Today's date:
Spring 2001

The New Population Order

Joseph Chamie is director of the UN Population Division.

New York - With increasing globalization, population trends and demographic differences are having greater significance and consequences than in the past. Rapid rates of population growth in some regions, population decline in others, population aging, international migration, urbanization, HIV/AIDS and other critical demographic trends are ushering in a New International Population Order.
This new order profoundly affects social and economic conditions, political representation and influence, and international relations, as well as interactions between groups within countries.

An important aspect of the new order is the regional shift in world population. After World War II, for example, Europe accounted for 22 percent of the world's population, and Africa 8 percent. Today, both regions have approximately the same share of world population, about 13 percent. By 2050, Africa is expected to be three times as populous as Europe.

A second example is population growth in India and the European Union. With 1 billion people, India is about two and a half times as populous as the combined populations of the 15 countries making up the European Union. For the entire year 2000, the natural increase of the population-births minus deaths-of the European Union was 343,000 persons. India achieved this amount of population growth during the first week of this year.

A comparison of the world's two largest economic powers further illustrates the new order. Because the United States and the European Union are following distinctly different demographic paths, the US population, which today is about 93 million smaller than the European Union's, is projected to be 58 million larger than the European Union's by 2050.

Differential rates of growth also have significant consequences at the sub-regional level. Fifty years ago, for instance, Spain's population was three times larger than Morocco's; in 50 years, Morocco is expected to be 60 percent more populous than Spain. In 1950, the population of Japan was about four times that of the Philippines; by 2050, the population of the Philippines is expected to be close to 20 percent larger than Japan's. Again, 50 years ago, the Russian Federation was close to three times more populous than Pakistan. Fifty years from now, Pakistan will be three times more populous than the Russian Federation.

Due to low fertility, increased longevity and limited migration, the populations of Japan and virtually all countries of Europe are becoming smaller and older. For example, by mid-century, the populations of 39 countries are projected to be smaller than they are today (e.g., Japan and Germany, 14 percent smaller; Italy and Hungary, 25 percent smaller; and Russian Federation, Georgia and Ukraine, between 28 to 40 percent smaller).

Population aging will also be pervasive, bringing the numbers and proportions of elderly to historically unprecedented levels. Globally, the number of people 65 and older will triple by 2050. In many countries, one person out of three is expected to be 65 or older, and the ratio of working-age people to older people will be halved, from 4:1 to 2:1.

Today, many developed countries already rely on international migration to compensate for modest population growth. For instance, net migration to the European Union in 2000 was more than twice the natural population growth (816,000 versus 343,000).

Although fertility may rebound in the coming decades, few believe that fertility in most developed countries will recover sufficiently to reach replacement levels in the foreseeable future. Moreover, without migration, the population of more developed regions would start declining in 2003, rather than in 2025; and by 2050, the population would be 10 percent less than projected under the assumption of continued migration.

Thus, international migration from developing countries to developed countries will play an increasingly important role in the new order.
While the less developed countries are experiencing declines in fertility and population aging, their populations continue to grow. The populations of Africa, for example, are growing very rapidly. In the past 50 years, Africa's population more than tripled, from 221 million to 794 million.

In the coming decades, even taking into account the devastating AIDS epidemic, Africa's population is expected to more than double, reaching 2 billion by 2050. The case of Kenya illustrates the incredible demographic changes taking place on the continent. In 1950, Kenya's population totaled 6 million; today is is 31 million; and by 2050, it is expected to reach 55 million.

Another salient feature of the new order is the increasing urban population. Most of the world's population growth is taking place in urban areas. Over the next three decades, for example, urban areas in less developed regions are expected to double in population, from 1.9 billion today to 3.9 billion.

As a result, world population will see a historic shift in its urban-rural composition. Thirty-five years ago, about two-thirds of the world lived in rural areas. However, 35 years from today, we will be approaching a world where two-thirds of the population will be living in urban areas.

Also noteworthy in the new order is the emergence of mega-cities-agglomerations of 10 million or more inhabitants-that have grown rapidly during the second half of the 20th century. In 1950, there was one city in this category: New York, with 12.3 million inhabitants. By 1975, the number increased to five: Tokyo, New York, Shanghai, Mexico City and Sao Paulo. Today there are 19 mega-cities, and many of them have reached unprecedented size, exceeding 15 million or even 20 million inhabitants. By 2015, the number of mega-cities is projected to increase by four additional Asian cities, thereby reaching 23.

A notable aspect of the emergence of mega-cities is that it bypasses Europe entirely. In addition, the relative position of the European cities on the world stage has changed markedly over the past 50 years. For example, in 1950, Europe had 10 of the world's 25 largest cities, but today it has just three, and by 2015 it will have none.

The current world population of 6.1 billion will increase by another 3 billion in the next 50 years. Nearly all of the newcomers will be born in less developed regions. At present, in fact, six countries-India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Indonesia-account for half of the world's annual population increase of 77 million people.

In sum, the future will be characterized by a world population that is significantly larger, substantially older, more urban, more concentrated in developing countries and more ethnically and culturally diverse.

Just as tectonic plates moving beneath the Earth's surface will mean profound change, even though they remain unrecognized at the moment, the trends bringing about this new order go largely unnoticed today. In order to avoid political and social calamity ahead, governments and policy-makers need to grasp now how these seismic shifts will fundamentally alter established assumptions about the future.

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