes in all of these societies over the past several decades, the current global population model looks nothing like it did in the mid-20th century. The model has changed beyond recognition and will do so again in the medium and long term.
This article outlines seven macrotrends that are shaping the evolution of our still-diverse world at the global scale and highlights key characteristics of the two major demographic models that encompass most of the world’s territories.
Migration is intensifying and, to a certain degree, becoming globalized. Nevertheless, in relative terms, the current rate is just a fraction of what it was during the first big migration wave of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Macrotrends are processes that are taking place to some degree all over the world. The existence of these trends indicates that demographic behavior has become globalized to a certain extent. The following are the seven main macrotrends that are shaping the evolution of the global population:
- Population growth is clearly slowing down. The global growth rate is currently 1.2%, down from 2.1% in 1950. Despite this slowdown, growth remains strong in absolute terms. In 2018, the global population was 7.621 billion people, but by 2050 it will be around 9.8 billion. Nevertheless, with so many variables in play, such predictions amount to little more than a thought experiment.
- The death rate is decreasing overall, although because of the aging process this trend has reversed in some countries.
- The birth rate is dropping across the board, with the global average falling from 5 children per woman in 1950 to 2.4 in 2018.
- Infant mortality—that is, the death rate for children less than a year old—is falling. Life expectancy at birth is on the rise. Besides being good demographic indicators, these trends also indicate a population’s level of social development.
- Migration is intensifying and, to a certain degree, becoming globalized. Nevertheless, in relative terms, the current rate—migrants account for 3.2% of the world population—is just a fraction of what it was during the first big migration wave of the 19th and early 20th centuries (8%).
- The global population is aging, although there are still significant differences in age structure between populations.
- Urbanization is continuing to increase—more than 50% of people now live in urban areas—and this trend is especially strong in developing countries.
Although these macrotrends are generally present throughout the world, we can still identify two major models: 1) demographically advanced countries that have completed their transition and have a relatively stable population, and 2) less-developed countries in various stages of evolution, which will eventually reach similar levels—and will do so more quickly than today’s advanced countries did.
With the exception of Japan, developed countries tend to be countries of immigration. Although immigration has become the fundamental driver of growth and economic development, anti-immigration policies have been introduced in some countries, often with the support of far-right political parties.
Today’s developed countries started transitioning demographically earlier than other parts of the world and have now completed all phases of this transition. Population growth is very low in these countries, and the growth that does occur is mainly due to immigration. Older people constitute a very large proportion of the population.
- When developed countries grow, they do so at a moderate pace. Some are stabilized and others have negative growth. The European Union offers the best examples. The EU population is increasing overall, but 10 of the 28 member states are currently losing population.
- All developed countries have very low infant mortality rates: less than 10 deaths (or less than 5, in some cases) per 1,000 live births—nearly a biological limit.
- Life expectancy at birth is now more than 80 years, with women living longer than men. The number of octogenarians, in particular, is growing.
- Practically no developed country has a birth rate of more than 2.1 children per woman; many are below the critical threshold of 1.5 children per woman.
- With the exception of Japan, developed countries tend to be countries of immigration. Although immigration has become the fundamental driver of growth and economic development, anti-immigration policies have been introduced in some countries, often with the support of far-right political parties.
- In all developed countries, the population is quite (or very) old. The traditional demographic trend has been reversed: the elderly population (65 years and older) is now larger than the young population (15 years and younger).
Although many of the world’s largest cities are located in developing countries, urbanization rates in the developing world are moderate (around 50%).
Though diverse in their behavior and structures, developing countries share certain characteristics that set them apart from the developed world:
- Developing countries have moderate or high population growth (sub-Saharan Africa).
- Infant mortality rates are decreasing but remain higher than in the developed world. Life expectancy is lower than in the developed world. However, the death rate has dropped significantly in all developing countries.
- Birth rates are falling across the board. Some developing countries even have birth rates below the replacement level (2.1 children per woman). In most cases, however, the birth rate is between 2.5 and 6 children per woman.
- Developing countries tend to have a negative net migration rate. Thirty-five percent of migration currently flows from south to north, but south-south migration—that is, migration between developing countries—accounts for nearly 38% of all movements.
- The demographic structures of developing countries are predominantly young. People under the age of 15 generally account for around 30% of the population, but in some countries this figure is in the 40%-50% range. Under certain conditions of education and adequate job creation, this “demographic dividend” could be a powerful driver of development.
- Although many of the world’s largest cities are located in developing countries, urbanization rates in the developing world are moderate (around 50%).
In short, the globe is split into two demographic worlds that, as of today, remain quite different. However, the differences between them are expected to decrease over time. This convergence of values represents the end of an ongoing process that still has a long way to go.
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