While the fate and power of most nations is judged usually by military and economic factors, demographics — the size, make up, and growth rate of the population — are of equally vital consideration. A country’s population is its greatest resource — especially when it is well invested in — and military and economic might are best achieved with larger, younger, and more well-educated people.
The United Nations Population Division, a leading source of demographic data from around the world, has released projections of what the world’s population will look like by 2100. Much of the developing world, centered on Sub Saharan Africa, is poised to become one of the leading economic, political, and cultural centers of the world, with young and fast growing populations supporting vibrant economies while the developed world copes with rapidly aging and shrinking populations.
Of course, these are just estimates, and a lot can change in nine decades; moreover, it is not a given the governments and elites of these nations will make the most of their demographic dividend. But the following rundown and analysis, courtesy of The Washington Post, shows what dramatic changes are may be in store for the world order in the coming century.
1. Africa booms, Asia plateaus, and Europe shrinks
It is a good thing Africa is such a large continent, because it total population is expected to more than quadruple within the century. That means “four times the workforce, four times the resource burden, four times as many voters”, to say nothing of the subsequent global clout; long after Asia and Europe peak — the former in fifty years, the latter as we speak — Africa will keep gaining more people for generations. Meanwhile, North and South America will continue to grow at a slow yet sustainable rate.
2. Nigeria Rises
While Africa takes center stage in the world, it is Nigeria in particular that will lead the way. Already the most populous country on the continent by a significant margin, and fifth most in the world, the country will be home to nearly a billion people by the end of the century — all living within an area roughly the size of Texas. This is an incredible, if disconcerting, rate of growth in a country rife with corruption, instability, sectarian conflict, and abject poverty — yet also with tremendous potential, resource wealth, and entrepreneurial spirit. If the government plays it hands right, Nigeria could be the next China — a major player in the global economy with a large and talented workforce, and thus a probable world power.
Speaking of China, the nation of 1.5 billion is in the midst of a demographic crisis, as its population stagnates and ages rapidly, undercutting economic growth while placing a financial burden on the government and its people. And while it will “continue to be an enormous, important and most likely very successful country”, its demographics will place considerable challenges on its aspirations and potential.
As for the other contender for new superpower status, India’s country will continue to grow at a healthy rate until around 2065, by which point it would have long surpassed China as the world’s most populous country. Its population will still be fairly young, and it, too, will have great potential to be a major cultural, economic, and military power, provided it makes the necessary investment in infrastructure, healthcare, and education.
Indonesia, presently the world’s fourth largest country by population, will continue to grow moderately, though like Nigeria, it punches below its weight despite its size, and faces similar constraints to its population growth in the form of environmental degradation, corruption, and poor infrastructure.
Finally, the United States will remain an outlier in the developed world by continuing to grow at a steady and sustainable pace, with room to spare. While its challenges are obviously not as vast as those of its developing world counterparts, mounting inequality, political dysfunction, and infrastructural deficiencies will need to be addressed to take advantage of its unique balance of wealth and population vitality.
3. The world economy pivots to Africa
Given the aforementioned population explosion, Africa may continue down the path of Asia, which also came to political and economic prominence amid and because of its young and growing population; indeed, Africa will be almost as big as Asia by the end of a century, catching up with unprecedented speed:
Between 1950 and 2050, Asia’s population will have grown by a factor of 3.7, almost quadrupling in just a hundred years. Africa’s population, over its own century of growth from 2000 to 2100, will grow by a factor of 5.18 – significantly faster than Asia
Pause for a moment to consider Asia’s boom over the last 50 years – the rise of first Japan, then South Korea, now China and maybe next India – and the degree to which it’s already changed the world and will continue to change it. Africa is expected to grow even more than Asia.
Of course, Asia’s progress had as much to do with good governance and prudence resource management than it did with demographic. If African nations can harness their population boom and make the necessary public investment, then the largest and most prominent among them — Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, to name but a few — can be the next Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Otherwise…
If they don’t improve, exploding population growth could only worsen resource competition – and we’re talking here about basics like food, water and electricity – which in turn makes political instability and conflict more likely. The fact that there will be a “youth bulge” of young people makes that instability and conflict more likely.
It’s a big, entirely foreseeable danger. Whether Africa is able to prepare for its coming population boom may well be one of the most important long-term challenges the world faces right now.
4. Not just more people, but more longer-lived people
As a testament to their socioeconomic progress, the average lifespan in both Africa and Asia on both continents is and will continue to grow. By 2100, Africans will be living 50 percent longer, equal to the North American average today, albeit it still lower than the rest of the world will be by the point. Within the century, the average European and North American will be 87.6 and 89 respectively, an amazing achievement that will nonetheless strain social security systems and economies if not properly prepared for. (Cue automation and guaranteed basic income?)
5. Immigration may save the West
Barring an unanticipated baby boom, most of Europe and the West world will face dramatic population decline, as is already occurring in places like Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and Ukraine (each among the more populous states in the continent). Unless they can incentivize higher birth rates or offer better economic prospects for raising a family, opening their borders to more new citizens will be the only and most immediate way to reverse course; indeed, generous immigration policies are what have kept the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand steadily growing into the future, despite falling fertility rates.
Of course, the high levels of immigration needed to offset the rapid population decline would come with its own risks, namely cultural clashes, the challenge of assimilation, and mounting, potentially violent nativist resentment. In an ideal world, perhaps the surplus of young people in the developing world could be channeled to the shrinking nations of the rich world, who could use more laborers and caregivers. This has already begun to happen to a certain degree, and over time it would mitigate imbalance of the world’s demographics, wherein growth and youth will be concentrated in poorer regions.
The see the rest of the Post’s analysis beyond this broad overview, click here. Otherwise, as usual, please share your thoughts and comments.