Demographics in the 21st Century

The primary goal of PoliAtlas has been to analyse individual countries, territorial disputes and ongoing geopolitical situations through a geopolitical lens. Geopolitics is a field of study which focuses on the impact that geography has on a country’s destiny, from its economic prospects to its relations with neighbouring states.

However, in the course of writing various articles for PoliAtlas, I have frequently returned to one other important topic, a topic which in some ways seems equally important as geography in the contemporary world: demography. Demography is, according to Wikipedia, ‘the statistical study of populations, especially human beings.’ The study of demographic trends, through examinations of birth rates, death rates, growth rates and average age can tell us a huge amount about country’s past, present and future. After all, what is a country without its people?

This article will provide an overview of several demographic trends which are taking shape across the world today, and provide a possible answer as to what these trends could mean for the future of the world.

Countries by birth rate, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When studying demographic trends, we can start with two basic questions: where’s the growth and where’s the decline? The past couple of decades have seen population decline in certain regions, and rapid growth in others. This will not change as the 21st century progresses, but certain trends may appear in different areas.

Before continuing, let us consider why population matters today. The answer is multifaceted, but one phrase can answer it most easily: the economy. Since the late 19th century, when it became possible to scientifically measure and analyse economic activity, governments and leaders have looked towards expanding economic activity and growing rates of GDP as a sign that their nation is successful and stable. Furthermore, an increase in economic activity usually entails an increase in tax revenue, which allows governments the opportunity to invest in infrastructure, social programmes, and an army.

The world has changed a lot since the time of the Tsars and the East India Company, but the importance of economic development remains largely the same. With a declining population, in a specific city, region, or country, it becomes much more difficult to increase or maintain economic activity. The resulting decline in tax revenue can result in a government finding it difficult to fund their own projects.

Population Decline: Japan Today -The Developed World Tomorrow

From the start of the 20th century to the present day, the world population has grown at a truly unprecedented rate. In the year 1900, it was estimated that there were 1.65 billion people living on Earth. By the year 2000, that figure had risen to well over 6 billion, and today in 2017 stands at roughly 7.5 billion. The growth has truly been remarkable.

Despite these figures, it is important to note that this growth has not been uniform across the globe. The end of the 20th century, and the start of the 21st, are significant because of the fact that while the global population kept on climbing, some regions and countries have begun to experience population decline.

One region which went through a sudden demographic shift was Eastern Europe. As the Cold War ended, the West mostly celebrated, but living standards, economic growth and birth rates all crashed across much of the former Eastern Bloc. In Ukraine, Russia, the Baltic nations, Romania and Bulgaria, couples chose to not have children and mortality rates increased in the turmoil of the 1990s. While birth rates have recovered in Russia, states such as Ukraine, Bulgaria and Latvia have all suffered large population declines over the past 25 years. Latvia in particular has lost over 25% of its population since 1989.

The demographic decline that swept through the former Communist states of Europe has been blamed largely on the turmoil which struck following the fall of Communism. Crime increased, entire industries disappeared and frequent political instability paralyzed governments. Subsequently, it may be assumed that the relatively safe, stable and prosperous countries of western Europe may not experience anything like what happened in the East. But, in fact, the same crash in birthrates which has so badly affected Eastern Europe has taken place throughout much of the developed world, and not only in Europe.

When discussing demographics, and especially population decline, Japan is a country often mentioned. It many ways, it has become the poster child for low birth rates and, in recent years, a falling population. Japan’s birthrate first started falling below replacement level (2.1 children per woman) in the 1980s, but its population only started to fall in the past five years. A low birth rate coupled with strict immigration policies will cause Japan’s population to decline by 20 million over the next 35 years, according to some estimates.

But Japan isn’t alone in Asia when it comes to crashing birth rates. South Korea, Taiwan and even China are all facing major demographic crises. South Korea’s birthrate has plummeted since the 1990s, and the population pyramid (below) demonstrates the currently low birth rate. Taiwan’s situation is equally dire. In 2010, Taiwan recorded the lowest birth rate in the world at 0.9. The population of the mostly ethnic Han island is set to peak in 2024, and decline thereafter.

By Tamama966 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

While low fertility rates and future population declines are clear to see in industrialised Asia, they are less so in Western Europe and North America. This is primarily due to the relatively large amount of immigration into these regions in recent decades. Even so, it is important to remember that the vast majority of Europe currently has a birth rate lower than the replacement level for a population. In short, Europe cannot sustain its own population without significant continued immigration. But even with this immigration, many academics/organisations believe that the population of Europe will peak around 2050, and subsequently decline.

Population Growth: Africa’s Population Explosion

Despite much of the developed world facing a lack of future population growth, the same cannot be said of the rest of the planet. As populations decline in places like East Asia and Europe, the overall world population is set is continue its rise in the 21st century. So where is this growth going to come from?

While there are many areas and countries which will likely experience steady population growth in the 21st century, the main driver of this global increase will be the continent of Africa. The total population of Africa stands at 1.2 billion, roughly 16% of the world’s population. However, according to UN estimates, this number may reach 2.5 billion by 2050, and 4.4 billion by 2100. This, along with population shifts in other regions of the world, would mean the African continent would make up around 40% of the total global population. This growth would truly be extraordinary, and will present a number of challenges.

The primary challenge that Africa will face is one of food and water. As a continent, Africa no longer suffers from the frequent droughts and famines which unfortunately made headlines during the latter half of the 20th century. But even with improvements in water and food availability, the rate of population growth in Africa, coupled with an increasing average global temperature, could present a very real danger to the continent.

In the mid-20th century, many academics realised that the global population was set to continue its rapid growth for the foreseeable future. Many papers and books were written on the impending doom the world faced if this growth was not immediately limited. However, for the majority of the planet, there were very few disastrous consequences. This is mainly because scientific understanding of food production, as well as improvements in water collection and storage, enabled the planet to support a much higher population.

One may be tempted to say that the same thing could happen this century. Perhaps our scientific ingenuity will step in and save us once again. But there is a very good chance that global climate change could upset the delicate ecological balance which stands between much of the developing world and famine beyond our current scientific ability. Sub-saharan Africa especially could face severe issues with water and food security should the global climate increase in line with our most well-informed predictions.

A result of this rapid population growth and climate change could be an increase in migration from Africa to the cooler climes of Europe. Already Europe faces a large refugee crisis, with hundreds of thousands of men, women and children pouring into the continent from the Middle East, Africa and the Indian sub-continent every year. An Africa facing famine and drought, with a population double what it is today, would surely mean further migration into Europe.

This issue is something that Europe will have to prepare for. Even billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, who has spent a large part of his wealth on funding charitable efforts across Africa, recently stated in an interview with a German newspaper that Europe must be cautious when it comes to accommodating such a large number of refugees. This interview came just days after the European Union refused Italy’s request to open up other ports for refugee vessels. The Italian government has also expressed a desire to block refugee boats from landing at its ports. It is clear that the European Union lacks a unified vision for handling the refugee crisis, and the crisis will likely continue as long as there is a difference in opinion between the member states.

Final notes

What is apparent from the study of contemporary demographic trends is that the world will likely be a very different place in 100 years’ time. There are many challenges that both rapid population growth and population decline mean for the countries affected. One major consequence of low birthrates and population decline is a lack of economic growth. Our modern economies rely largely on the consumption of goods and services. A smaller population means less consumption, which also means lower rates of economic growth and even recession.

In addition to this, a side effect of low birthrates is a society where elderly people eventually make up the largest single demographic. This means that more government money will need to be spent on supporting the health and well-being of its citizens, while also facing a decrease in tax revenue. It is difficult to understate the negative consequences our modern societies face in the long-term when people have less (or no) children.

On the other hand, a rapid increase in population could be equally as challenging if a society doesn’t have the means to support such a large number of people. Africa will have issues not only environmentally, but economically also. The amount of jobs needed in the next couple of decades is truly astounding, and Africa is already a continent with a high rate of unemployment.

It is evident that for many countries, stable and level-headed governance will be extremely necessary during the 21st century. Governments in Europe, Africa and Asia will have to make some very difficult and pragmatic decisions if they are to avoid major disruptions to their societies. The world is changing, and in ways which we have never seen before.



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